The book business is in a good place. The market reveals it; the London Book Fair reflected it; The Bookseller chronicles it—daily and weekly. Now we just need to demonstrate it to the outside world.
I am not being flippant. There is something about publishing that means it wears its worries visibly—but tends to conceal its successes. At the weekend, Penguin Random House chief executive Tom Weldon told the Guardian: “Some say publishing is in trouble. They are completely wrong.” He is right, yet the Guardian felt the comment was so remarkable it used it for its headline.
Perhaps one of publishing’s hidden strengths is that—like one of those Woody Allen characters from the 70s—the industry is in a state of permanent self-analysis. Are publishers too big? Or too small? Are we too obsessed with bestsellers? Not focused enough on bestsellers? Are the brands too dominant? How can we find new talent? Are too many books published? Or too few? Is the midlist dead? Do we innovate enough? Have we forgotten the past? Should we promote talent from within? Or recruit from the outside? Should we experiment more? Or less?
The responses are not always black and white. Why should they be? The book industry is anything but uniform. The business models—indeed the arts and practices—that colour this sector are as different and varied as the books themselves. The London Book Fair is the embodiment of this Eton mess of a business. The fair used to be about books, and big books, but now the big books are less big, while publishers are targets not just for wily agents, but also the service companies and tech-start-ups that have become an important part of this world.
Looking for signposts within this fog is a job for Sisyphus. At Digital Minds the author Nick Harkaway said publishers liked to reach a plateau and then stop thinking about change. But not knowing the answers is not the same as not thinking about it. In my experience, everyone is thinking about this stuff all the time. They are also thinking about the next book and the next, and the 100 after that. In that sense, Bill Thompson, a keynote speaker, was right to argue that publishers are too obsessed with print books. His point was nuanced, but in reality the market is well served by publishers being obsessed by print books. The future would be on us very suddenly were they to give up that peccadillo.
Just as we all must now transition from Earls Court to Olympia, the book business needs to lean in to the future. The location of one might be more famililar than the destination of the other, but the resolve to get on with the journey looks to me to be the same.