Brexit has loomed large over the last three London Book Fairs, the focus of numerous panels and programs. But during the 2019 event, the issue came to a stunning crescendo, with three consecutive votes in the U.K. Parliament over the course of the fair’s three days leaving the U.K.’s divorce from Europe in a state of chaos.
On Tuesday, March 12, the fair’s opening night, MPs overwhelmingly rejected Prime Minister Theresa May’s second proposed Brexit deal. That was followed by a vote on March 13 in which MPs ruled out leaving the E.U. without a new deal in place. And on March 14, MPs voted to seek a delay in leaving the E.U. Nearly three years after May invoked Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, the U.K. is scheduled to exit the E.U. on March 29, deal or no deal. But events this week have left the fate of Brexit uncertain and the U.K. in a political crisis.
Inside the halls of Olympia, authors and publishers voiced their concerns and frustrations, but many said the political uncertainty was not affecting business in a major way—at least not yet. Tom Weldon, CEO of Penguin Random House UK, said that Brexit is a “massive issue” for publishers in terms of supply chain and logistics issues, but not so much in terms of deal making. However, the uncertainty of Brexit has heightened concerns that U.K. publishers could lose some of their European export market, potentially prompting more agents to seek world English rights deals with American publishers. For U.K. houses at the 2019 fair, that meant looking to lock in contracts rather than waiting to finalize deals later.
In addition, French publisher Héloïse d’Ormesson, whose eponymous house is owned by Editis, suggested that the prospect of Brexit was in fact fueling interest in her books and translations. “It is as if the publishing community in the U.K., which is largely anti-Brexit, is worried that they will become intellectually disconnected from the Continent and are trying to mitigate this by committing to translating more books,” she said.
Largely, however, publishers said it was business as usual at the fair. Interviewed in the cacophonous International Rights Center, Jamie Hodder Williams, CEO of Hodder & Stoughton and John Murray, described the general mood of the fair as upbeat and busy. “The whole world is talking about Brexit, but it is not affecting business in here,” he said, pointing to Holly Miller’s The Sight of You, which sold for large sums in the U.S. and Germany.
Jade Robertson, international publishing director for Austin Macauley Publishers, neatly summed up the general feeling among many trade publishers at the fair: “As far as Brexit is concerned, we are going to deal with it when it actually happens,” she said.
Authors speaking at the London Book Fair were less sanguine. Following an appearance at the fair’s popular new Podcast Stage, Booker Prize–winning author Ian McEwan said the decision to leave the E.U. is “a national tragedy” and that his preference is simply to revoke Article 50—though he acknowledged that such a move is highly unlikely. “I think the Tories are going to look for a new leader, and the Labour Party is in a state,” he said. “So I’m feeling quite pessimistic.”
During a program titled “Contested Identities; Writing, Writers, and the Brexit Enigma,” journalist-turned-novelist James Meek and Caryl Phillips, author of A View of the Empire at Sunset, both criticized the decision to leave the E.U. Meek said he viewed Brexit as an intergenerational issue: “Somehow, global free markets were going to replace the empire, and Brexit is the same—the idea that we can swap the E.U. for some magical other place.”
Phillips agreed that the “folk memory” of a British empire was a significant factor driving Brexit supporters. Asked if he had a message for the 52% who voted to leave the E.U., his response was blunt: “Grow up.”
The chaos of Brexit notwithstanding, for a fourth straight year, publishers arrived in London against a backdrop of stability. “There are so many reasons to be excited about the book market in the U.K.,” said Jacks Thomas, director of the London Book Fair, citing another year of surging sales for audio, growth in nonfiction, and a strong children’s market.
In a release just ahead of the fair, Neilsen Book UK said that the U.K. print market in 2018 grew 3% from the previous year. And like in the U.S., which also saw modest growth in print sales in 2018, that growth was led by political books.
For a second year in a row, digital audio was a hot topic at the fair, with a panel of publishers at a standing-room-only session on the fair’s opening morning suggesting that the growth of the format shows no sign of slowing down. “For the past six years, we’ve seen double-digit growth in both dollars and units,” said Michele Cobb, executive director of the U.S. Audio Publishers Association, adding that in 2017, dollar growth for audio outstripped unit growth for the first time.
In his opening keynote at Quantum, the fair’s preconference, Faber & Faber CEO Stephen Page celebrated the extended period of stability publishers are currently enjoying. And, citing the “chaos of Brexit” and “rising prejudice around the world,” Page urged publishers to pay attention not only to their individual bottom lines but also to the vital role that publishers collectively play in the cultural ecosystem.
“We need to have the courage to fight for the values we believe in: free speech, respect for ideas and intellectual life, for copyright, for the right of an artist to make a living, and for our local markets,” Page said. “Yes, there are new tools, new structures, and new opportunities, and they’re very important. But there are eternal truths, too.”