Books News Autumn and Winter 2023

Gesa Stedman rounds up the rest of the year’s book news, ranging from the controversies at the Frankfurt Bookfair to the impact of the cost of living crisis, the every-increasing commercialisation of the book world and The Bookseller reflecting that, and recent prize winners, most of whom were white men called Paul or John.

The literary field has stopped generating excitement by and of itself. Instead, two trends stand out to this rather jaded and slightly bored observer: bomb shells are dropped regularly, they are more often than not political, but come from the political field and then elicit a response in the literary field, rather than the other way around. Secondly, commercialisation which has become more and more pronounced in the past 5-7 decades has taken another notch up the Richter scale, with TikTok trends becoming dominant, AI producing the next lot of books and it seems the industry follows this, rather than setting boundaries itself, or pushing the conversation. The chief industry publication, The Bookseller, one of the key sources for this blog, underpins these trends. As the chief organs for booksellers who, after all, are supposed to sell books, it has always been interested in charting bestsellers, checking new trends which might generate income for authors, publishers, and booksellers, and generally also keeping abreast of economic developments. But in the past half year or so, it seems to have lost its critical edge more and more. By outsourcing editorial control a few times a year to Black or disabled or gay editors, the rest of The Bookseller seems to be geared to commerce tout court. What sells well gets written about at length, not to say: ad nauseam. Cookery books, romantasy, science fiction, cosy crime, children’s books. All should have their place of course, and the genre of a book does not say anything about the contents on the page. Nevertheless, the quirky, unusual, or outlier title, author, publisher are becoming quite rare beyond the “discovery” section or the guest-edited special editions.

a photo of the cover of The Bookseller special isue for pride month, showing two black women with a pride flag and a book

Cover of The Bookseller for Pride Month Special Issue
Photograph: Gesa Stedman

Back to the first trend I mention in my opening paragraph: real and symbolic bombshells from beyond the book world. These have fallen or been thrown aplenty in recent weeks. Frankfurt Bookfair got deeply embroiled by the terrorist attacks of Hamas on Israeli civilians and the subsequent Israeli military response and the war in Gaza when Slavoj Zizek’s opening speech for Slowenia, this year’s guest country, hit the headlines because of his choice of words (link to report in Frankfurter Rundschau

Shortly before the opening of the fair, the Palestinian author Adania Shibli’s Liberatur prize awarded by Litprom had been postponed or cancelled, depending on the source one reads, and things haven taken a turn for the worse from there with accusations of a lack of solidarity and counter-accusations of anti-semitism flying (link to news report,shibli100.html).

On a slightly different note, but again responding to political events having an impact on literature, Salman Rushdie gave an acceptance speech for this year’s prestigious Friedenspreis des deutschen Buchhandels. The recent survivor of a murderous Islamist attack on his life, leaving him blind in one eye and severely injured in general, focused on the need to be allowed to write about anyone and anything, no matter whether this was based on personal experience or not, thus gently but firmly chiding the trend for (political) “authenticity” as a basis of judgement for literature (link to prize website

image of the author Salman Rushdie in 2008

Salman Rushdie in 2008 CC By-ND- CC 2.0
Bill Swerzy


News of book bans in Florida and elsewhere, of course in true American fashion going to the most absurd extremes (banning the bible in the bible belt?), but also Bavarian crisis moments when a reading for children with a drag queen hit the headlines in the wrong way have made the literary field appear totally politicised. But when one looks more carefully, all of this political debate comes from beyond the book world itself. And most of the action in the literary field is symbolic, discursive, and surprisingly muddled and ineffective. One might argue of course that a field in which words are paramount, action takes the form of words. But the literary field, just like any other field, also has institutions, key agents, gatekeepers, money to distribute and the way in which this is done, or not done, seems to veer towards symbolic public gestures rather than sustainable long-term support. The latter does take place in invisible corners and niche publications, e.g. in joint work by refugee authors and those indigenous to the country the refugees find themselves in. But the literary field in general, at least in commercialised Anglophone contexts, shows a different trend: for example Black bestsellers are on the wane and what happened in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement was obviously just a trend, similar to a surge in books about women’s rights and suffragism for the anniversary of suffragism, or a surge in books about climate change which has become a bit of non-topic recently, at least in terms of popular sales, quite apart from too few industry changes to make the industry itself a greener enterprise.

Only gloom and doom? Not quite, but the picture is mixed…

LGTBT+ representation is on the rise and this is nice to see, with the British Book Awards going to titles such as Alice Oseman’ Heartstopper series, much-loved and finding a fan base beyond its original younger YA audience amongst adults, some of which have found their way to this interesting author via the Netflix adaptation currently wrapping the filming of series 3, to be shown in 2024.

There is a Green Book Fair, not surprisingly organised by the politically seemingly more aware, and less commercial, literary field in the North, which was intentionally online-only, to reduce carbon-heavy travel. Bloomsbury has introduced Carbon literacy training for its employees to ensure that all steps along the way in the book production business are more geared towards reducing the carbon footprint of the industry. (Link to event page set up by organisers Northern Fiction Alliance and link to publisher’s page

Translation is becoming more important in the UK publishing world, driven in part but not entirely by Scandi crime fiction translation.  The tireless work of people such as Katy Derbyshire (link to writer’s consultancy and the Warwick translation prize is slowly paying off and one sees more and more continental authors from all kinds of countries being translated into English. Whether people will actually go and buy and read these books is another matter, but one does encounter more non-British writers in the Bookseller’s advance publishing pages, both from European countries and further afield. As the jury puts it for this year’s Warwick prize in translation:

This year’s winner breaks exciting new ground for this unique prize. A graphic novel self-translated from the Arabic by its author, Your Wish is My Command succeeds triumphantly as a spellbinding narrative, a visual tour de force and as a unified work of art.

Deena Mohamed’s wittily inventive texts and dialogues complement her virtuoso drawings in an exuberant satirical fantasia. She channels the dreams, fears and struggles of an alternative Cairo – a city of the imagination whose people share the everyday aspirations, and frustrations, of all who wish and hope around the world.

(link to translation prize website

Driven in part by the rise of Manga comics, graphic works in general have become more important, and audio books continue to attract lots of buyers and listeners. This points to the diversification of media use by readers of all ages, and technological advances such as digital art programmes, studio-free audio recording apps and the like, but this certainly does not indicate the demise of the book, which was a spectre which kept being mentioned when e-books and audio were a new thing.

Manga Covers in colour

Manga Covers
Ari Helminen
CC By 2.0

Although book buying has not abated just yet, the cost of living crisis or rather the rise in costs such as paper and printing has had a negative effect on the publishing world, with some independents suffering or even folding. Book buyers tend to come from the more affluent middle classes and although these, too, have felt the squeeze, they still have the wherewithal to buy books, but the jury is still out on how much this will affect the literary field as a whole and whether the long-term effects of economic hardship outweigh the need to find escapism and reassurance in fiction, or explanation and support in non-fiction books, and thus lead to growth despite the economic downturn.


In this year’s prize season, the major book prizes were almost all won by male white writers which shows how important it is to also focus on other writers of different genders, persuasions, and colours as well as ages in the specialist prizes which have been set up to counteract this unstoppable trend. It also answers the question the debate on abolishing the Women’s Prize brought to the fore: no, we cannot do without this (and other specialist) prizes, bibliodiversity is not really on the rise.

Panic briefly set in when Costa, the long-term sponsor, discontinued its prize. A new award has been set up to follow it, with another coffee chain taking over as the main sponsor. The Nero Book Prize wants to award “quality writing and readability”, thus clearly focusing on mainstream readers, although the shortlisted authors in the categories which match the former Costa categories also include queer writers and unfashionable topics such as middle-aged women, which might be promising. The category winners will be announced in January, the overall year’s winner in February (link to prize website

As expected given the shortlisted authors, the Booker Prize winner was indeed a writer named Paul. It was won by Paul Lynch with The Prophet Song, a dystopian Irish novel imagining a right-wing takeover (link to prize website

The Goldsmith Prize which is awarded to experimental fiction and this is aimed less at a mainstream audience and targets curious readers who like formal innovation also went to a man, namely to Benjamin Meyer’s novel Cuddy which imagines the life of St Cuthbert. But at least this is a writer from the North… (link to the Goldsmith Prize website

Unsurprisingly, the Baillie Gifford prize for non-fiction was also won by a white male author, not many women make it onto non-fiction shortlists in general, let alone other types of writers (link to the sponsor’s prize website

The recent spat about Baillie Gifford group and its cultural sponsorship before and during the Edinburgh Festival seems to have been a storm in a teacup, there has been no further reporting on this issue. (link to an article in The Guardian reporting the open letter by authors

The YA Awards are a little different, with many women writers and writers of colour featuring on long- and shortlists. This year’s winner is Danielle Jawando:

When Our Worlds Collided follows three teenagers from different backgrounds who are brought together in the aftermath of a stabbing. What follows flips their worlds upside down and makes Chantelle, Jackson, and Marc question the deep-rooted prejudice and racism that exists within society.

(link to the YA book prize report in The Bookseller: Unfortunately, the YAs I know personally don’t always choose the pc titles that are supposed to educate them but go for something less blatantly didactic…

Anglophone Trends Elsewhere

The preliminary findings of a project seminar on the colonial legacies in the Anglophone bookworld in Berlin point to an interesting trend: there are more and more bookshops with Anglophone sections, both indies and chain stores, and new bookshops are opened with an international, Anglophone readership in mind. A new children’s bookshop dedicated to bilingual Anglophone-German readers has recently been set up in Friedrichshain, and the German chainstore Thalia now counts an English-only store among its many venues. I have not had the time to visit either of them, but will report in future columns if they are worth writing about. But from the then dominant second-hand Anglophone bookshops in the past, Berlin now sports several new books-focused shops, e.g. Buchbox, Dussmann, and the new Thalia English store, as well as the curated Anglophone shelves in long-standing stalwart Marga Schoeller in Charlottenburg or Uslar + Rai in Prenzlauer Berg. Outputs of the university seminar and the research questions concerning imperial legacies will be publicised on this website in the new year.

In general, booksellers in Germany just as in the UK do well when they set up curated, small, indie bookshops, with a strong community connection, if they also sell non-books, have a dedicated children’s corner or ones targeted to other specialist audiences (e.g. holiday makers or locals) and run an events programme, literacy events, and cooperate with schools or run small festivals with local partners or institutions. In fact, just like libraries, they fulfil an important cultural, social, and political function and as such operate at the crossroads of many issues which concern people in the 21st century: tackling loneliness, integrating refugees and making them feel welcome, catering to everyone, overcoming social inequality by widening access to the literary world and not basing it entirely on personal income, fostering exchange and community, opening windows into other worlds and languages, addressing challenges head on.

I have not come up with a solution for my own particular challenge, namely how to keep this blog interesting as it enters its 8th year. Renewal next year is required and any suggestions from readers are most welcome. For now, I will rely on the research results and outputs my students are currently producing and hope they will inspire everyone, including myself.

Happy reading during the festive break, despite the not-so-festive times!


Last access to all websites 17 December 2024