The long view

There’s one particular fact from this year’s British Book Awards shortlists (announced online, and in print this week) that I didn’t want to go unnoticed: there are 193 companies, individuals and books shortlisted, a relatively small but I feel significant increase on last year’s crop. Categories on the rise include Publicity, Marketing, Editor, Imprint and Publisher; and categories holding their own despite the circumstances include the Children’s and Independent Bookshop shortlists, and the Small Press award. There are also two new awards—Designer and Pageturner (for popular fiction).

As I wrote in the awards supplement (see separate pull-out), this was a year to recognise effort as well as achievement, with the shortlists representative of the hard work of the trade. I don’t wish to pick out favourites (it may surprise you, and some chief executives, to learn that I don’t actually decide the winners), but standout moments of the year for me reflected in these shortlists include Midas’ Georgina Moore’s publicity pivot for Hamnet, Little Toller’s publishing of Diary of a Young Naturalist during the first lockdown, Penguin Random House’s flawless delivery of Barack Obama’s A Promised Land despite the disruption to printing and supply at that time, Captain Tom, of course, and HarperCollins’ decision to release Code Name Bananas in bookshops early, ahead of the second lockdown. 
The shortlists, of course, don’t arrive in a vacuum; the virus is here to stay, and although the vaccines may see us through to a next stage, there are real-world consequences around current trading, the high street, and the growth of the online channel that will remain with us. We have formed new habits during the restrictions, some which we may never shake off, and the impact on our work will be profound.

As our staff survey reveals, some in the trade feel “crushed, tired, unfocused and lacking in motivation”, with the adrenaline that got us through much of 2020 now dissipated. Colleagues feel lonely, overworked and unsatisfied, with some careful of expressing their mixed emotions at a time when many others are also suffering. While it is true that we are fortunate to work in the book sector, this detail alone cannot insulate us from the wider issues we as a society face today.

 What should buoy us is that what we do matters—it matters to readers, but it also matters to us. Selecting the shortlists reminds me that though the corporations get ever bigger (and yes, more faceless), the individuals within these groups and elsewhere are the ones making the important decisions—those saying yes, or no; those reaching out to authors for tomorrow’s bestsellers, or those making the space on their lists or in their stores for them; those writing or editing the words, or those charged with getting the look and the messaging right; those going it alone, or those supporting colleagues; those doing the selling, and the selling in; and those at the front and at the back, making a difference every day. As we begin the search for this year’s Nibbies winners, let’s be in no doubt, there are no losers here.