The year that was

A year like no other, is how David Shelley, chief executive of Hachette UK, described 2020 in his letter to authors. Let’s hope he is right. As we look to a topsy-turvy and thankfully busy end to the year, let’s reflect on what we have learned. 

First, clearly the pandemic pushed books to the fore, both as a way of understanding the changing world (Coronavirus: A Book for Children about Covid-19), celebrating our endurance and heroism (thanks, Captain Tom), capturing the emotion of it (see Author Profile, pp24–25), escapism (The Thursday Murder Club), and placing our lives in a historical context (Hamnet), and a more recent one (A Promised Land). Books are here to stay: they are vital, relevant and future-proof. 

Second, booksellers and librarians are on the frontlines, as they have been through the ages (The Bookseller’s Tale), and their relationships with readers (Seven Kinds of People You Find in Bookshops) are to be cherished and supported. There are also tales of derring-do from 2020 that should not go under-noticed, including the pivots of many authors (David Nicholls, Rob Biddulph, Kit de Waal, among them), publicists, marketeers, and event organisers, who inspired us to keep on virtually keeping on. 

Third, the unexpected is part of what sustains us. From Where the Crawdads Sing, to The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, to Normal People, to Such a Fun Age, to Booker winner Shuggie Bain, books that do a little or a lot better than we thought they would (for whatever reason) bring with them something a bit special, and often these are the result of physical interactions and real-life friction. This is something we must look to restore and preserve in 2021.

Fourth, stories from traditionally underrepresented writers telling tales habitually sidelined by publishers and in bookshops, and in their #ownvoices, are part of our world: the success this year of Why I’m No Longer..., Natives, I Am Not Your Baby Mother, The Vanishing Half and Queenie points to a way forward, but these titles need not to be the exceptions to an all too familiar narrative. As the writer Nels Abbey said at the recent FutureBook virtual conference, normal, as it was previously defined, does not work. Fortunately, normal is so last year. 

Fifth, the new world is a pivot from the old one, not a complete re-make. The trends that this year led to the collapse of The Book People and Bertrams, and the acquisition of Simon & Schuster by Penguin Random House, were set in train many years earlier, and if we wish to resist them, then we will need to revisit what caused them.  

Last, there are many reasons why publishing tends to do a little bit better than most in crisis times, and I tend to think it is because we are a bit messy. As Netflix founder Reed Hastings says in his book, No Rules Rules, when reflecting on an earlier start-up failure: “We had become increasingly efficient and decreasingly creative.” I like to think the book business will never tread too far down this dangerous path.  

Have a busy and fruitful Christmas, and here’s to a happier next year!