International Publishing and the UK’s Vote for Brexit

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

On a wrenching day, we learned that the UK voted to leave the European Union. Despite Brexit, the book publishing industry remains internationally engaged.
Westminster Bridge, London. Image - iStockphoto: Iakov Kalinin

Westminster Bridge, London. Image – iStockphoto: Iakov Kalinin

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘We’re Rather Scared’

“We know we have shot ourselves in both feet. And a lot of us didn’t want to. And we’re rather scared.”

“Already today I have seen the YA writer Malorie Blackman racially abused on Twitter for lamenting the nation’s choice.”Philip Jones

That’s what one member of the London publishing industry has said to me this morning, on waking to find that the Leave camp has been successful in the UK referendum about whether to stay in or leave the European Union.

Another colleague in southern England writes, “All my friends and publishing colleagues just simply can’t believe that this has happened. Or that we have somehow allowed it to happen. Our economy is in free fall, and our government in turmoil.”

Meanwhile, in the United States, the news about the United Kingdom’s harrowingly narrow vote to leave the European Union has implications only slowly becoming apparent to some. And there’s profound resonance for American voters, too, in what Mark Leibovich in The New York Times has called “a strong populist allergy to elitism within the GOP coalition” that has animated the Trump candidacy.

Literary Agent and rights specialist Ginger Clark with Curtis Brown (the US agency, not the London-based agency of the same name) has been trying on Twitter to encapsulate some ways that American publishing people might consider immediate effects.

Clark’s point is supported by another literary agent, Barry Goldblatt:

A much more comprehensive look at the uncertainties has been published by Michael Cader at Publishers Lunch. In Brexit, “Day One,” Cader writes:

Publishers Lunch“On the rights front in particular, you can expect that the issue of English-language rights for continental Europe will once again become contentious. A hot-button issue a decade ago, UK publishers had mostly prevailed in claiming the EU as their exclusive market — rather than leaving it as an open-market territory in which UK and US editions competed. At the time, UK publishers based their arguments on EU law, saying that in order to protect their exclusive rights within the UK, they had to have exclusivity throughout the EU. But when the UK leaves the EU, that argument will no longer apply.”

But, as Cader also notes, it’s “the British publishing industry itself” that’s taking this in the neck, and will have to swim the deepest channel of uncharted waters, those “toxic negotiations” with the European Union warned about last week by Pan MacMillan’s Anthony Forbes Watson.

I want to quote Cader at a bit more length than usual here because his musings on what’s coming are helpful in getting focused on the gravity of the moment:

“Already, the UK’s focus on the election had reduced consumer traffic at retail stores, and earlier in the month Waterstones’ chief executive James Daunt had warned employees in an email that leaving the EU would result in a ‘significant retail downturn’ that would ‘reverse much of the hard-won gain of the last few years.’…

“In addition to the prospect of lower ‘home market’ sales right now, UK publishers face the likelihood of rising costs on a number of fronts, albeit over time. Exporting books to EU countries may become more complicated and more expensive, even as a lower British pound reduces the price of exported goods (and/or makes sales in Euros, as well as Canadian and Australian dollars, worth more in pounds). But a significantly weaker currency could put also put UK publishers at competitive disadvantage: Their advances (and royalties) are worth less to trading partners, which could mean that UK publishers need to pay more to win new properties, or may not be able to buy rights as broadly as they would like.”

And on that British homefront, we see members of our industry and community working very hard to go—steady on—and not let the murk of what’s coming run away with them.

Simon & Schuster UK’s CEO Ian Chapman has provided Publishing Perspectives with this comment today:

Ian Chapman

Ian Chapman

“It will obviously take some time, both in the short and long term, for the exact implications of this referendum to become clear.

“However, we will continue today as we always have—collaborating closely with our talented authors, and working productively with all our partners, in the UK and internationally, to get Simon & Schuster books into the hands of readers everywhere.”

And at The Quarto Group, based in London, CEO Marcus Leaver (his name unavoidably ironic on this day, yes), says:

Marcus Leaver

Marcus Leaver

“This isn’t the outcome I was personally hoping for but it is now time to look forward in this new reality. While it is too early to understand fully the potential implications for businesses, Quarto is well-equipped to deal with any potential logistical, financial or legal fall-out. Our international outlook is part of our DNA and will not change.

“We have reached out to all our partners around the world to offer our support during this uncertain time as we focus resolutely on making and selling great books.”

The Heart of the Matter

While essential “stiff upper lip” clichés about our British associates and colleagues certainly pertain in this moment, there’s no mirth to them now.

One of the most poignant evocations of how this feels if you’re a Briton in publishing comes to us from Philip Jones, my former colleague as The Bookseller Editor, one of the best heads in the business. In Keep Calm And Expect Change, as he does so frequently, Jones gets below the business level on which most of our reactions must lie in times of such stunning reversals and touches on the emotional heart of what lies beneath this surprise outcome for so many of our friends and business partners:

Philip Jones

Philip Jones

“In truth, these today feel like trifles compared to the wider cultural and societal impact of this decision. The author Michael Rosen has told us that he is worried that “fascistic tendencies are on the march.” It is not hard to see why.

“UKIP [the United Kingdom Independent Party] has run a divisive and racist campaign, Vote Leave a mendacious one. There were good arguments to be made for exiting the European Union (and some were set out in The Bookseller, and in particular by agent Diane Banks), but these were simply drowned out by the Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson bandwagon.

“The ‘in’ side were little better: the Britain Stronger In Europe misread the mood of the nation, as did the British prime minister David Cameron who disgracefully put his party before the country. The politicians now need to heal themselves as they look to heal the nation. It won’t be easy. The rhetoric used by some campaigners is hard to undo: already today I have seen the YA writer Malorie Blackman racially abused on Twitter for lamenting the nation’s choice.”

The author J.K. Rowling had written earlier about some of the cultural currents:

J.K. Rowling

J.K. Rowling

“Nationalism is on the march across the Western world, feeding upon the terrors it seeks to inflame.

“Every nationalist will tell you that their nationalism is different, a natural, benign response to their country’s own particular needs and challenges, nothing to do with that nationalism of yore that ended up killing people, yet every academic study of nationalism has revealed the same key features. ‘Your country is the greatest in the world,’ the nationalist cries, ‘and anyone who isn’t chanting that is a traitor!…Now place your trust in our simplistic slogans and enjoy your rage aginst the Other!”

How Do We Talk About This?

Commercial partners, business associates, industry colleagues in publishing—as in other fields—find nothing easy about discussing these politically charged and fractious forces. When I wrote recently at Writer Unboxed, an authors’ site, about the difficulty of knowing how to handle one’s political and social opinions alongside one’s career work, the response was strong and in some cases anguished. “I feel muzzled,” wrote more than one respondent, in trying to separate the business of being an author with the realities of today’s political landscape.

Many pointed out that publishing, fortunately, is an industry that reflects in its very products the human impulses and emotional contexts that lie behind and under our geopolitical shifts, although it can’t necessarily take away shocks to the system.

“In addition to the prospect of lower ‘home market’ sales right now, UK publishers face the likelihood of rising costs on a number of fronts, albeit over time.”Michael Cader

If “stunned” is the adjective we keep hearing about the reaction to the news, there’s good reason for that, right at the core of the UK’s political elite: in an interview with former Prime Minister Tony Blair, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer today has heard one of the most telling confessions of how things went this way, as Blair talks of the Labour Party failing to mobilize its voters by explaining to them, “This was not a protest vote.”

“Brexit” was not a rehearsal, not a testing of the waters. It was and is the real thing, and—as The Bookseller’s own survey had shown, one that was not what nearly 80 percent of the UK’s publishing industry wanted to see.

As Blair put it, “We really thought it was impossible for us to take a decision like this” to pull that great nation out of the world’s largest collaborative marketplace. “The single market [of Europe] is where we sell half of our goods…We’re going to have to negotiate our way back into that.”

From the States, where many of us who work with Publishing Perspectives are based, there’s particular poignancy and concern here, not least because we have an abiding, sometimes quite charming sense of the UK as our progenitor nation. Often with warm and fuzzy forgetfulness about the warfare it took to break away in our colonial era, we’ve continued to see the United Kingdom not only as a diplomatic and economic ally but also as a nation of signal intelligence, of constancy, of decisions made on shared values and right-headed clarity. That’s too much to ask of any country, of course. But the heart doesn’t easily see the realities behind its hopes.

Some of the American reaction to the closing of the British door, it must also be said, is selfish. Brexit is a self-inflicted upheaval on the part of the UK’s electorate, at a time when our own country has spiraled into its own search for what Lawrence Summers today in the Washington Post is calling “responsible nationalism.” What is that? Summers writes:

“It is clear that there is a hunger on the part of electorates…for approaches to policy that privilege local interests and local people over more cosmopolitan concerns. Channeling this hunger constructively rather than destructively is the challenge for the next decade.”

Certainly at Publishing Perspectives, we are internationalists. That won’t be changing. Our mission is coverage of the international publishing industry.

But on such a wrenching day as this—”I’m ready to secede from Earth, a US colleague messages me—it’s reassuring that our first feature of the day was about the directors of a dozen nations’ publishing trade fairs meeting in Guadalajara to share their experiences and expectations. It’s good that translation is rising in popularity and profitability and that international rights trading is so robust in those trade fairs’ settings that Frankfurt could sell out its mighty rights center six months before it opens.

It’s a good day for digital, in an odd sense, isn’t it?—for its ability to keep us in touch and in business together, sharing who and what we are right across the anxiety and noise.

The diversity and sheer energy of the human spirit and nature is what publishing and books and literature are about, after all. And we cannot be turned from that reality.

A friend in the greater London area tells me that it was hard to know how to tell his kids about Brexit this morning. “Not sure what I’ll say to them tomorrow, either.”

In more ways than our stock markets can tell us, and in more worries than our pundits can spin, the international publishing industry is in this together, together with the UK, together with Europe, together with each other.


Deck chairs in summertime London's Green Park. Image - iStockphoto: Stuart Renneberg

Deck chairs in summertime London’s Green Park. Image – iStockphoto: Stuart Renneberg

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.