Keep it real

Keep it real

In September this year, a number of us were fortunate enough to attend Dave Grohl’s only UK event for his recently published memoir The Storyteller. Rarely has a title of a book been so apt. Aided by his guitar, drum kit and a microphone, Grohl enthralled the audience with stories of his extraordinary life, interspersed with the songs that have made his career. It felt very special to be there, to bear witness to the live version of his book, and it struck me that one of the many reasons for his immense popularity is because of how effortlessly authentic he is. 

In a recent study by Ernst & Young, “authenticity” was cited as the most important value for Gen Z: 92% of Gen Z respondents indicated that being authentic and true to oneself is “extremely or very important”. Those reporting it being extremely important increased 16 percentage points from pre-pandemic levels. 

“Authenticity” is a word that has been bandied around for a while. In a world rife with fake news and conspiracy theories, it is no wonder that it is so highly prized. Recently, though, publishing has been tying itself up in knots around issues of authenticity. Publishing has a responsibility to be as authentic as it can possibly be and I fear that we may have, at times, forgotten this. Books have always been a mirror to society, but if that mirror is clouded by prejudice, arrogance or privilege, it offers little back to its reader. 

Simon & Schuster UK has had a record year and when I look back at what has sold and why, authenticity is a powerful driver of that success. Adam Silvera and Colleen Hoover’s novels, for example, became TikTok-driven juggernauts through the power of genuine peer-to-peer recommendation. Bob Mortimer’s joyful memoir And Away... is warm, honest and profound throughout. It has resonated with readers in just the way we hoped. Looking elsewhere, the continued success of the likes of Douglas Stuart, Charlie Mackesy, Marcus Rashford and Miriam Margolyes, while all providing unique reading experiences, are united by their credibility and integrity. 

One of the most memorable pitch meetings I attended in 2020 was with Michael Holding. His award-winning Why We Kneel, How We Rise, which we published in June, arose from Holding’s spontaneous discussion on Sky TV about the issue of racism within society and sport. His words were not scripted, they came straight from his heart. It wasn’t contrived, it was genuine. For those watching, it felt like a pivotal moment in the national conversation. Holding spoke passionately of how education needs to happen for racism to be eradicated, and the book’s publication was the logical and organic next step. 

It is across every discipline of publishing that authenticity matters. Does the jacket match the contents of the work? Does the jacket copy provide an accurate description? Is the author best placed to be writing this book? And, crucially, are we the right people to publish it?

These questions often feel difficult and subjective, but good publishing is all about understanding that the words inside the book should be represented responsibly in everything we do to find and bring a lasting message to readers. 

The most poignant moment at The Storyteller event was when Grohl spoke movingly of losing his Nirvana band-mate Kurt Cobain to suicide. The lights went down entirely, leaving only a photograph of Kurt on the screen behind Dave. There was a long silence. At that moment, it became clear that sometimes the most authentic thing to do is to listen. Listening to our authors and their readers will always make us better publishers. 

As we stare down the barrel of another unpredictable Christmas, with the pandemic continuing to take its toll on us all, it is plain to see what price can be paid when we are not entirely honest with ourselves (even if it is “only” about cheese and wine). But, looking back on this year, we should feel buoyed that readers are rewarding authentic voices and holding us to the highest standards. For, as the research on diversity proves time and again, having principles is not just a “nice to have” but essential for commercial success.

Ian Chapman is chief executive officer of Simon & Schuster UK