This week Prime Minister Theresa May signalled that Brexit—the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union—was now fact, with Article 50 setting a two-year timescale on the exit. Few in the book trade wanted this, and few have come to accept it in the nine months since the referendum vote. However, it is here anyway. As May put it on Wednesday in the House of Commons, “the decision has been made, the process is under way”. Or, as the Daily Mail’s front page misinformed us: “Freedom!”
Much about what happens next remains unknown. A government that two weeks ago could not get its budget past its own back-benchers is now in charge of agreeing exit terms with 27 other nation states, many of them clearly—and perhaps rightly—unhappy about the UK’s move. Meanwhile, the book business has begun to adjust to the new world where recruiting and retaining foreign staff, in an atmosphere that has left some feeling “unsettled”, has become more difficult, and the devaluation of the pound has seen disconcerting shifts in the global sourcing of books.
The last point is the most illustrative of how things have already changed, yet not always visibly. A number of publishers have told The Bookseller that they had seen an increase in books bought from the UK bound for the US, as a result of the fall in the value of sterling. For some, the US market has contracted, yet returns in the States have somewhat implausibly increased—in a few cases exceeding sales. The move—which makes tracking sales more difficult—impacts on everything from royalty payments, to marketing plans, to returns. It also raises a question over how territories—and local publishing—will be respected in the future, when distribution routes are globalised and currency changes are there to be taken advantage of.
Other changes may still be ameliorated. In Germany this week, Bertelsmann c.e.o. Thomas Rabe said that its use of the UK as the “hub” for its Intellectual Property business could be jeopardised if the regulatory environment changed. While Rabe did not add much detail, on one thing he was clear: the UK must remain open, with the costs of business not increasing.
It would be churlish of me not to point to the possible benefits from all this; stories will need to be told about these times, and readers will need to be informed and distracted; and the low pound makes the UK an investment opportunity while making our books cheaper for overseas readers.
The biggest opportunity, though, is around what happens next. We have two years to occupy what this means; 24 months to rewrite the short mean history of Brexit Britain; 104 weeks to define what we want from tomorrow.
Goodbye to what we knew, hello to all that.