After two unprecedented years of growth during the pandemic, the book business is coming back to Earth, HarperCollins CEO Brian Murray told a standing room crowd on the opening day of the 2023 London Book Fair. But despite a host of challenges, Murray sounded an optimistic note, saying there were “positive signs out there” for the industry.

“I often refer to it as if we had a pandemic party in the industry and at the end of 2022 was the hangover,” Murray said. “And we're just getting through the hangover now.”

Asked by industry veteran David Roche what keeps him awake at night, Murray spoke of softening consumer spending patterns on books and “unprecedented generational inflation rates,” the effects of are rippling through the entire business, from the supply chain to retail. He also spoke of the leadership challenges stemming from the pandemic, which he called “a shock to the system” that is still being felt.

Another shock to HCs' system came in the form of a strike, which saw some 250 unionized workers on the picket line for three months before a new contract was ratified in February. When asked what lessons the strike held for the industry, Murray spoke in general terms about the importance of communication.

"We're very happy that it's behind us. You know, we strive to have great relationships with all of our employees and in the unions," Murray said. "The only advice, I would say, it's not specific to any particular union or country, it's just how important communication is. Communicating with your employees and having employees communicate to their managers and to the senior management, and communicating when you're hiring staff and bringing people."

While Murray praised how HC employees rose to the challenge of the pandemic, he also said that remote work is "not sustainable in the long term" for creative businesses, citing Bob Iger's recent decision at Disney to require workers to be back in the office four days per week. "I think some publishers are starting to move in that direction."

Meanwhile, with sales still falling in comparison to the last two years, Murray said there was no sense of alarm, acknowledging that sales are still settling in well above 2019 pre-pandemic levels. “I think we've sort of stabilized, the industry has stabilized, and I would expect traditional growth now going forward, you know, two or three percent,” he said. “But we had an unbelievable ride. I don't think any of us have ever seen such growth, 10% to 20%. That's unprecedented in the industry. So, we just have to enjoy that ,and now we're going back to growth rates that are more typical for our business.”

I don't think any of us have ever seen such growth, 10% to 20%. That's unprecedented in the industry. So, we just have to enjoy that ,and now we're going back to growth rates that are more typical for our business.

In terms of the future, Murray spoke of how the industry is beginning to wrestle with the challenge posed by generative AI, which he called "scary" and "fascinating" and, ultimately, unpredictable.

"I don't know what it means. I don't know who controls it. You don't know what the provenance is for the content that comes out of those machines. It's just such a new world and it is so early right now I can't predict how it's going to impact our business," Murray said. "But we know that it's going to be important and it's going to have a major impact on our industry over the next three to five years. And so I think a lot of a lot of us are trying to figure out how and to make sure we employ it an ethical moral way that that helps us serve authors and provide professional services to authors and doesn't compete with authors and storytelling. And that's, I think, a challenge. Not so much maybe for all the publishers that are here, but I guarantee you there are a lot of little tech teams around the world that might be coming after our business. They're not publishers, they're not editors. They're the technologists and they see an opportunity."

In a more newsworthy moment, Murray told Roche that the door was not closed on a potential acquisition of Simon & Schuster, despite many in the industry believing that U.S. Judge Florence Pan’s searing decision to block Penguin Random House’s acquisition all but ended that pursuit.

“Towards the end of her ruling [Judge Pan] intimated that she knows it could very likely be another publisher trying to acquire Simon & Schuster. So to me that was a sign that the door is open. But it's definitely harder. The bar is higher," Murray said. "The door’s not closed. But there's a whole new set of data that would have to be collected, for anybody who asked for another publisher. I think it would take time to get a deal closed. But it's not impossible.”

Spotlight on Ukraine

Prior to Murray’s address, Olena Zalenska, the first lady of Ukraine, and Oleksandr Tkachenko, culture minister of Ukraine, offered a video taped messages to open the fair, where Ukraine is the spotlight country. Zalenska evoked Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451 in noting that the war in Ukraine has seen books burn, while Tkachenko underscored that Russia has actively attacked cultural institutions and publishing houses, destroying 528 libraries.

Books are seen by both as a means of fighting the war. “Books are our witnesses,” said Zalenska, “they feel what we feel.” She said that they have been “changed by the war,” and there is now more of a focus on nonfiction that documents the events of the day. Tkachenko said that interest in Ukrainian books around the world has been growing and demand for rights has doubled in the past year. In addition, the ministry of culture has set forth a plan to support the book publishing ecosystem through 2032 and is dedicating money to support publishing.

The U.K., in particular, has been supportive of Ukraine, with DK hiring editors from Ranok, a large publishing house in Kharkiv, to work on six books related to Ukraine, while Scholastic has also launched a dedicated program publishing books in Ukrainian for refugee children.

Both Zalenska and Tkachenko offered their hope that the support of publishing and the culture industries around the world can expedite an end to the war. “We want you to read about this war in history books and not watch it on the news,” Zalenska said. She added, “Join us in making the world better with the help of books.”

Protests Greet Arrest of French Publisher

In an upsetting action prior to the start of the fair, Ernest Moret, foreign rights manager for the French publisher Editions La Fabrique, was detained by U.K. police on arriving at St. Pancras Station from Paris. He was stopped under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000 and detained for questioning without a lawyer present, allegedly to determine whether he was engaged in terrorist acts or in possession of material for use in terrorism, according to a joint press release from Editions La Fabrique and Verso Books, on Tuesday morning. Moret was traveling with the author Alain Damasio, a well-known French science fiction writer, and had planned to attend meetings at the fair before returning to France on Friday.

The police claimed that Moret had participated in demonstrations in France, presumably that threatened the authorities, as a justification for the initial detention. How this justifies detention in the U.K. is unclear. The detaining officers demanded that Moret surrender his phone and passwords. After he refused, Moret was formally arrested and accused of obstruction. As of Tuesday afternoon, he was still in police custody.

“We consider these actions to be outrageous and unjustifiable infringements of basic principles of the freedom of expression and an example of the abuse of anti-terrorism laws,” Éditions La Fabrique and Verso Books said in their release. “We consider that this assault on the freedom of expression of a publisher is yet another manifestation of the slide towards repressive and authoritarian measures taken by the current French government in the face of widespread popular discontent and protest. It is crucial for all defenders of basic democratic values to express in the strongest terms that we find this intolerable and outrageous.”