Publishing’s nightmare scenario has come true: at about 4am this morning the major media outlets confirmed that the UK population had voted in favour of taking the UK out of the European Union.
The shock today is palpable, as The Bookseller’s surveys have shown the book trade was overwhelmingly against ‘Brexit’ and pro Europe, as were its heartlands of London, Edinburgh, Oxford and Bath. One author said it was like waking up in a badly written dystopian novel. If only. One publisher chief executive simply tweeted: “Forgive the people because they know not what they've done! The leaders of the politics of hatred have triumphed over our children's futures.”
As pre-warned, yesterday’s out vote has resulted in economic and political turmoil the likes of which few of us living today will ever have seen. Project fear has become project reality.
This will pass, of course. As of today nothing about the economy has changed, and it is to be hoped that wise heads prevail over the next few weeks and months as the UK government works out the best approach to the re-negotiation.
As Waterstones m.d. James Daunt, a strong Remain supporter, told us: "We will do nothing in the short term.” PRH UK c.e.o. Tom Weldon told staff this morning that his team “will spend the coming months evaluating the long term implications for how we will trade and do business and will ensure that we are in the best possible shape to thrive in the new world.”
The pound will be of immediate concern to publishers, particularly with the Frankfurt Book Fair looming. Many of our bigger businesses will be sheltered by being subsidiaries of larger international groups, but a lot will not and they will likely feel this pain acutely, even though, as Bloomsbury’s executive director Richard Charkin points out, UK publishers are net exporters. The high street will also face an immediate challenge: this week many holidaymakers banked their Euros in anticipation of this result, next week they may simply decide to bury the cash under a pillow.
Longer term the entire infrastructure of the book business could be put under scrutiny, from how our copyright laws and the rules around VAT may differ from Europe, through to what type of regulatory framework we impose on the tech giants such as Amazon, Google and Facebook. Investment in science (much of which comes direct from Europe) and therefore science publishing could be undermined; while for trade publishers and agents Europe could now become a distinct territory again, making the UK an inevitably smaller territory (as the world itself, and English within it, expands). I do not even want to think about the thriving tech and start-up community that this country has fostered, partly as a result of being able to hire freely across Europe, partly because our open and entrepreneurial mindset has actively attracted investment.
But, in truth, these today feel like trifles compared to the wider cultural and societal impact of this decision. The author Michael Rosen has told us that he is worried that “fascistic tendencies are on the march”. It is not hard to see why.
UKIP has run a divisive and racist campaign, Vote Leave a mendacious one. There were good arguments to be made for exiting the European Union (and some were set out in The Bookseller, and in particular by agent Diane Banks), but these were simply drowned out by the Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson bandwagon. The ‘in’ side were little better: the Britain Stronger In Europe misread the mood of the nation, as did the British prime minister David Cameron who disgracefully put his party before the country. The politicians now need to heal themselves as they look to heal the nation. It won't be easy. The rhetoric used by some campaigners is hard to undo: already today I have seen the YA writer Malorie Blackman racially abused on Twitter for lamenting the nation's choice.
As I wrote in The Bookseller two weeks ago, if there is an upside to all this, I’m failing to see it. The UK economy may rise again, trade deals will doubtless be ironed out, while the redoubtable book business will continue to be a beacon of creativity, humanity, and salesmanship (Alessandro Gallenzi, m.d. of Alma, said he was “more than ever determined to continue working on the promotion of European literature in Britain”).
But today, the costs of this seem huge.
We emerge from the referendum a more divided society, one more insular and, for now, directionless. The referendum has created a hole at the centre of this society. It would be trite to say that books can play a part in filling this, but this sector must push to have a leading (and defining) role in the future UK. Our publishing must be broader, our audiences wider, our bases more evenly spread, our authors empowered and protected. We should use books for what they are for: to create a better place.
Perhaps the only good news is that much of this remains to be written: I don’t (currently) share the optimism of some of the leavers, but I can see where it comes from. One publisher told me some weeks ago that if Brexit occurred publishing would simply adapt, as it always does. Good news, but we should expect more. Next week The Bookseller publishes its annual Rising Stars list of the trade’s brightest and best employees: it’s a view of a modern, more diverse, and more together industry. The antithesis of how much of the UK looks today. A new hope at a tough time.