The great unbowed

This week we reveal the small presses and independent bookshops that make up our regional and country shortlists for this year’s British Book Awards. The businesses—that stretch across England, Scotland, Wales and the island of Ireland—include past winners such as Jacaranda and Book-ish, but also newbies from London’s Magic Cat to the Tertulia Bookshop in Ireland. It is two remarkable lists (see pp06–09), made all the more so by the fact of the pandemic. I am in awe.

Across the more than 100 submissions we had for these two categories there are some individual tales of derring-do and ingenuity as businesses and people were pivoted in the face of what could have become a mass extinction event for them. As Jon Barton, founder of outdoor sports publisher Vertebrate, put it: “The word I’d use to describe the year would be exhilarating. However, on 2nd April, sitting alone in an office designed for 16, everybody else at home worried for their future, the word I actually used was lonely, maybe scared.” For Barton it was a case of getting up and getting on, and the firm returned a record result for the year. For others, such as the Wee Book Company, it was simply a time to graft “like crazy people” to remain intact.

Remarkably, of the 44 small presses we shortlisted, 26 grew their sales during 2020, with a number reporting record years. For those that did less well, there was support from the regional Arts Councils, including Creative Scotland and the Books Council of Wales. Others found pockets of success through selling direct (and occasionally delivering via bicycle), or from moving schedules around to accommodate bookshop reopenings.

The indie bookshop lists are similar a mix of cunning, versatility and defiance—though inevitably the puncturing of their years with closures has meant slimmed sales for many—and remind us that even in a year dominated by a pandemic indies face numerous other problems, from a tricksy high street to the weather. Last year’s winner Book-ish had flooding in Crickhowell to deal with even before the first lockdown, and still returned an increase in sales. Here though the mix of newcomers—Max Minerva, Storysmith, The Margate Bookshop, Moon Lane (Ramsgate), Tertulia Bookshop­­—with, ahem, old-timers, such as Sam Read’s (134 years old), Village Books (95), Sevenoaks (73), tells another story too, this one about how this trade renews itself over time.

When I said I was in awe, I meant it. It’s an enormous privilege for myself, our team, and our judges, to read these unique and heartfelt insights into a year gone wrong, and realise that for many it was also a period of fantastic achievement with striving for survival bringing its own success. These are small businesses fighting for every penny, careful of every cost, aware that not every downturn is surmountable, but most can be got through. I doubt in the years ahead we’ll look back on 2020 with too much fondness, but for the companies on these shortlists—as well as many others—this is a moment to be proud, loud, and unbowed.