June 23, 2016

Leave or remain: with Britain on the verge of a momentous decision, where does the book industry stand?


8dbc0a7c-3c88-4b8a-8ec9-bb254a372e21-ukeuflagOne of the biggest political decisions to face Britons in their lifetime is looming—the European Union referendum, with polling stations opening today, June 23rd. The British public will be voting on whether to leave the EU (a move global media have termed the “Brexit”) after more than forty years as a key member.

It has been a closely-fought battle so far, with even experts unable to call the outcome. John Curtice, an expert on polling who teaches politics at Stratchclyde University, told Charlie Cooper and Ashley Cowburn of The Independent:

It’s around 50-50. To cut a long story short, undoubtedly last week Leave made progress—the first significant progress of the campaign. You actually had the phone polls calling it 50-50 and you had the internet polls having Leave ahead. It’s very, very tight. You can’t call this referendum—it’s too close.

The issues surrounding whether to leave or remain are too complex to summarize in a mere blog post, and it is unclear how a decision to leave the EU would play out in Britain, as David Dombey and Robin Kwong have written in the Financial Times:

…what the precise effect of Brexit will be remains impossible to say, because of a lack of agreement on what would be the concrete alternative to EU membership… Possibilities range from Britain becoming a virtual associate member of the bloc—such as Norway, which participates in the single market, pays budget dues and opens its borders to EU workers—to a much more estranged relationship. The sheer scope of this uncertainty about the UK’s future is another reason why the referendum matters so much.

Prominent figures in the book industry have been contributing their opinions, with The Bookseller conducting recent polls to gauge reactions.

In contrast to more general EU Referendum polls, the majority of people in the book trade who are likely to vote “Remain” on 23rd June now stands at 78%, up from 71% when the survey was last carried out in February.

The most recent poll ran online between 10th-14th June and found that just 18% of the trade were intending to vote “Leave”, while 4% were undecided with just days to go before the vote.

JK Rowling

JK Rowling

JK Rowling has called the referendum “one of the most divisive and bitter political campaigns ever waged” in a post on her website, adding, “It is dishonourable to suggest, as many have, that Leavers are all racists and bigots: they aren’t and it is shameful to suggest that they are. Nevertheless, it is equally nonsensical to pretend that racists and bigots aren’t flocking to the ‘Leave’ cause, or that they aren’t, in some instances, directing it.”

A picture seems to be forming in which the majority of authors, publishers and booksellers largely fall into the “remain” camp, fearing economic and social repercussions if the UK decides to leave.

James Daunt.

James Daunt.

The Bookseller’s Lisa Campbell reported last week on an email sent to thousands of booksellers, managers, and head office staff at Waterstones by the bookselling chain’s managing director, James Daunt, offering his take on the likely outcome of a Brexit vote: “For Waterstones, the impact on sales will reverse much of the hard-won gain of the last few years. To survive, we will have to return to cost-cutting; return, that is, to the brutal reality of job losses and stagnant wages.”

And Gail Rebuck, chair of Penguin Random House UK, told Bertelsmann (which owns PRH) in an interview last month that “…the heads of the Bertelsmann businesses represented at the [Bertelsmann 2016 UK Country Coordination Meeting] were unanimous in wanting to remain in the European Union…. It is clear that none of the other EU members want us to leave.”

The Guardian recently asked ten prominent authors and thinkers from EU countries to write letters to Britain weighing in on the question. All ten argued against an exit, some quite passionately. A few noteworthy replies:

Anne Enright (author of The Green Road): “Don’t go. You will not thrive, and we want you to thrive. You are still family to us all.”

Jonas Jonasson (author of The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared): “Without you, the EU will crack at its very seams. I wish you would stay, and that all of us together — in toil, tears and sweat but not blood — will steer the peace project that is the European Union in the right direction.”

Slavoj Žižek, snappy dresser.

Slavoj Žižek, snappy dresser.

Slavoj Žižek (author of Trouble in Paradise): “I remain convinced that our only hope is to act trans-nationally—only in this way do we have a chance to constrain global capitalism.”

Of course, newspapers have their political affiliations, and objective reporting is difficult to find. What is clear, though, is that this is a hugely important decision that everyone who can vote should have a say in, whichever camp they decide to back. If the UK leaves the EU, there will be consequences. And while we can’t say definitively what they’ll be, it would be foolish to think our much-loved book industry will remain unaffected. Melville House authors George Lakey and Per Molander in fact have forthcoming books outlining what the UK and US could learn from Scandinavia.

And before I go I’m just going to leave this here… an interview with Donald Trump, presumptive Republican Party candidate for US president, conducted by Michael Woolf from the Hollywood Reporter:

“And Brexit? Your position?” I ask.




“The Brits leaving the EU,” I prompt, realizing that his lack of familiarity with one of the most pressing issues in Europe is for him no concern nor liability at all.

“Oh yeah, I think they should leave.”



Nikki Griffiths is the managing director of Melville House UK.