The politics of publishing

The past couple of weeks have been sensational for the book business and those who believe in its ability to set the agenda, driven largely by two books and the headlines they have generated across the media. One book details a dystopian future and how we might get there, the other, well, offers a glimpse into the dystopian now and how we arrived here. One was expected to sell well, and has. The other is expected to struggle, but may surprise. The timing of one could not have been better, the timing of the other was always going to be complicated, and so it has proved. One has been lauded in the trade as a major triumph, the other arrives to something of a muted reception, described by one anonymous publishing executive in the Guardian as “a car crash”.

Yet between them Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments and David Cameron’s For the Record are the books we should dream about publishing, the titles that stir the blood. Water-cooler moments, to use an old term. Good for the trade, good for the publishing business. If Atwood kicked off the big fiction autumn, then Cameron’s tome is the major political book of the season with Waterstones m.d. James Daunt hoping that it fills an “Obama-shaped” hole.

Yet publishing is also a moral and cultural business, perhaps never more aware of how it is perceived by readers, authors, and its own employees than it is today. One day we will need to unpick this—can publishers who want to be seen to be “good” publish books that the public takes against? Once, it would not have been in doubt.

Publishing is also liberal and, according to the polling we took at the time of the referendum, anti-Brexit. One only needs to view the social media reaction to For the Record to have a sense of what parts of the trade think about it, and it is within this environment that HarperCollins must operate, if not quite as a cheerleader for Cameron or his political judgement, then certainly as one for the book and its own professionalism.

Political books are never supposed to be easy. When the same publisher released Margaret Thatcher’s memoir The Downing Street Years in 1993, Waterstones used the “Spitting Image” caricature of Lady Thatcher to promote it in the window of its Garrick Street store. Tony Blair’s A Journey (2010, Random House) was memorably pictured in the “true crime” section in some stores.

On the morning of the referendum result, I wrote that publishing needed to spread its bases wider, publish to the 17.4 million as well as the remainers and non-voters. In truth, since then the battle lines have hardened, the debate coarsened, made worse by a political class that seems willing only to stumble forward, and never to reflect on where it is headed, or why. If there was an opportunity to bring us together it has not been taken, with the next election promising to be a choice between no deal, no clue, or no exit.

Publishing has to be better. We cannot broaden the conversation by narrowing the publishing; we do not avoid the dystopian future by tuning out the present, or not engaging with the political record of those who led us here.