One direction

For those who have been hiding under a book these past few years and months, I regret to inform you that as of 11 p.m. tonight (Friday, 31st January) the United Kingdom will no longer be part of the European Union, the trading and political bloc we first joined on 1st January 1973, and two years later voted to remain a part of. 

We may not know for decades the full damage the decision taken by the electorate will bring with it. In the short term, it has instigated three years of political instability and economic insecurity; it has sowed division; robbed families of their peace of mind in the UK and abroad; and pushed the UK towards a likely fatal break-up of its own troubled union. More practically, it has made doing business tougher and—unhelpfully for the creative sectors—made our world a little less open, and our place within it a little less secure. 

Historically this trade has always leaned into Europe; in 1975 groups such as the British Printing Industries Federation and W H Smith, alongside figures such as Stephen Spender and George Weidenfeld, argued that our better futures would be achieved through closer alignment with a continent that housed up to 250 million potential new readers. Today three of the world’s four largest global trade publishers are European-owned, while the offices of our UK-based publishing businesses are filled with talented Europeans. 

It is little wonder that when asked for a positive perspective on the exit (p16) many we approached in the trade this week demurred. Part of the problem, of course, is that whatever your philosophical leanings on Brexit and the public vote that led us here, there remains very little clarity over what comes next. 

The government’s admission that it will not adopt the EU’s new Copyright Directive (p12) should focus minds. At some point our leaders will need to decide which regulatory and copyright regime is their preference and whether divergence is in the national interest. The noisy reaction from the Society of Authors and the Authors’ Licensing & Collecting Society, and the more circumspect response from the Publishers Association, hint of the battles to come as vested interests figure out that the compromises which worked across 28 member states may no longer function as well for the newly divorced one.
Those who think this stuff doesn’t matter should read this week’s piece from the ABA’s Winter Institute (p18), or reflect on the collapse of The Book People (p14), with booksellers here and in the US ill-served by an approach to regulation that has enabled Amazon to build a market-dominant position in the books space and beyond.

It may not all be bad news, of course. In 2005, The Bookseller’s late European correspondent Herb Lottman wrote that thriving book markets were “sustained by diversity of formats, pricing and trading policies, clashes of laws and conventions”, and chastised the EU for its often clumsy attempts to make us all the same. Now that we are entering a more centrifugal age, we’ll be able to find out if Herb was right.