No one could have known what we were heading into back in January. Yet the year that would have so much sadness in it began with sadness in the book industry with the death of Knopf editor-in-chief Sonny Mehta on 30 December, aged 77. After such a tumultuous year, it is fitting that the University of East Anglia announced two new scholarships for international writers fully funded by Gita Mehta in memory of her husband.
Let’s continue the look back. February saw the first news of something that would become common: The Ministry of Culture in Taiwan announced the postponement of the Taipei International Book Exhibition, saying “Taiwanese publishers have expressed their concerns about the coronavirus affecting readers’ attendance and participation.”
In March Waterstones and Blackwell’s announced they were closing all their stores. With frightening speed, the list of cancelled shows, events, author tours, launches and festivals became depressingly familiar. One of the very last parties to take place was the one to bestow The London Book Fair’s Lifetime Achievement Award on Bloomsbury founder Nigel Newton. Stefan von Holtzbrinck, CEO of the Holtzbrinck Publishing Group, gave a warm and very funny tribute, and Newton responded with some much needed positive words. “What of the future of publishing?”, he asked. “In my view it’s boundless, and we’re so lucky to be in an industry that is strengthened by every piece of competition, every threat that was meant to destroy us but in fact has made us stronger and stronger….”
In April, Barnes & Noble CEO James Daunt bowed to the inevitable and closed 400 of the 627-strong chain, saying: “This is a devastating situation in which to find ourselves and we understand the personal impacts of such action.” In France Hachette was among publishers to introduce measures to help booksellers, including extended payment deadlines, while the European and International Booksellers Federation described the closure of bookstores across Europe as “a threat to the financial sustainability of many businesses in the bookselling industry”.
May saw grimmer statistics around the world. In China, stats body OpenBook Beijing estimated that sales at superstore bookshops were down more than 60% between January and March. In Russia it was estimated that the book industry had lost more than $680m, with the majority of the decline coming from the closure of physical bookshops which account for around 80% of sales. The month also saw the death of Carolyn Reidy, president and CEO of Simon & Schuster.
June saw the collapse of wholesaler Bertrams, the death of the agent Felicity Bryan and a statement from the International Publishers Association (IPA) attacking President Trump’s attempts to prevent Simon & Schuster from publishing John Bolton’s The Room Where It Happened.
In July Harper magazine published a letter deploring the rise in ‘cancel culture’, signed by numerous writers, among them JK Rowling, Salman Rushdie and Margaret Attwood. As the trans debate continued it emerged that Penguin Random House had put together a guide for staff and managers to help people gender transition at work.
The Federation of European Publishers report on the Consequences of the Covid-19 Crisis on the Book Market, published in August, did not mince its words. “The impact on sales was immediate and dramatic…,” it said. “The chilling effect on demand was unmistakable: sales in bookstores dropped anywhere between 75% and 95% in most countries where a lockdown was in place.”
September saw the arrival to the UK trade of the US-owned Bookshop.org whose USP is the help it offers indie booksellers. It allows booksellers to create their own pages on the site and gives them 30% of the cover price on any sale that comes through their links. Some see it as the first significant defence against the onslaught of Amazon.
In October, opening the first virtual Frankfurt, the Israeli author David Grossman talked about ‘the great destruction’ of Covid-19 and the role of writers in this new world. “I imagine an invisible web woven by writers and poets around the world,” he said. “Together they are performing a vital act, a small repairing of ‘the great destruction’ – they are creating art.”
Three of the big five – and it was still five in early November – announced positive third quarter results. Hachette Book Group reported sales up by 19.2% in the quarter ended 30 September 2020 over the comparable period in 2019, with Hachette UK reporting a “stellar” quarter, with sales up 15.6%. And HarperCollins reported profits up 45% for the third quarter helped by the reopening of bookstores.
The end of November saw five become four, with Bertelsmann’s swoop on Simon & Schuster, while the IPA announced all female leadership for the first time in its 124-year history. Sheikha Bodour al Qasimi from Sharjah in the UAE, founder of Kalimat publishers, and Karine Pansa owner and Publishing Director at Girassol Brasil Edições in Sao Paulo, Brazil, are to become respectively President and Vice-President of the body from January.
December has seen the arrival of the vaccine – a Christmas present to the world – and on that positive note perhaps it is fitting to end with these words from the Booksellers Association’s MD Meryl Halls. Back in April she said: “We will return from this with a new appreciation for each other, for human endeavour, for writing, for community. There will be lots of hugging. Lots of tears. Some wine. Many parties. More hugging. A billion books sold. Bookshop doors thrown open, authors spilling onto the pavement. Laughter.”
Please forgive me a final word too. This is my last industry round-up for the time-being. I’ve enjoyed presenting these global overviews which I have written since 2013. But I’m taking a break for now, though I do hope to see you all on the other side in some shape or form before long. It just remains for me to wish you all a very Happy Christmas and a far, far more normal New Year.
Roger Tagholm writes our Snapshot of the Week.