A decade ago, if you had picked up our first issue of the year, you’d have been greeted with the headline, “‘Things can only get better,’ says trade”. This week’s New Year’s predictions from our leaders and do-ers might have produced something slightly less pollyannaish—“Things likely to get worse”.
So why the long faces? Unlike in 2010 we are not in a recession,the general election is behind us, and digital is no longer the threat it was once. Indeed, as suggested in that far off headline, things really did improve: we finished the decade in a better place than we were when we started it, with the Nielsen-measured physical book market in growth for a fifth year, digital and audio proving to be useful allies, and high street chains and independents in striking health, with the Booksellers Association growing its indie-flock—to 890 shops—for a third year.
We, too, have become better booksellers, publishers, and—dare I say it—improved citizens. More agile in thought and deed, and more aware of the consequences of how we go about this business. Back in 2010 if the trade had a care about the diversity of its publishing or its people, or the import of its products, such sentiments earned not a mention in either our backward or forward-facing pieces, as we dwelt instead on the decline of the celebrity memoir, an over-reliance on brand-authors and the struggling high street. Galley Beggar publisher Sam Jordison is right to say that we faced the challenges of the past decade by “producing better quality books and reasserting the value of what we do”.
One can be too positive. The sector faces some real and new challenges. Brexit is the fundamental one, of course, so far unaddressed by the trade either in its publishing or mindset. Pan Mac’s Anthony Forbes Watson says the “book industry has been on the wrong side of a national vote”, and that is tough. We now face a newly emboldened government enacting a plan we do not believe in, backed by an electorate we do not understand. Getting the right deal, protecting copyright and territories will dominate the next few years, but as PA c.e.o. Stephen Lotinga suggests, a mental shift is equally necessary.
As important is whether publishers choose to speak for the many, or the few, and how a commitment to free expression translates into a public defence of their publishing, with issues around censorship and today’s call-out culture only likely to intensify. As Penguin Random House’s Tom Weldon says, we must be ready for an “increasingly vigorous debate about who, what and how we publish”. As for the messy business of actually selling books, Waterstones’ flat Christmas will worry, as should The Book People’s administration. Meanwhile, Amazon will only build and build, with Kindle Unlimited a clear, and present, danger to some, and an opportunity for others.
If the 2010s were about content and formats, and the supposed unlatching of one from the other, the next 10 years will likely be about who gets to publish the content, and who delivers it to readers.