Publishing’s 9/11 as Seen from the UK

In Global Trade Talk by Edward Nawotka

UK publishing educator and journalist Kelvin Smith remembers September 11, 2001 and its effect on the book business, as experienced from abroad.

By Kelvin Smith

kelvin smith

Most of us remember where we were. I was in my office in Oxford, England; not publishing but working in a university teaching future publishers. Across my screen I was watching the snazzy new BBC news ticker (no longer available as of March 2011). I don’t remember the words, but I was aware that something had happened — perhaps a light plane had hit one of the towers. The first images appeared. I checked the US networks, and could see the story unfold directly over the internet on live ABC and CBS news reports (I can no longer access these easily).

I watched and remembered living in New York in the 1970s when the World Trade Center was establishing its role as a new symbol of the city (it was the time of the new King Kong); I proudly took visitors to the top; I ate at the restaurant there; I looked up at the twin towers from my home in St. Mark’s Place and on my daily walk across Washington Square to Varick Street. I cannot imagine New York without the towers, and I have not been back in these long ten years.

Hard to remember now, but in 2001 the internet was really only just starting to be our major source of news, information, and opinion. Publishers Weekly ran a daily email service that gave me a closer feel of what was going on in the Manhattan publishing world. Reading these emails each day was an act of homage to New York publishing, and 9/11 made this ritual even more vital and engaging. In the first two or three days of shock, there was news of bookstores and publishers closed or destroyed, information about book people missing, wounded or killed. Appeals for help were launched, and over the next few days and weeks, there were stories of benefits for survivors. Very soon industry efforts geared up to make sure that books continued to be available. PW started to analyze what was happening to the book business: sales of travel books slumped, sales of mystical, religious, and self-help titles grew dramatically, and everyone wanted the works of Nostradamus. Then there came the news of the specials: books of reminiscences, photos, instant analysis, political punditry, books on Islam, the Middle East and terrorism, books that would try to explain what was happening to kids.

A month later, the 2001 Frankfurt Book Fair was to have fewer US visitors, and security measures were introduced that we now all see as commonplace. In October, too, came the bombing of Afghanistan, then the increased war fever, homeland security, the PATRIOT Act, Guantanamo, the new inconveniences of modern air travel. After a brief period when books were identified by some as a potential force for reconciliation, writers from various parts of the world began to find it difficult to travel to the US; US publishers (including academic and STM publishers) were dissuaded from publishing works by nationals of some countries; and organizations like the American Booksellers Association and the American Library Association began to develop strategies to protect freedom of expression and the right to a private reading life. They boldly stood against the more draconian measures being introduced to accompany the “War on Terror”.

For several years I kept the daily emails from PW (about six months worth), and I wish I had them now. They were lost when the university computer and my email system changed. Perhaps there is an archive on paper somewhere, and probably there is someone who could find the files deep in an old PW computer — but I don’t know if anyone will bother now. Now that so many sources of information are no longer available to us, I wonder what I have forgotten about the way publishing reacted to the events of September 11, 2001 and what others have remembered.

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.