Book News April 2020

Gesa Stedman rounds up the most recent news from the literary field in the UK and in Germany, from Corona-affected bookshops to children turning away from reading if no one reads to them, to the material poverty of translators and a look back at the book industry’s “Nibbie“ prizes.

Books, Publishing and Corona

Bookshops in the UK are closed, whereas some federal Länder in Germany have toughtfully accepted that books are essential, and have kept them open, albeit with access restrictions to avoid infection. And although distributors are also struggling a little bit, due to shortages of staff and an increase in demand, so that delivery is perhaps no longer over night, but within 2-3 days, German bookstores are doing ok, at least the inventive independent ones with online shops, bike delivery or with non-contact book pick-ups arranged. The chainstores, however, faced greater difficulty but some have been allowed to re-open with the first easing of lockdown. Readers of this blog know that indies are more important to us than chainstores and the main thing is that books reach their readers who will be in need of sustenance as well as means of fictional escape.

indie bookshop photo in Alnwick

Barter Books in Alnwick Alan Stanton CCBY2.0

In the UK, book wholesalers Bertrams & Gardners have closed – I have no idea why a large warehouse cannot arrange contact-free or at least distanced working schedules, since so much is automatic and robotic anyway. But perhaps my knowledge of distribution is based on German models. Britain has always had distribution problems, ever since the largest distributor’s warehouse burned down in the 1930s. Amazon has stepped in, of course, but since they are listing books as non-essential goods at the moment, getting hold of books is more difficult in the UK than before. But booksellers are inventive, and so have rallied as best they could.  As the editor of The Bookseller explains in his editorial (3 April 2020, 5): “We will now learn new ways of being, and some of these will prove useful for the longer term. … We will have more ways to sell books as a result of this, not fewer. … We can all learn a bit from this [Nick Cave’s use of the pandemic as a catalyst for creativity, G.S.]: eyes wide open, this is a reset, not an end.”

This inventiveness and openness is shared by many authors and festival organisers, who have streamed readings and events. But is this really an opportunity for more inclusive festival-curating, and will it allow more people who think books are not for them to access readings and books? I have my doubts, since this also depends on access to technology as well as time (time not used up by child-caring, home-schooling, or being a frontline essential worker), and I don’t share Carolyn Jess-Cooke’s optimism – the co-ordinator of the Stay-At-Home Festival of literature, author and lecturer. I think it is the lack of diversity and the lack of recognition which hampers everything in the literary field and if that is not overcome, then neither online nor face-to-face relations within the literary field will change.

Books and AI

I certainly don’t share Stephen Lotinga’s optimism with regard to Artificial Intelligence and publishing. The c.e. o. of the UK Publishers Association enumerates aspects of technological change which he judges to be positive. In the light of the impoverished forms of Corona-induced digital/online teaching which my colleagues and I are currently experiencing, I cannot agree with his statement that AI will allow “students progressing faster, or learning new information and skills much more thoroughly”. Nor do I find the prospect enticing of AI

used to create a clone of an actor’s voice, enabling a publisher to use this cloned voice to narrate audiobooks. Such a chang would reduce both the time and the cost of audiobook production, meaning there would be scope to make audiobooks more readily available. (The Bookseller, 13 March 2020, 62).

Frankly, I think this is a nightmarish prospect, and one that smacks of an interest in profit and a blind technology bias with little concern for ethics, let alone for diversity issues which do not improve if advanced technology is the basis of learning. That speaking machines – even if they are actors’ clones – or digital teaching can replace real human beings I refuse to applaud.

The First Corona Novel?

Mass-market fiction has landed a potential coup: Peter May has long had a pandemic-themed thriller entitled Lockdown in his drawer.

black and white photo of Peter May by Peter May CC BY SA 4.0 David Konečný

Portrait of Peter May
CC BY SA 4.0 David Konečný

No one seemed to be interested, but now was the time to take it out of the cupboard, it has been published as an e-book first, and will be out as a paperback in June, so if you aren’t heartily sick of Corona already (excuse the pun), there might be some light reading there for you. I prefer other fare and other topics in times like these (see below).

What else has happened in the past few weeks?

VAT has been reduced on e-books in the UK, so the “reading tax“ has in fact been axed, as the March budget announced.

VAT on e-publications – The Government will introduce legislation to apply a zero rate of VAT to e-publications from 1 December 2020, which will make it clear that e-books, e-newspapers, e-magazines and academic e-journals are entitled to the same VAT treatment as their physical counterparts. The Government expects the publishing industry, including e-booksellers, to pass on the benefit of this relief to consumers. last access 24 April 2020

Publishing is an important part of GDP. Perhaps if one harnessed green publishing, these figures might grow even more? Now is the chance for everyone to rethink their business models, and if change is imminent anyway, why not make it a green change? I still get books wrapped in plastic shrink-wrap, or parcels with styrofoam padding instead of paper… One can only hope that Corona concerns do not push climate concerns out of people’s minds, and that a re-start for the publishing and book-selling world also means a green re-start.

Children and Reading Comprehension; Inclusivity

On a less optimistic note, it has been found that children are not reading as much as they were – at the lowest level since 2013, as research by the National Literary Trust shows ( last access 24 April 2020), inspite of children’s books still being a growing sector within the literary field as a whole (and across national borders). Reading and comprehension are closely related, as any teacher or educator will tell you. In 2018, the children’s publisher Egmont studied 120 children at a school in Stoke-on-Trent aged between seven and eleven, many from deprived areas and with non-reading parents, and returned to the school for a follow-up study two years later. They have found that reading comprehension increased by double the expected rate if teachers read to their classes regularly. Without storytime at school, the rate of reading comprehension growth fell to half the expected rate. The publishers are suggesting the National Curriculum should make storytime compulsory on a daily basis and if the NC does not leave enough time for teachers to do so, then perhaps cutting down other elements migth be advisable. (The Bookseller 28 February 2020, 9)

sculpture of two children sitting and reading on a garden bench

sculpture of children reading

In terms of accessibility and reaching out to people who do not grow up with books, perhaps a German initiative is a good idea: the director of the Frankfurt Literaturhaus, Hauke Hückstädt, commissioned original fiction by renowned authors in what is called “simple language“ (leichte Sprache), in order to get more people to read who might feel intimidated by thinking that “normal“ books are too hard for them to read. Rather than have no-name people write stories, established literary authors were asked to contribute. Diversity comes in many shapes in sizes, and this is one of them. Hauke Hückstädt admits in an interesting interview that it was the city’s inclusivity initiative which made him re-think how exclusive their work had hitherto still been, in spite of attempts to include a broader range of audiences. The outcome is a very interesting collection of stories whose authors such as Judith Hermann, Nora Bossong and Kristof Magnusson had to adhere to a precise list of rules which restricted but also liberated them to try something completely different. (A report on Deutschlandfunk explains the background: link to report The rules are explained on the website of Frankfurter Literaturhaus: link to rules last access 24 April 2020.

30th Anniversary: The Nibbies; Virago Press

The UK industry has a long-standing tradition of awarding prizes, to the outstanding marketing campaign of the year, independent booksellers, the best chain, outstanding authors, editors, translators etc. This year, it is the 30th anniversary of the so-called “Nibbies“. The British Book Awards will not only be given to the overall book of the year, but also to the agents and players in the field. Authors and books such as Dava Sobel’s Longitude, the first Harry Potter novel, Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding, Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall or Jamie Oliver’s 5 Ingredients are all on the list for the overall book of the past 30 years. In terms of sales, it ought either to be a cookery book or a children’s book (Axel Scheffler and Julia Donaldson are in the running with The Gruffalo’s Child). If it is trend-setting, then perhaps Helen Fielding, JK Rowling, or Zadie Smith or Monica Ali ought to reach the highest accolade. The winner will be announced in May, probably without a live audience for the ceremony. Readers are allowed to vote or suggest wildcards, too, on Twitter at 30from30 or via email to the Bookseller. We will report in May…

A further look back – a bit more than 30 years, 45 to be exact – at a highly successful and fascinating enterprise can be found in the memoirs of Virago, the feminist publisher, which made its way through publishing which was dominated so much by men and books by male writers that younger women today would think they were on Mars. That has changed, publishing is an industry with a strong female contingent today – although most of the top positions are not occupied by women and even if they are women, they tend to be white and middle-class. Lennie Goodings has just published a memoir and history of Virago Press, which is now an imprint with the Hachette Group, after various stages in between: A Bite of the Apple (2020). In it she tells of the fights and the idealism and how, although the women around founder Carmen Calill decided to set up a traditional hierarchical business model, they kept hold of – and still hold dear – their idealistic outlook. Virago is still committed to publishing outstanding books by women:

Sometimes we publish to entertain, sometimes we publish to give readers the sheer pleasure of beautiful writing, sometimes we publish to change the world. (quote from Virago website link: last access 27 April 2020)

I must admit, however, that I found Virago books more trailblazing when the publisher was still independent but their classics list remains unrivalled and a go-to choice if one wants to find out about women writers in the recent and not quite so recent past.

(Women in ) Translation and Translators

Another job often taken up by women is translation, as the Women in Translation movement as well as the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation recognise (link to the organisation which also runs the prize last access 24 April 2020) Although their recognition has risen during the past decade, and there is even a day that honours the work translators do every year – International Translators Day, celebrated on 30 September – , the pay does not match either their importance, nor their skills. As Gabriele Leupold explains in an interview in Süddeutsche Zeitung (3 April 2020, 19), you need to be really organised, you need to have a private income or a day job, or a rich partner in order to survive as a translator. And although the pay rate is higher in the UK (as translator Katy Derbyshire informed us via Twitter), the lack of material recognition applies to both countries:

Depending on the genre and the level of difficulty, 20 to 27 Euro per page, with 30 lines and up to 60 characters. Mostly, the pay is way below that. […] I corresponded for months with literary scholars and linguists, in order to comprehend the different levels of the novel [Andrej Platonow’s experimental novel The Foundation Pit]. I barely managed a page per day. I consulted non-fiction works on Soviet history, I tested my German version with colleagues and readers – all of that easily amounts to a year of work. There is a marked mis-match between the qualification needed and the creative and professional input by the fiction translator on the one hand, and the fees on the other.

It takes years of academic education, experience, and excellent networking skills to become a good literary translator as you will have to immerse yourself not only in another language, but in another culture, and you need contacts in that culture and constant awareness of linguistic, social, cultural, and political change in order to match the original author’s style.

a pile of dictionaries

The translator’s tools of trade

But it is also an exciting mediator’s job, as Katy Derbyshire explains, the Berlin-based translator from German who was supposed to be this year’s London Bookfair Translator of the Fair, only the second translator to be elected to this role. She emphasises the rewarding relationship with her authors during the translation process and subsequent events, and the possibilities of translated fiction opening up the minds of readers to other parts of the world (The Bookseller 13 March 2020, 39-40; see her article on (German) women writers in translation here, link to interview: (last access 24 April 2020)

One just wishes publishers would pay translators better for taking on this vital role.

Hilary Mantel, The Mirror and the Light

And it is not as if publishers didn’t make money, Corona and cancelled book fairs or not. Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy is a case in point. Not only has she got a strong back-list, she has written two Booker-winning novels, readers have waited with baited breath for the third and final instalment of the trilogy set during the reign of Henry VIII – The Mirror and the Light – and new readers will surely turn to the first two volumes Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, so lots of money for the publishers coming in – and why not for the translators, too, as Mantel sells well in other languages?

a colour portrait of writer Hilary Mantel in 2013

Hilary Mantel in 2013
CCBy NC-ND 2.0
T Marjorie

I haven’t read more than a third of the last part of the series and am not quite as enchanted as with the first two volumes, but this is certainly high-class fiction which takes you back to early modern England and Europe with all its sensory, political, religious, and legal aspects included. If you belong to the people who have more time, rather than less, because of Corona (I don’t unfortunately), then this is an excellent book to turn to: long, entertaining, fascinating, superbly written, and set in the past – escapism and art on 883 pages.

And do remember to support your local bookshop when buying it…









Hilary Mantel, The Mirror and the Light, London: 4th Estate (HarperCollins) 2020

Hauke Hückstädt (ed.). Lies! Das Buch. Literatur in einfacher Sprache, Munich: Piper 2020

Link to Egmont’s research-based petition to change the National Curriculum to include statutory daily storytime in schools (last access 24 April 2020)