The uncertain hour

It was perhaps a simpler era: in 2010, ahead of that year’s general election, The Bookseller wrote that “from a book sales point of view, the sooner the election and the political uncertainty end, the better”. At that time the trade (according to our unscientific poll) was leaning towards the Liberal Democrats. By the time of the next election in 2015, we had become #Milifans: 46% were backing Labour, but not with any great hope, the election having been conducted within what we described as “a political bubble” divorced from the global pluralistic business to which we belong.

Given what happened in 2016, we could be forgiven for approaching this year’s general election as if we were about to chew on a particularly tough wasp. It will not end well. Part of the reason is that there has been too little time between the referendum and this election for any of the major political parties to offer up anything new in their manifestos—in 2015 we hoped for action on libraries, for VAT to be removed from e-books, a sensible approach to Open Access, support for copyright and a review of the rates system, and in 2017 we might hope for the same again. But as Prime Minister Theresa May surely knows, this will not be a general election at all, but one fought around one issue—Brexit—over which she hopes to rule supreme. Unless something remarkable happens between now and June, she will likely emerge from this period of enforced democracy with an increased majority, a weakened opposition and a mandate that should extend well beyond the end of the Brexit negotiations in 2019.

Good for her, but on a practical basis, elections are not usually so good for the trade. In the past two, book sales, as measured by Nielsen BookScan, fell— though the market was already in decline. More immediately worrying for publishers will be the air-time that might once have been devoted to authors and their books which will now get diverted, with important spring titles likely to suffer (or get rescheduled).

But in today’s dynamic book market, things may turn out differently. Brexit and Trump have rewritten the political landscape, offering opportunities for politically engaged writing and a publishing and bookselling class that both caters for and inspires the society around it. The sentiments first stirred on 24th June, where we talked about taking the word further and making what we do political, should now be actioned, with W H Smith Travel’s June promotion of gay literature (see pp18–19) a fine example of the latter.

As we did not write in 2010, from a book sales point of view, the sooner we learn to live with the political uncertainty the better—for it will not end soon, not even after 8th June.