"How can we get books back to the top of the cultural agenda?". This is the pressing question at the heart of the stellar panel I will be chairing at FutureBook Live, The Bookseller’s publishing conference on 25th November. It's set to be a brilliant event with a wealth of expertise on the panel who will be able to shed light on that question from a range of different perspectives: panellists are Gaby Wood, Literary Director of the Booker Prize Foundation, Stephen Page CEO of Faber & Faber, Carole Tonkinson, Publisher at Pan Macmillan imprint Bluebird and Sharmaine Lovegrove, Dialogue publisher.
There will be a range of questions stemming from this core question, as Gaby Wood points out, including: Is anyone reading anymore? Is it hard for people to know what to read? What kind of conversations are taking place around books, and what part do we want to play in them? Wood will also be shedding insight into the role prizes play in discoverability, discussing such issues as: should publishers rely on prizes? What is a prize's responsibility to publishers? Are prizes a marketing tool really or could they be something else? "Some of what I've been thinking about lately is the notion of judgement, in relation to the Booker in particular", Wood tells me. "What do we mean by that? Is it yes/no, good/bad? Or is the conversation in the judging room actually the point, rather than the result? If that's the case, how can we bring it beyond the judging room?". Wood goes on to say: "Overall I think a prize like the Booker should be an investigation more than an act of judgment—asking what's out there and what writers are up to, and extending a welcome to that rather than thinking: we are here to pass judgment and hand down a canon to future generations." Having myself been a Judge of the British Book Awards, Society of Authors Awards, Costa Book Awards, David Cohen Prize for Literature and Jhalak Prize, it will be fascinating to discuss such issues and ways of bringing the kind of conversations that go on behind closed doors out into the wider public, in turn helping to bring books to the top of the cultural agenda.
Meanwhile, Faber CEO Stephen Page tells me: "It's maybe nostalgic to suggest that books were ever at the top of The Cultural Agenda, but that presumes that there is only one cultural agenda, which simply isn't the case. Certain aspects of books and reading (for instance the genesis of long form writing on new ideas about society, history etc) remain very important in the culture and are rarely challenged by other forms of media, such as broadcasting. The novel is only now being challenged by TV and remains the main source of telling complex stories. So perhaps books are at the top of some cultural agendas, but rarely have a prime place in mass entertainment and popular culture. So which cultural agenda do we want to be at the top of? Undoubtedly writing, reading and publishing need to be strongly relevant to the current times. So the conversation about inclusivity of all kinds is relevant here, though not a panacea as reading is not as ubiquitous as social media, fashion, moving pictures or music. I also think that politically the world of reading and writing needs to align itself more clearly as a major part of the Creative Industries, both as an industry in itself (including consumer, academic and educational publishing) and as a powerful source of IP for the other industries."
Carole Tonkinson, Publisher at Bluebird will discuss her wish to create "books for everyone, especially people who might see their concerns as separate from the preoccupations of the metropolitan elite. You can be of any life stage, race, class or region and want to make healthier choices or improve your mental health". Tonkinson adds: "In terms of our industry, I'd love to see more in the way of celebration of books that are popular but not literary successes in things like bestseller charts, media coverage roundups and industry prizes… I think there is a lot of snobbery still at play… In order for us to have more bestsellers of different kinds, we need more diverse workforces and to be less snobby. By celebrating all kinds of book success, maybe we would attract more people to our industry who have different tastes and things to bring so that books aren't the preserve of university-educated middle class readers. It is great to see the odd exception to the rule, and there have been some. And TheBookseller in their Nibbies have done a lot (creating a Nonfiction Lifestyle award so that a cookbook isn't up against a history book that took ten years of exhaustive research)."
Philip Jones, editor of The Bookseller, said: "The book business has long punched above its weight in terms of media attention, but with the news agenda bristling, and other entertainment sectors, led by Netflix and Spotify, burgeoning, books—as the original creative industry—need to work harder and harder to maintain their cultural cachet. This high-powered panel will tell us how."
As we teeter on the brink of a new decade, it is sure to be a fascinating discussion about how books can not only survive but thrive in an age of other cultural mediums which can either threaten their existence or—and we'll be discussing how—enhance them.
Anita Sethi is a writer and journalist and a Judge of the Jhalak Prize 2020.