Plan B for books

Occasionally I ask bookish senior executives what their “Plan B” looks like. I don’t always get a good answer. 2017 provides a clue as to why this might be the case. The year will not be remembered as a vintage one, either for the trade or the world—but it wasn’t bad either. In fact, if it proves that the trade can rub along nicely, without a breakout book or trend, then we may look back on it with good heart. It’s the exception that proves the rule.

As it stands, the market is a smidgen behind the J K Rowling-fuelled 2016, but if the indie bookshop decline has truly been arrested and Waterstones remains in growth and opening new stores, then we won’t mind too much. And if e-books (still a good market for some) have remained stable, and audiobooks (a better market for many) have grown, then 2017 will have turned out fine. Without colouring, Harry or a grown-up Ladybird in sight, 2017 has shown that what really underpins the sector is range—from Bad Dad at the top of the charts, to the long-serving Sapiens in 26th place.

Yet I’ll wager that none of the major publishers will feel entirely satisfied with the year. All will want more from 2018. Hachette’s new management will need to begin on the front foot after those Cursed comparisons with 2016; PRH will press to consolidate on its year-end charts dominance (it has eight of the 10 top sellers this week); while HarperCollins will want break-outs such as Behind Her Eyes, The Trouble with Goats and Sheep and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine to really break out.

Bloomsbury will want to build on a triumphant return to form in 2017, while Bonnier Publishing will surely—if c.e.o. Richard Johnson’s rollicking speech at FutureBook is anything to go by—continue to shake, rattle and roll.

This is my sixth year summing up 12 months of publishing in this space: common themes in that period are of the easing of the digital "threat"; the improving print sector; and the increasing complexity of the marketplace. In that time we have gone from trying to understand the changes taking place in this trade to enjoying our good fortune that we have neither been "atomised by the web, [nor] devalued by digital".

So, who needs a Plan B? Well, all publishers (and agents) will share concern over what Amazon does with its global store (and in Australia), and how James Daunt negotiates the sale of Waterstones. Arts Council England's report into the "crisis" in literary fiction (flawed though it might be) asks serious questions about the trade's commitment to this high profile but seemingly marginalised sector. We should also all reflect on why, despite a deepening of the discussion around diversity, this week’s Top 50, like many before, features no British writer of colour (though newspapers’ coverage of books hardly helps).

My Christmas message: perhaps the best time to make a new plan is when you think you don’t need one.

Happy Xmas, see you in the New Year!