Two similar, heartfelt calls concerning the role of publishers have come from podiums on either side of the Atlantic within days of each other. Speaking as Banned Books Week began in the US, Tina Jordan, vice-president, trade publishing at the Association of American Publishers, referred to publishers as ‘stewards of a democratic society’, and praised their role in encouraging “kids and young adults to explore worlds beyond their own and understand cultures, concepts they wouldn’t have otherwise”.
Here, a couple of days later, speaking at the Bookseller’s Children’s Conference in London, Hachette Children’s Group CEO Hilary Murray Hill, urged publishers to be “agents of social change” and noted that while publishing is a business, its product “has a wider social meaning”. She encouraged the audience of publishers and booksellers to “connect with children in the most meaningful way there is – in their imaginations and as part of their present and future emotional lives”.
This restating of publishers’ purpose has been a trend of recent years, as the industry has faced various onslaughts – from digital (what do we mean when we talk about ‘a book’?) to the various challenges posed by GAFMA (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple), except that now this multi-limbed creature should be called GAFMAN given the importance of Netflix.
More recently, against a backdrop of assaults on the media in some parts of the world and cries of “fake news”, and with the young constantly under pressure to live up to a social media ‘self’ and some of them pushing at questions of gender identity – a point raised by Murray Hill in her address – it could be argued that the permanence of books, their slower gestation, their more measured stance, makes them of increasing importance. There is a view that publishers have a greater responsibility in an increasingly complex and fractured world. The books they produce are calm refuges in a turbulent world – just as the bookshops and libraries in which they are found are too.
The slogan for Banned Books Week, which ends this weekend, is ‘Our Right to Read’. Among the books ‘challenged’ in 2016 – ‘challenged’ meaning an attempt was made to have the book removed from a curriculum or library – was John Green’s Looking for Alaska, surely one of the most widely stocked titles on both sides of the Atlantic.
Before freedom to read comes freedom to publish, of course. Today, (Friday, 29 September) at the Gothenburg Book Fair, the International Publishers Association (IPA) is due to present the 2017 IPA Prix Voltaire (formerly the Freedom to Publish Prize) to representatives of Turkish publisher Turhan Günay of Cumhuriyet Books and representatives of Turkish publishing house Evrensel.
The Freedom to Publish Committee chairman Kristenn Einarsson said: “The freedom to publish situation in Turkey is severely limited today, and we chose to recognize the immense courage of Turkish publishers who dare to keep working, despite huge risks. Turhan Günay is a book publisher, journalist and literary critic who has devoted his life to books and publishing, and he is paying a high price at the hands of a vengeful Turkish government.
“Evrensel, on the other hand, represents many publishing houses that have been closed on spurious grounds, leaving many hundreds of staff out of work and the Turkish book world greatly impoverished. Both are deserving recipients of the IPA Prix Voltaire, for both embody the determination to publish freely in a country where the authorities will apparently stop at nothing to silence them.”
The IPA is currently seeking nominations for next year’s prize. Someone may yet put forward Farid Zaharan, owner of the Al-Balad bookstore in Cairo which the Egyptian authorities have ordered to close. Zaharan is the president of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party and the owner of Al-Tariq newspaper, which was raided last October. Al-Balad acts as a cultural centre, and hosts lectures, debates and book signings.
On the other side of the world there’s another working bookseller who has made headlines with a book. First it was Fiona Mozley at the Little Apple bookshop in York, whose Elmet is on the Man Booker shortlist; now Jeremy Lachlan at Oscar and Friends in Sydney, Australia has signed a four-book deal with Hardie Grant Egmont. The first title, Jane Doe and the Cradle of All Worlds is due in August 2018. UK rights have been sold in a pre-empt with details to be announced shortly.
Finally, congratulations to Scholastic Chairman, president and CEO Dick Robinson who received the National Book Foundation’s Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community. Not sure that ‘literarian’ is a proper word – but that is to be contrarian (which is).
Roger Tagholm writes our Snapshot of the Week.