My name is Humfrey, and I’m a Brexiteer. There aren’t many of us in publishing—in fact, I’d struggle to name even a handful of others—and I don’t expect breaking cover like this will win me many friends. So here’s why I’m speaking up: I may be in a small minority in this business but in the wider country, my views are those of the mainstream and—this is something I firmly believe events in the near future will show to be true—that mainstream is growing as people become ever more angry at the ruling classes’ failure to deliver on what was the biggest vote the British people have ever cast, and publishing needs to take note of this.
A couple of weeks ago, this publication’s esteemed editor Philip Jones wrote: "On the morning of the referendum result, I wrote that publishing needed to spread its bases wider, publish to the 17.4 million as well as the remainers and non-voters."
More than three years after that vote this has never been more true, and the consequences—invisible though they may be for the time being—may well be upon us very soon. I don’t believe publishing is going to wither and die. There are far too many brilliant, clever, creative and hard-working people around for that to ever happen. But what I do believe could happen—and quite possibly is happening already—is that opportunities to maximise book sales will be lost as the industry becomes gradually more dislocated from the mainstream of this country.
The problem, put simply, is that many people in publishing are Remainers who sincerely and for honest reasons believe leaving the EU is a very bad idea, who either back a second referendum offering only Leave with a deal or Remain as options, or would like to revoke Article 50 and who are not afraid to say so in public.
I’m not here to explain why I disagree with them—we’ve all heard those arguments over and over again—or why I’ve wanted us to leave the EU since the late 1990s, when I first became aware of how undemocratic and corrupt it was. Instead I want to explain what might happen to our industry as a result of what its majority think of Brexit.
Take it from me, when people who voted Leave hear phrases like ‘we need a second referendum’ or ‘we should withdraw Article 50’ the message we receive loud and clear is that ‘your vote doesn’t matter’, ‘we know what’s good for the country better than you do’, or, worst of all, ‘you didn’t understand what you were voting for’ because that one also means ‘you’re so stupid you don’t deserve a vote’. This applies to all Leavers, regardless of age, race, gender, accent, taste in books or anything else. It offends and angers every one of us. And don’t get me started on the suggestion that we’re all racists who want to keep out all foreigners forever—that is pure nonsense which I, the son of a German Jew who fled Germany for London in 1933, find personally offensive.
People who voted for Brexit did so sincerely and for honest reasons, just as Remainers did the other way, but the key difference is that the Leave vote won. Who promised what on the side of buses or predicted economic disaster on the morning after the referendum is irrelevant. These are minor details. The inescapable fact is that the country voted to leave the EU and until we do, a vast and growing group of Brits—including me—will be angry, and get angrier because they feel that democracy has been betrayed, that the people with power are ignoring their vote.
If publishers don’t get their heads around this—and I’m not saying they won’t or even that they haven’t, simply that they all need to try to—their lack of understanding of how a such a large group of people think could well affect book sales sooner or later, in quiet or loud ways. After all, if you don’t understand what is going on in the minds of a decent chunk of your market, how can you be sure you’ll offer them the right selection of books they might buy?
There are more than 17.4 million out there who feel betrayed and whose anger is growing by the day. These people don’t care about Boris Johnson’s colourful private life for the simple reason that he represents their best chance of getting Brexit. They don’t mind a bit of shouting in parliament because it shows a level of passion which matches their own feelings. What matters to them—to us—is that our vote is respected, which means Brexit must happen.
Humfrey Hunter is a literary agent and Publisher of Silvertail Books.