It will come as little surprise that an industry that exports close to 60% of its product, trades rights on the basis of there being discrete and secure territories, and sources much of its writing, printing and talent from outside the UK, should be more than a little troubled by Brexit, more than a little worried about the implications of the deal, and deeply disturbed about the prospects of a disorganised exit from the European Union.
It is common currency to imagine that publishing will simply publish through any crisis, that as a sector we possess a sort of “Carry On Publishing” attitude, a can-do reflex based on the belief that there is no better response to any sort of cataclysm than a new book.
But Brexit is stretching even this pretence. There is the short-term chaos as we dig deeper into the hole created by the referendum, then the morass of mud and mess as we attempt to clamber out. Then there is the minor matter of the complete breakdown in our national politics, the lack of leadership across the two main parties (it may yet doom them both), and the singular selfishness displayed by some MPs in using this national emergency for their own ends.
Publishers, many of whom have already made contingency plans to keep books available, now know that not only were those plans necessary, they may also not be enough. If this drags on (and it might), if customs barriers are erected, or if goods shipping in and out of the country are held up, then the key autumn schedules could also face interruption—either way, there is a cost involved, and not one necessarily under our control. At this point, as Adam Kay might put it, this is going to hurt.
It is now almost three years since the referendum, yet incredibly we may yet walk away, stumble on or crash out. At last week’s London Book Fair, the uncomfortable juxtaposition between the business of books, which has scarcely felt more vibrant, and the psychodrama taking place just 3.5 miles down the road could not have been more stark. Publishers headed to the Bologna Children’s Book Fair at the end of March will get to relive it afresh—with the added complication that some passports may need renewing, access to healthcare may be circumscribed, and there could be some disruption to flights. These may seem minor disruptions in the greater scheme of things, but it will not be the big things that focus our minds on the reality of this precarious situation, but the small inconveniences, some of which are only slowly becoming apparent, many of which we cannot at this point mitigate.
Publishing is often accused of being in a bubble, but the release of the shortlists for this year’s British Book Awards show a sector responding very directly to the dire events of the past few years. From Michelle Obama’s Becoming to Fire and Fury, from Bosh! to Feminists Don’t Wear Pink, from Politics for Beginners to The Secret Barrister, these are books that face up to the world as it is, not as we would want it to be.