An industry rising from the flames | @Tom_Chalmers

An industry rising from the flames | @Tom_Chalmers

I temporarily postponed my non-attendance of award nights this week and arrived at The Bookseller Industry Awards in London (as a guest of the Frankfurt Book Fair – thanks for the invite and hospitality!). And it was interesting to compare the atmosphere to the last BIAs (only three letters away from the BAFTAs) that I went to in 2011.

Back then, I felt slightly disillusioned, seeing the same faces I have seen at awards nights for the best part of a decade in an industry that can sometimes appear frightening small. Everyone was trying to throw on the celebratory spirit, the big night out, but you could see the tiredness and fear behind the eyes  - recession and huge changes from The Outside were happening to the industry and it was hurting companies even centuries old.

I felt there was a sense of façade, a keenness for it to be like it always has been, or pleadingly at least until the carriages arrive at 1am. A bunker would have felt as applicable as a hotel.

Moving forward to this year, I was pleased to sense an uplift in mood. There were still a lot of the same people there, though publishing is likely to remain a club for foreseeable future. There is still a little charm in that, even in the average retirement age of 100+. The key will be loosening the joining criteria for the industry club.

An aside on that point, the one disappointment was a clear demonstration of the lack of diversity within the industry – out of 800 guests and winners I would like the know the non-white-and-middle-class quota. My guess would be you’d need one or maybe two hands to count it on. This is an area I believe we need to improve and where we are missing out, in particular if we plan to attract new customers.

Apart from that, there was a sense of looking forward throughout the night, admittedly sometimes in publishing’s despairingly tentative fashion. There were new prizes, the supermarkets were allowed in, new digital services and ebook sellers (Amazon/Kindle being the usual white elephant) on the shortlists.

For Independent Bookshop of the Year there were some great bookshops, illustrating the success still there for innovative and dynamic shops, with the award being deservedly won by Dulwich Books. Several winners made a pitch for having the best job in the industry – and each of them actually sounded like they meant it.

Aside from the Rights Professional of the Year, with another very strong shortlist, it would be good to see more awards highlighting international success – most publishers I now speak to are recognising the potential in different markets, whether through digital sales or licensing. And I had some very interesting discussions at our table about different markets and how they can now be accessed.

In fact most of the conversations I had were about things now and coming up – that doesn’t sound like much but it is a big step forward from the morbid obsession with the past I witnessed at the previous awards night. 

Traditional publishing has taken a bashing from many sides – quietly from retail and tech conglomerates looking to take its business to more noisily from independent authors hitting back at the hand they felt was too self-important to feed them what they felt they deserved.

And traditionally publishing shouldn’t complain too loudly about the bashings – we have deserved it. We have let a historically great industry become a bubble that the public is not interested in and probably never was. It may have been painful but is has been for the best for that bubble to have burst – we have had to modernise and improve and the impression I got this week was that we are now trying to do it. 

We’re not talking about Silicon Valley, rooms full of entrepreneurs, tables of varied genius, ideas and creative energy bouncing off the walls. But there was a definite step-change in attitude, a looking to the future; yes, I’ll say it, a sense of dynamism in the room.

I’ve often said publishing needs to go through the very tough stage to come out the other side, honed, toned and ready again for business. The sense I got on a wet Monday night was that a new publishing industry is beginning to emerge from the shadows, that maybe we’re moving to a point where we’ll be properly able to embrace the reader, the customer themselves.

I left the awards with a sense of optimism and excitement for the year ahead, not just from our offices but for the industry as a whole. So much so, that I have extended my temporary postponement of non-attendance of award nights to go to the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize next week. I’m looking forward to it.

Happy to hear your thoughts as always! Feel free to let me know on Twitter at @Tom_Chalmers