The day I feared since David Cameron stepped out the door of 10 Downing Street in May 2015 to declare victory for the Conservative Party came to pass in the early hours of June 24, when news spread that voters opted to take Britain out of the European Union, of which it had been a grouchy member for more than 40 years. “No man is an island,” John Donne wrote in his Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. “If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less.”
Around the world the dominoes have fallen. Between the announcement of the results on Friday and the following Monday, $2 trillion were wiped off global stock markets. How much worse will it become? Nobody knows. It’s now clear the British government made no contingency plans, and those who led the “Leave” campaign have not the foggiest idea how to proceed.
No doubt, there are a few people in the book world who voted to leave, but I don’t know who they are. We are a broad-minded bunch, generally speaking. Books make us so. When we land in Beijing, Bologna, Frankfurt, Guadalajara, or Sharjah, we feel part of an international community. So what does “Brexit” mean for publishing?
At the most basic level, uncertainty is always bad for business. Small British publishers—always conscious of cutting their cloth—will be cautious indeed. The multinational houses that dominate the industry will be modeling various scenarios. I hear that one has already put new projects and contracts on hold. And as with the 2008 recession, some will use Brexit as an excuse to rationalize, to put out to grass older and wiser, but more expensive, heads and hire younger, cheaper staff. (How must indebted British postgraduate students feel, their futures blighted?)
On both the high street and Amazon, sales of books (and much besides) in the U.K. will slump. Brexit will mean an increase in the cost of living. Inevitably, all that means at least a short-term cut in discretionary spending, as there was in 2008. Clearly that will have impact on British booksellers and publishers; lists will be trimmed—perhaps slashed—in response.
Publisher turnover will be further imperiled by the loss of European sales. After skirmishes a few years ago, it was broadly agreed that U.K. publishers should be able to acquire exclusive English-language rights for the entire E.U. market. But with Britain out of the E.U., Europe—including Ireland—becomes an open market, a battleground where the cheapest edition wins out. Academic and educational publishers will be able to continue to seek world English rights and possibly continue to obtain a full assignment of copyright, but trade publishers will not.
Moreover, U.K. trade publishers need Europe to give them scale; after all, their U.S. counterparts already have Latin America and sometimes Canada. The realignment will reduce the income of British authors for whom Europe is currently part of the home market so far as royalties are concerned. The situation could become desperate if—or when—Scotland gains independence in order to remain in the E.U.
Then there are E.U. copyright laws, which emanate in Brussels and are broadly harmonized across the union. There is currently a move to revisit the whole E.U. copyright regime, but that won’t be a priority now: Brussels has more urgent questions with which to grapple. Ultimately, U.K. copyright law will be rewritten.
Recent years have seen increased interest in translated fiction in Britain. However, much of the money that makes translations viable (remember, most translations come from small indies) originates in Brussels. The Ariane Project, for example, was set up in 1997 to offer assistance to European publishers for translation and to encourage cross-border cooperation and partnerships, as well as training to improve “the skills of professionals working towards the knowledge and dissemination of European literature,” important in those countries where publishing is not a mature industry.
And the plus side of Brexit? In the short term, advances and royalty checks arriving in dollars and euros will be worth so much more. Authors should make hay while the sun shines, but U.K. publishers will be counting the extra cost of print and shipping.
Me, I’ve applied for the Irish passport I’ve always been entitled to on account of my one Irish grandparent.
Liz Thomson is a journalist, broadcaster, and author who has spent 30 years chronicling the international book trade. Her current project, the Village Trip, is a series of live events celebrating the history of N.Y.C.’s Greenwich Village.