There is sadness and anger at the collapse of Norwich wholesaler Bertrams. The sadness is felt by those in the industry who remember the company’s heyday in the Eighties and Nineties, and recall the ebullience of its chairman Kip Bertram and his indomitable mother, Elsie, who received the MBE for services to the book industry in 1987 and with whom Kip famously founded the company in a chicken shed (soon two chicken sheds he would add) in 1968.
The anger, understandably, comes from independent publishers, such as Little Toller and Galley Beggar Press, who are owed money by the company and feel communication could have been better in recent months. There is an irony here – Bertrams, for so long a family-owned company, was seen as the friend of independents. Perhaps all companies have their golden time, when they can seemingly do no wrong, and Bertrams certainly had that.
The Trump book rows follow a familiar pattern. First there are the ‘cease and desist’ letters from the President’s lawyers – also known as ‘cease and reprint’ letters, since that is their affect – and then there are the warning shots from the Department of Justice, which try to tie a book up in the pre-publication review process but which are like those circus clown guns which produce a little roll-down curtain with the word ‘Bang!’ on it. Because, as Jonathan Karp, CEO of Simon & Schuster – publisher of Ambassador John Bolton’s The Room Where It Happened – notes, the book was already public before publication on Tuesday this week, so the government would have had to take action against every bookshop, wholesaler, national chain, online seller and media organisation in the country.
Karp concluded: “The many public statements President Trump has made about the book further reinforce my belief that the Trump Administration’s actual objective is to shield the President from an unflattering portrait of his leadership and not to protect the national security interests of the United States.”
Simon & Schuster has once again received the support of the International Publishers Association, which also spoke out when similar threats were made to Henry Holt over Bob Woodward’s Fear in 2018. The IPA’s Secretary General, José Borghino said: “The United States of America is a bastion of free speech, a fact exemplified by the strong stance Simon & Schuster has taken against this pressure from President Trump. However, seeing the highest office in the USA attempt to silence an author and a publisher sends a frighteningly negative signal around the world. It reminds us that freedom of expression must never be taken for granted and must be defended whenever it is attacked.”
Ricochets from the Black Lives Matter protests continue to be felt. One of the world’s most famous independents, Tattered Cover in Denver, Colorado, was criticised for taking a neutral stance in a statement on its website. A grouping of writers and literary organisations wrote an open letter to the store expressing concern, and it resulted in a new statement from the shop which included a number of undertakings, among them ‘to carry and promote a wider diversity of books….to identify and feature more titles by black authors, and by all authors of colour and from all under-represented communities’.
In Italy, the president of the Italian Publishers Association Ricardo Franco Levi has warned that more than 75% of the country’s smaller presses may close by the end of the year because of the ongoing effects of the lockdown. He believes tax deductions for families for the purchase of books are now more necessary and says: “The governor of the Bank of Italy has raised the alarm on the growing poverty of the country, stressing that material deprivation will increase the cultural poverty of the younger generations, many younger citizens being forced to abandon their studies even before graduating—or perhaps never enrolling in university in the near-term years to come.”
In the Gulf, Sheikha Bodour Al Qasimi, founder and president of the Emirates Publishers Association (EPA) announced the launch of the ‘Emirates Publishers Emergency Fund’ to back publishers across the country who are severely impacted by the pandemic. The Dhs1m fund is a partnership between the EPA, the Sharjah Book Authority and Sharjah Publishing City free zone and aims to boost efforts to ensure the continuity of businesses affected.
Finally, much sadness too at the death of the agent Felicity Bryan at the age of 74. Baroness Gail Rebuck, chair of Penguin Random House UK, described her as “one of the greats”, while one of her first authors, Karen Armstrong, described her as both “a brilliant and canny agent” and “an extraordinary human being” with an ability “to enjoy life and live it to the full”.
Roger Tagholm writes our Snapshot of the Week.