If publishers were any good at predicting the future, the book business would be a simpler place. Authors would be adequately rewarded now for their future sales; bookshop shelves would be free from failures; agents could focus soley on their bankers; and pundits would be out of a job. The trade would also be far duller. Not knowing what happens next is what makes the sector a page-turner—the thrill is in the unexpected.
For all of that, 2017 was not a vintage year for thrill-seekers. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, the year will be remembered for being robust (with BookScan-measured sales up by less than 1%) despite the lack of a single book or breakout bookish trend. According to cultural commentator John Dugdale, whose annual round-up of the year’s bestsellers for the Guardian is always worth a read, this should give us cause for concern: "Less stoical figures in the book trade will be concerned that, rather than a cyclical blip, this year there was a resumption of an inexorable decline—a pattern disguised by the extraordinary, mostly unexpected pieces of luck that inspired 2016’s outbreak of optimism." But these slices of luck, otherwise known as publishing, are not as infrequent as Dugdale surmises, and the business can take heart in surviving a year without one. The year’s top 50 is remarkable for another reason: sales were not driven by television, film, YouTube, or even celebrity: in 2017 we neither influenced the world beyond the book, nor were we much influenced by it. Perhaps, after the shocks of Brexit and Trump in 2016, readers simply wanted to escape.
This year may not be much different. According to our commentators, printed book sales will be flat; e-books will dither; audio will flourish; Amazon will grow; Waterstones will likely follow Bertrams into the hands of private equity; oh, and Brexit may yet have an impact. There is optimism, mixed with determination, and with good reason. The fundamentals are sound. The book trade is a mature business. It is reliant on two things: current readers resisting all of the other things they could do with their time, and new readers discovering the authentic pleasures of a good book. In truth, neither look in serious danger, though Arts Council England’s report into the "crisis" in literary writing merits both greater scrutiny and a degree of skepticism.
It is not difficult to imagine what will occupy our thoughts in 2018. Twenty years ago this magazine called for the trade to be nice to Waterstones, be kinder to Amazon, and develop readers; now we focus on shelf space, pricing and audience. We have learned the value of the first, neglect the second at our peril, and require access to the latter. I don’t wish to spoil the plot, but by the end of 2018 we’ll know how much we got right.