Publishers and agents say they are re-examining their roles in light of political developments, calling Donald Trump’s US presidency—following on from the UK voting to leave the European Union last year—“a crystallising event” which will mean “a lot of people are going to have to decide what is important”.
In the US, Trump’s actions in his first days in charge—including the so-called “Muslim ban” on visitors from some Middle Eastern countries, renewed attacks on the press, and an emerging threat to the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities—have prompted strong reactions in the book industry.
The US Authors Guild has committed itself to being “vigilant in these ‘not normal’ times”, while Penguin Random House US and Hachette Book Group have offered to pay for half of a subscription fee to PEN America, which supports free speech, for its staff members.
In the UK, many in the industry say they are looking for the right way to respond. Meanwhile, a number of UK book trade professionals have also said they are cancelling or reconsidering trips to the US in the light of the current situation.
Pan Macmillan adult publisher Jeremy Trevathan was among those expressing a sense that the world faces very important challenges, affecting publishing: “We have reached one of those historical turning points,” he said. “Brexit happened, and it seemed to be about ‘Little England’, but then Trump happened, and actually something is going on that is bigger [than the events in isolation]. We’ve hit some historical watershed and we are all feeling our way in terms of the books we publish, particularly in non-fiction.”
Agent Natasha Fairweather of Rogers, Coleridge & White agreed: “We are at a crossroads, a faultline in world politics. It’s an urgent and pressing time politically. I’ve been having conversations with writers and everyone’s thinking about it. There is almost panic in the publishing industry in America.” She added: “It feels as significant a time as it did in 1989 when I started [as an agent], when the Cold War came to an end and a new era began.”
Agent Toby Mundy, director of the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction, said: “Serious non-fiction at its best is about creating the building blocks for civilisation, a critically important cultural activity. Publishers are in the civilisation business, though they occasionally forget that. [The election of Trump] is a crystallising event and a lot of people are going to have to decide what is important.”He added: “Some kind of consensus has been shattered. We need to understand where we are and where we’re going and only books can do that for us.”
A number of publishers have vowed to publish more writers from marginalised groups in an attempt to promote a message of tolerance and combat xenophobia.
Waterstones Piccadilly has devoted a window to It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis (Penguin modern classics), first published in 1935. London regional manager Luke Taylor called the window a “showstopper”, saying: “It doesn’t take a genius to work out the similarities between the main character in It Can’t Happen Here and the chief protagonist in the soap opera currently being played out in america. The book itself was always going to sell given its stark warnings and the current state of the world. Add to that a passionate team of booksellers with an eagerness to recommend a good book and you are on to a winner. The window has helped propel it to the top of our bestsellers.”
Ken Barlow of radical publisher Zed Books said: “Publishers should deepen their commitment to publishing diverse, marginalised voices from across the globe. Now is not the time to retreat into a rarefied literary culture, it is a time for social engagement, and publishers will have to choose if, and how, they want to be part of that.
“Unfortunately, the Left has largely failed to present a coherent narrative—at least one the public has bought into—to counter the nationalist, ‘let’s look after number one’ world view that has taken root not just in the US, but in the UK and a number of countries across Europe. Book publishing can play a role in forming an alternative, more progressive cultural narrative.”
At Melville House, co-founder Dennis Johnson said: “We’re experiencing a really extreme-right takeover. It’s a place we’ve never been before and I think it’s really up to us in the book industry to supplement the way the rest of the media is covering this. I personally have a renewed sense of mission.”
In children’s publishing, Mairi Kidd, m.d. of Barrington Stoke, said: “We believe that children and young people are asking questions they were not asking a year or two ago, and that there is more support for books on themes of refuge and migration, and for books that encourage empathy and discussion around human rights.”
But while some will be looking for politically themed books at the upcoming Bologna and London book fairs, others will be “looking to acquire some escapism, comfort and balm for troubled young minds”, Kidd said, and others echoed that theme. Robert Caskie, of new agency Caskie Mushens, said: “I want to read about activism and hope. We need stories about human compassion and love. There will be a surge in books that galvanise people to stand up [for their beliefs] or believe in human kindness.”
Sam Eades, editorial director at Orion, said: “The instinctive response during unsettling and tumultuous times is fight or flight. I think there is a growing market for escapist fiction. I am actively looking for a big, sweeping love story as, like many people out there, I want to be reminded of all the good in the world.”
Bonnier Zaffre senior editor Katherine Armstrong noted: “I’m expecting to see more crime fiction that focuses on issues around racial equality and xenophobia. Crime writers are often the first to get to grips with the social issues of the day and traditionally readers have looked to crime fiction not only for escapism, but as a way to learn safely about the challenges society faces.”
Meanwhile in literary publishing, Michal Shavit, publishing director of Vintage, commented: “Our authors respond to what is happening in the world in different and diverse ways. Sometimes it’s with a sense of urgency and humour, such as Howard Jacobson with his upcoming Trump satire Pussy, written in a frenzy of rage. Sometimes it’s part of a longer-term project that has been brewing for a while and suddenly seems incredibly prescient, such as Martin Amis in his brilliant upcoming essay collection The Rub of Time. We all need good books that change the way we view the world, now more than ever. And the art of listening, which writers are so very good at, can be a lesson to us all as we navigate these strange and frightening political times.”
David Roth-Ey, executive publisher for Fourth Estate and William Collins, said: “At a time when the Fourth Estate—and the whole notion of truth itself—is under attack, our role as publishers to find and promote books that reveal those truths couldn’t be more important.“ He cited Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s upcoming feminist manifesto Dear Ijeawele as one such example.
Loss of balance
A strong point emerging from the discussion is publishing’s role in reflecting a broad range of views. Trevathan said: “As an industry we are international, we’re about being open. One of the aspects of that is we have to try to understand our readership. We have to acknowledge that, as big publishers working across all areas, an awful lot of people who buy our books disagree with us on these issues. As an industry we have to maintain an open approach; our readers are diverse in their viewpoints and we have to reflect that.”
Asked if he would consider publishing Milo Yiannopoulos, the right-wing commentator whose book deal with Simon & Schuster in the US has prompted a backlash from authors, Trevathan said: “You have to consider it because that’s your job. I’m not saying we would publish him. Each publisher will have to take a view, but I absolutely think we should all be about free speech. Books should be published and people should be able to comment on them.”
Iain Dale, m.d. of independent publisher Biteback, also warned of a lack of balance in the industry. He said: “Because book publishers are liberal and left-wing, nothing is being published which is pro-Trump or even fair to Trump. We published Anne Coulter’s In Trump We Trust: How He Outsmarted the Politicans, the Elite and the Media in August, which was a bit of a punt. She’s well known in the US but less so here. We took it thinking that Trump wouldn’t get in but then he did and the sales went mad.”
Dale said publishers needed to take “books that enabled people to take a balanced view. There are a lot of things at the moment comparing Trump to Thatcher and fascists. The fact that the books are all anti-Trump, I think, does a disservice to the book- buying public.”
Belinda Rasmussen, m.d. of Macmillan Children’s Books, added her perspective: “What recent events have shown us is that there can be a big difference between what one part of a country thinks versus the other. I think many of us have been surprised about how wide this divide is and how unaware we have been, and therefore how limited our reach as publishers may be. Our task is to reach as many children as possible and to convert non-readers into readers with mind-boggling content, so they have the tools to understand the world and ask the right questions.”
Meanwhile a question mark has emerged over the level of international contact between the UK, Europe and America. Alessandro Gallenzi of Alma Books confirmed he had recently postponed “a couple of opportunities” for trips to the US. “The hassle of immigration was bad enough a few years ago—I can’t imagine what it is like now,” he said. “I think it will affect both ways [to and from the US] and I think that Brexit is affecting travel already. It’s partly fear of terrorist attacks, but also the feeling that foreigners are not as welcome here as before. It does have an effect.”
Gallenzi, who is Italian, added that he and his partner Elisabetta Minervini had had two experiences of abuse in the UK in the past three or four months. “We’ve been living here for 20 years and we’ve never experienced anything like that before.”
Sarah Goff of independent Tramp Press said: “We had been planning to go to New York in May to attend a sales conference, and while on the one hand missing this opportunity feels like an overreaction, on the other, swanning in and out of the country when so many others are being refused entry poses a moral question.”
Agent Lorella Belli said: “I have heard from other agents that they are wondering whether to go to BookExpo America this year. Not because they are scared, but BEA has always been more American than global, and would it be the best fair to go to at this particular time?” But Trevathan countered: “If you shut things off, how do you persuade people? You don’t really move things forward.”
Meanwhile Michael Schmidt, m.d. of Carcanet, commented: “Unless authors decide to boycott the US, which I think would be very foolish of them because they have huge readerships there, I think continued communication with the cultural organs in the States is particularly important now. You don’t abandon your friends when their house is burgled or repossessed— they need you more. For the same reason you hope the Europeans will have the same idea [about LBF]”.
The book trade in 2017: a new reality
President of the Society of Authors
“Last year’s double whammy of Brexit and Donald Trump seemed to change the rules of politics somehow. I think many writers will be feeling both profound misgivings and intense curiosity as to how it will all turn out. However, a few things remain important. We must defend the value of free and honest reporting, we must continue to insist that there is such a thing as reality, we must hold politicians to their promises and challenge cruel and destructive folly, and we must continue to work with words and sentences and paragraphs as if language, the inheritance of us all, was still capable of beauty, consolation and truth.”
C.e.o., HarperCollins UK
“The political polarisation that we are seeing in the US, UK and across Europe presents challenges for publishers. It is more important than ever that we shine a light on the issues, but it is also imperative that we present voices from all sides of the argument. We must publish books that are interesting, informative, sometimes challenging but, most of all, relevant.”
Director, English PEN
“Brexit is putting us in a wholly new position. Prime minister Theresa May is going around the world meeting with the most unsavoury world leaders . . . the core work of Pen, defending the freedom of expression of writers and publishers, and the notion of literature as something that crosses frontiers, which is in Pen’s charter, is thrown into sharp relief by Brexit, Donald Trump and the hostility to refugees. It highlights a fundamental mission of Pen and puts a new urgency behind it.”
Chief executive, CILIP
“Propaganda, mistruth and downright lies have always been part of politics and public life. However the rapid rise of social media as a news source, “filter-bubbles”, more sophisticated editing technologies, distrust in the establishment and traditional media and a febrile political environment in the UK and US has blurred the commonly held distinction between facts and fiction. But facts matter, and librarians make an ethical commitment to help people find the truth. Librarians in communities, schools and universities help people dig deeper, ask questions and understand the credibility of what they are seeing by teaching research skills.”
Upcoming books that reflect our times
The Golden House (Vintage) by Salman Rushdie - September 2017
A modern-day thriller about a young american filmmaker, set against a backdrop of american culture and politics including the backlash against political correctness and “the insurgence of a ruthlessly ambitious, narcissistic, media-savvy villain sporting make-up and coloured hair”.
Splinter (Bonnier Zaffre) by Mike Thomas - August 2017
A thriller from an ex-police officer exploring an act of domestic terrorism in cardiff by a group of people who feel alienated from their communities.
Game of Thorns: The Inside Story of Hillary Clinton’s Failed Campaign and Donald Trump’s Winning Strategy (Biteback) by Doug Wead - February 2017
The first account of the precipitous fall of hillary clinton and the rise of Donald Trump, with details of his plan to “make america great again”. Wead was a regular tV commentator throughout the election campaign of donald trump.
Pussy (Jonathan Cape) by Howard Jacobson - April 2017
A “ferociously funny” fairytale for grown-ups, telling the story of how a boastful dunce becomes the leader of the free world.
The Truth Spectrum (Transworld) by Hector Macdonald - Spring 2018
Showing readers how to navigate a world of conflicting truths, drawing on an array of timely examples, from trump, to the disingenuous use of statistics in politics and misleading advertising.
American War (Picador) by Omar El Akkad - September 2017
A début novel envisaging a second american civil War and a devastating plague, asking what might happen if the us were to turn its most devastating policies and deadly weapons on itself.