June 30, 2016
Philip Jones, editor of the Bookseller, shares his thoughts on what Brexit could mean for the publishing industry
by Nikki Griffiths
The 52% to 48% split in the UK’s recent referendum on leaving the EU provided a slim and controversial win for the ‘leave’ campaign, leading to an impending Brexit. However, what has become quite apparent is that the book industry has proven to be resolutely pro-Europe, with 78% of those surveyed by The Bookseller before the vote intending to cast their ballots for ‘remain.’
The Bookseller has been bringing us the latest news on how Brexit might affect the publishing world, giving us inside knowledge and opinions from a wealth of sources. I spoke to editor Philip Jones to get his inside scoop on what he thinks the future could hold.
With the pound dropping, do you think publishers, booksellers and distributors should be looking at taking immediate action where possible, such as adjusting prices and discounts, or should such decisions be delayed?
I actually don’t think there is too much they can do while the pound is fluctuating and the political situation remains so shambolic. I suspect they will look to see where the pound settles before they make any adjustments. In the short term, I see them cutting back on unnecessary travel and expenses, which may impact Frankfurt, and in the longer term they will clearly shift their printing around, and in some cases back to the UK.
What do you think are the most important issues the publishing industry may have to address in the future as a result of Brexit?
There are huge ramifications, but I suspect many publishers will see much of it as out of their control (trade deals for example). They will have to watch, and hope that wise heads prevail.
There are two important areas where they can act though. Publishing was 78% in favour of remaining in the EU, the country 52% against. Publishing is middle-class and metropolitan, and I think it needs to redouble its efforts to speak more widely to those parts of society it has left behind. It’s a wake-up call, and one the sector needs to heed. It could, for example, better make a positive case for immigration by publishing and hiring with diversity in mind. It is doing some of this, but not enough, and now will pay a price.
Secondly, publishing has a young workforce many of whom will have been personally affected by the vote. Publishing is not just about commerce, it’s emotionally driven and my impression is that many people are flagging and rethinking their futures. It is vital that employers (large and small, but particularly the large corporates) get on the front foot with positive messages of support. For those employing workers born outside of the UK, this is particularly important. We need to make everyone feel welcome and assure as many as possible that publishing will come through this.
Thirdly, there’s obviously a positive case for Brexit that we haven’t heard enough, and I think there is value to be had from exploring what that is from those who wish to make it.
Might the appetite for book buying increase or fester in this uncertain period of change?
I think there will be a recession, and this will hit book sales. No one knows how long it might last or the damage it will cause. The last recession surprised publishers by pulling books in quickly, and it is to be hoped that we remain battle-hardened so that we can resist the worst of it.
Of course there is also now a huge opportunity for publishers to bring out books exploring the full ramifications of the vote, as well as more colouring books to calm us all down.
I’m not sure the latter will offset the former but it won’t stop publishers giving it a go.
How might Brexit affect overseas sales and rights deals? Could the cheaper pound in fact help UK exports? Will relationships with European customers and agents be damaged?
Yes, a falling pound is not all bad, and actually some have said that the pound had become overheated. That said, publishers are not currency traders, and everyone outside the big groups (who may be able to offset losses in one region with gains in another) will find their ability to trade internationally (compete for rights deals, for example) diminished. I think the American publishers will look again at acquiring European rights, and I’m not sure agents will be able to resist. Digital changes all this too, of course, and a reduced pound will enable the big US groups to more easily acquire World English. The drift to the West will become more pronounced.
I think European publishers will be incredibly supportive in the short term, but inevitably as the EU and the UK develop in different directions those close connections that we have all forged will become weaker.
Do you think indie publishers and bookshops might fare worse than the big conglomerates and chains?
Yes, for the reasons given above: but small presses tend to be nimbler than the big groups and this will help them take what advantages they can from the fluctuating markets.
Do you think there could be a change in what British publishers publish in the next 1-2 years, and any new trends as to what the British public want to read?
There will be Brexit books, and break-up books, and in a destabilised world more thrillers exploring what that feels like: but readers are very difficult to pre-judge and 1 to 2 years is too short a period to get books through. Longer term the whole British identity will now change and there will be books exploring that; we have also been greatly enriched recently by a growth in reading of translated books published by publishers whose tastes and interests are, for want of a better word, ‘European’. We need these publishers more than ever now, but I worry about whether they still see the UK as a place they want to call home.
What might a post-Brexit London Book Fair and Frankfurt Book Fair look like . . .?
Short term, both will be smaller though only marginally and highly dependant on currency; medium term Frankfurt now has the opportunity to rebuild its advantage over London as the central hub for international rights. But everyone will still come to London: if only to gawp.
Do you think there are any positives that could come out of the situation?
I’ve yet to see any, and even the leavers now seem to concede that all the positives (i.e. new trade deals) are years away. Of course we are all now in the same boat, hoping the waves are not too huge and there are plenty of lifejackets. Once we work out which way to row we’ll feel a bit better about it all. For now there’s a small positive to be had from a misery widely shared.
Nikki Griffiths is the managing director of Melville House UK.