Gesa Stedman rounds up the news from the past winter months, with a report on the loss of revenue for the big publishers, successes for the independent alliance, the ongoing and in political terms, rather worrying, BookTok phenomenon, as well as news of prize winners, bestsellers and some hope for more intersectional diversity in the British book world.
Big 4/6, indies
While cost pressures are easing off, with energy prices falling again, it is an interesting trend that the Big 4/6 publishing houses such as Penguin Random House, Hachette or Simon & Schuster have seen a fall in revenue, whereas the independent publisher’s alliance has been doing comparatively well. They are at an all-time high, whereas the second-lowest total has been clocked up for the Big Six. Independent publishers’ success is matched by independent bookshops, which have seen five years of growth compared to a decade ago, when new shops were rare, and closures of independent bookshops common (The Bookseller 16/9/22 05). As editor Philip Jones writes in The Bookseller: “… bookselling has changed, as shops have eschewed the approach of the latter-day chains and adopted the strategies of the boutique or community-focused shop” (05).
Interestingly, graphic novels and adult fiction have been doing well, compared to a few years past when fiction was in the doldrums. One of the best-selling authors of all times is, of course, a children’s book author: Julia Donaldson who tops the “Bestselling 50 Authors”-list. While she also works with other illustrators, her best-known titles are illustrated by Alex Scheffler, an outspoken Brexit critic and joint inventor of The Gruffalo and other all-time-favourites.
Some publishers are seeing books flying off the shelves because of the ongoing BookTok phenomenon (50million GBP generated by BookTok in 2022, The Bookseller 4/11/22, 05). Word of mouth via social media seems to work very well for publishing at the moment. Influencers post their short snippets and followers flock to the shops to buy the titles. Some of which were first published on platforms, before being printed and sold as physical books. In other words: the printed book is doing well. Whether one finds this trend encouraging in terms of ideology and politics is another matter. For a while, cleaning manuals were all the rage. Now, it is YA fiction which is highly predictable and accordingly to my expert witnesses, based on cliché and also pretty heteronormative. I will leave the readers to judge this for themselves but hope I will be forgiven for not wanting to read the endless Colleen Hoover titles myself…
Interestingly, the recent strikes in the book industry found support by some BookTokers, which comes as a bit of a surprise, at least to me, as I hitherto had thought this as commercially-driven and unaware of the workings of the book industry. Something worth continuing to observe perhaps?
Genres and best sellers
Romance and sci-fi is particularly strong on BookTok, while celebrity memoirs took a slight down-turn last year but of course came back with a vengeance with Prince Harry’s “Spare”.
In an Anglophone context, cookery books are always up there, too, and in the past year and beyond BookTok, this has been focused on diet titles, and increasingly, on plant-based or vegan ones.
Interesting Prize Winners
The Goldsmith Prize for experimental fiction was awarded to
“Diego Garcia” by Natasha Soobramanien and Luke Williams
Ali Smith (Judge):
An extraordinary achievement, this single novel composed by two writers is both a paean to connectivity and a profound study of the tragedy of human disconnect. At its core is an excoriation of a set of specific colonial foulnesses and injustices: the forced depopulation of the Chagos Islands and their expedient use by the UK and the US as a military base and bargaining chip.
At its heart is an experiment with form that asks what fiction is, what art is for, and how, against the odds, to make visible, questionable and communal the structures, personal and political, of contemporary society, philosophy, lived history.
Link to prize website: https://www.gold.ac.uk/goldsmiths-prize/prize2022/ (last access 16/3/23)
This prize is always eagerly awaited in my house, and often the shortlisted titles are all bought and devoured. Last year’s winner was indeed something different: the prize was awarded to the Bangladeshi-Irish author Adiba Jaigirdar for “Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating”. It is a queer, happy story where no one dies, it rewrites a popular rom-com plot and lets the two protagonists have a happy ending (The Bookseller 26/8/22, 10-11). The other titles include dystopian fiction, sci-fi stories, school stories, love stories – and lots of BPoc authors from all kinds of backgrounds. There is a world out there which is different from BookTok after all…
The Polari Prize 2022
This is a prize for LGTB+ writers. The debut prize in 2022 was won by Adam Zmith for “A Deep Sniff. A History of Poppers and Queer Futures”, a work of non-fiction. The main prize was awarded to Joelle Taylor’s poetry collection “C+nto & Othered Poems” and the children’s and YA prize went to the picture book “Nen and the Lonely Fisherman” by Ian Eagleton and James Mayhew. Link to online source: https://publishingperspectives.com/2022/11/in-england-the-polari-prize-names-its-two-2022-winners/ (last access 16/3/23)
There is, as this shows, more to prizes than the Booker, the Women’s Prize or what was formerly known as the Costa Prize which all cater to mainstream and more of than not, middlebrow tastes…
Various other Bits & Bobs of News
The Oak Academy
The education sector is important for the British book trade. It is therefore not surprising that judicial review proceedings have been instigated by the Society of Authors and the Publishers Association, in conjunction with the Educational Suppliers Association. They are requesting a review of just procedure as the Department of Education has set up a new kind of institution, the Oak National Academy, which provides free curriculum resources to schools (The Bookseller, 2/12/2022, 13). The three bodies questioning this fear that only one set of approved resources will be available to people working in the education sector. I also find it interesting to look at the name, the leadership team and the agenda of the arms-length-body. First of all, they are all white. Secondly, many of the people in leading roles have a tech background, are journalists, or administrators which I found very odd. Thirdly, certain subjects are “no longer available” for certain years, including English literature and the arts. For those years where one finds material, e.g. for the arts, it is “media design” or “digital media”. There seems to be a focus on tech and STEM subjects – although admittedly, physics is also currently unavailable for certain groups. From a brief browse of Oak Academy’s website, I can understand the concerns of the publishing world which would prefer to be able to provide educational content with a less Conservative, tech-oriented and Google supported outlook, and with a broader range of possibilities. Link to the organisation’s website: https://www.thenational.academy/about-us/who-we-are (last access 16/3/23) One will have to see how this evolves but the people managing Oak will perhaps be the ones who are responsible for the fact that “almost all A-Level drama texts” are by white playwrights (The Bookseller 25/11/22, 22-23).
To Twitter or Not To Twitter
Canongate moves to Mastodon with an account for other independent publishers while the big conglomerates are biding their time (The Bookseller, 2/12/2022, 13). I wish all organisations, including my own, would move away from Twitter whose owner Elon Musk I would prefer not to support in any way whatseover.
Monocultural Book Worlds I
Gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class: all pay gaps have increased with Penguin Random House. This is alleged to stem from short-term hiring of underrepresented staff in early career roles. One wonders… (The Bookseller 2/12/2022, 12)
Book design is also very mono-cultural and in order to diversify it, there has been a launch of a design and inclusivity initiative with a new mentoring programme to encourage more designers and creatives from underrepresented groups to consider a career in the book world. This comes at a time when the visual representation of minority groups in children’s books has risen perceptively (The Bookseller 25/11/22, 22) – it therefore seems a timely moment to diversify access to the publication and production of such books for designers and artists (for more details see The Bookseller 9/7/22, 42-43).
Monocultural Book Worlds II: Class and Disability
As every good intersectionalist knows, there are multiple reasons for the publishing world being so mono-cultural, middle-class and predominantly white and Southern English. The Bookseller is trying to redress the balance by regularly having guest editors edit special issues, on disability, LGTB+, the Black Issue, and now one on class. If you want to find out how class, ethnicity, writing, reading, and discovering books intersect, there is no better book to read than Kit de Waal’s recent memoir “Without Warning and Only Sometimes”. It is both harrowing and moving, and explains much. If you work in the world of books or education and wonder whether there is any point to it, this book might alleviate your fears. It does matter and sometimes, one can make a difference as a book person or educator – and as a writer of course…
In line with similar intentions, the Booksellers and Publishers Associations and the Association of Authors’ Agents have set up a new scheme called OpenBooks to help people from underrepresented backgrounds find jobs in the publishing world. It is aimed at young people aged 14-19 years and inform them via online formats and videos how to access the world of publishing, agenting and bookselling. Accessibility is key, taking part doesn’t cost any money, and travelling is not required. The vast majority of people working in the book world are NOT working class, so this is a major barrier which needs to be overcome. I am not convinced OpenBooks will do the trick, as I found their website not very easy to navigate – and the people on the introductory webinar sounded pretty middle-class, although they weren’t all white, which was encouraging. Link to the online resources: https://www.publishers.org.uk/openbooks/ (last access 16/3/23).