The mood at this week’s London book fair appeared upbeat, with hotly contested auctions leading to the return of the six-figure publishing deal. Musicians did particularly well, with Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker, Suede’s Brett Anderson and drum’n’bass pioneer Goldie leading the way. Rumours of the death of literary fiction appear exaggerated. A collection of short stories, traditionally regarded as commercial suicide, earned Orange prize winner Lionel Shriver a place at the top of the sales league. The razzmatazz of such deals, however, is only part of the story of the modern books industry.
Publishing is a commercial enterprise, and like all businesses it thrives in an atmosphere of certainty that ceased to exist the day the UK voted for Brexit. In a heated opening debate on the impact of the decision to leave the European Union, a succession of leading publishers rounded on the prime minister, Theresa May, for “playing with people’s lives” in her negotiations. The government emissary parried criticism by insisting that ministers were “at the fat end of the funnel”, sucking up information from businesses to understand how best to represent them. The information came fast and furiously, with much of the concern about freedom of movement. We have heard a lot about the fears of the university sector about the drain on research and student income, but we know less about the impact on the more cultural corners of publishing.
Children’s publisher DK reported that a sixth of the 500 staff at its London headquarters were European nationals, and since the referendum it had been struggling to recruit. HarperCollins said that “a significant proportion” of its Scottish distribution centre workers were from eastern Europe and had been leaving in droves. Faced with the perfect storm of a weak pound, which reduced the money they could send home to their families, and uncertainty about whether they would be able to stay, they were voting with their feet. These are the issues we need to consider. The book fair has reaffirmed the vibrancy – and economic value – of a global intellectual culture. If we want to remain part of it, the government needs to do more than sit at the fat end of that funnel. As Jarvis Cocker might say, this is hardcore and it’s everybody’s problem.