The long view

The Bookseller has been sold just three times in its 162-year history; the first time in 1999 by the founding Whitaker family to VNU (now better known as Nielsen), the second time in 2010 to Nigel Roby, and then, as announced last week, to the publisher of the Stage magazine. Compared to The Bookseller, of course, the Stage is a pimply adolescent, just 140 years old; it has been owned and run by the Comerford family since its inception. Today its role is “fighting for the future of the theatre”. 

Past editors of this magazine would not have approved of the opening to this column. The history of The Bookseller is not the history of the magazine, the paper once told its readers, but rather the trade, with the newspaper a vehicle through which the “events, controversies, hopes, disasters, quirks and quiddities” of this sector are chronicled. This has been a guiding principle. When The Bookseller’s offices were bombed in 1941, the then editor Edmond Segrave told subscribers about it “not in a spirit of self-preoccupation but as a plea for indulgence from readers for any shortcomings” in that week’s issue.

You’ll pardon my slight deviation from convention. For starters, that approach does not do justice to the role The Bookseller has played in helping the sector develop. Founding editor Joseph Whitaker was a campaigning leader. His particular fixation was on underselling, described as “the greatest evil of the day”. Under him, and his successors, The Bookseller strongly supported calls for fixed prices. More recently, The Bookseller, through its parent company Whitaker, helped found BookTrack (now BookScan) in the 1990s, and over the past decade, under its immediate past owner, resurrected The British Book Awards.

The magazine is loyal to Joseph Whitaker’s original vision: that of providing booksellers and librarians with one resource to find out accurate information about the books being published. This week’s issue features close to 700 new titles, with, as our non-fiction previewer Caroline Sanderson notes, the only slight tweak over the years being the introduction of more opinion.

In its centenary edition, Segrave drily noted how the bicentenary issue would be able to triumphantly record how all of the problems of the trade detailed over those 100 years would have been resolved. This seems unlikely. It is not that we lack the wit, but more that the issues endemic to the business—discounting, oversupply, a complex supply-chain—create new variants on an old theme: without “underselling”, for example, Amazon would never have been able to develop so quickly.

We can only go so far looking back. The trade has never faced before such dangers as it does today, with Covid-19 a real threat to the very concept of the bookshop. Here history provides no guide: for as long as there have been publishers there have been booksellers. Our mission now is to make sure this remains the case. If that’s a shift from bystander to participant, the removal of the fourth wall, then so be it. It speaks to our legacy, and I don’t doubt even Joseph Whitaker would approve.