Brexit Arrives in the UK: Observations From the Field

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

Today’s separation from Europe for the UK market comes, at last, with little more certainty for publishing than its debate has offered—much like political dialogue in the United States.

At the Houses of Parliament in London one year ago today, January 31, 2019. Image – iStockphoto: Ben Gingell

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

The UK Leaves Europe
As we write—on the last day (January 31) in which the United Kingdom will be part of the European Union—we’re reminded how frequently such momentous events seem to actually arrive “not with a bang but with a whimper,” as Elliot might have it.

In March, when so many of us in world publishing convene for London Book Fair, the separation will at last be a reality and the transition of 2020 will be well underway. For several iterations of the trade show, of course, sessions on “what will Brexit mean?” have been strongly and nervously attended in the show’s Insight Seminars program.

Today in Whitehall, EU supporters have marched in a “fond farewell” demonstration and Brexiteers are at Parliament Square, with a major celebration timed for 9 p.m.

One highly respected author from London writes this week in a private publishing industry list, “Anger is the dominant emotion of the times. I’m stealing myself against Friday night here in the UK when we leave the EU. Dark days.”

The actual moment of separation is 11 p.m. GMT (6 p.m. ET).

Of course, news outlets are filled with anecdotal stories and video, many of the most poignant having to do with the comments of younger citizens who don’t see immigration and the alliance with the same suspicion that many of older generations seems to harbor. “I really believe that if 16- and 17-year-olds had a vote, that vote would be different,” a guileless, frank young man tells the BBC. “But it’s gone now. And we haven’t been listened to, because what’s been said about young people? Nothing.”

The political complexities of the reality—generational, yes, but also purely nationalistic for some and darkly isolationist for others—are as vexing as the cross-currents of intrigue and strategy in the US Senate where today the debate goes forward on whether to make new witnesses and documents part of the trial of the impeached Donald Trump.

In both of our major English-language publishing markets, little seems simple and complications are frequently a convenient hiding place for those who don’t have the courage to make the decisions they owe their constituents.

Even the John Bolton book, The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir (Simon & Schuster)—set to release on March 17—has become ensnared in a National Security Council review for classified content at the White House which, it now is known, has had the manuscript for weeks and had not informed even Republican defenders of the president.

At The New York Times, Maggie Haberman and Michael S. Schmidt today write that in the book, Bolton (Trump’s former national security adviser) recounts an Oval Office meeting in early May in which Trump directed Bolton to help pressure Ukraine to announce an investigation of his (Trump’s) political rival Joe Biden.

If the incident in the book is correctly described, the presence in that meeting of chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and White House counsel Pat Cipollone–now part of the defense in the Senate–shows the depth of the conspiratorial dynamic that many interpret to have been in sway.

Brexit, Film, and Television

Remain posters from the original June 2016 referendum on Brexit. Image – iStockphoto: Drimafilm

Meanwhile, at Variety, Tim Dams writes about the UK film and television industry’s prospects as Brexit’s reality arrives. “A large majority of the UK’s creative industries voted to stay within Europe,” Dams writes, “and have expressed sadness and regret that the country is leaving the bloc.”

Investment is on the minds of many, of course, writer Abi Morgan, who says, “I hope (the government) recognizes how important our industry is when you get Netflix and Amazon wanting to invest in the UK and build and develop studios. We need to incentivize them and ensure that can keep going.”

And the biggest issue for the screen industries, Dams says, has to do with visas and immigration. He quotes Neil Hatton, CEO of the UK Screen Alliance, estimating that “the financial impact of visa applications and salary increases to meet [a] new threshold for European VFX workers will be around £8 million (US$10.5 million) per year. These, he says, will likely have to be absorbed by business rather than passed on to customers, possibly resulting in fewer job hires and a reduced investment in technology for Britain’s Oscar-winning VFX sector.”

Brexit and Publishing

At a Brexit demonstration in September near Trafalgar Square in London. Image – iStockphoto: Berkozel

And at The Bookseller, the UK’s trade magazine of record, we find Philip Jones, the outlet’s editor, writing as usual with great sensitivity and clarity on the matter—and directly to the questions that now pervade the book business of the United Kingdom.

Philip Jones

“We may not know for decades the full damage the decision taken by the electorate will bring with it,” Jones writes.

“In the short term, it has instigated three years of political instability and economic insecurity; it has sowed division; robbed families of their peace of mind in the UK and abroad; and pushed the UK toward a likely fatal breakup of its own troubled union. More practically, it has made doing business tougher and—unhelpfully for the creative sectors—made our world a little less open, and our place within it a little less secure.”

He points out, “Three of the world’s four largest global trade publishers are European-owned, while the offices of our UK-based publishing businesses are filled with talented Europeans.”

Jones writes that an inarguable problem for British publishing is that the government has not adopted the EU’s copyright directive.

“The noisy reaction from the Society of Authors and the Authors’ Licensing & Collecting Society,” Jones writes, “and the more circumspect response from the Publishers Association, hint of the battles to come as vested interests figure out that the compromises which worked across 28 member states may no longer function as well for the newly divorced one.”

Favored access to the European markets for UK books in English also may now be challenged, and the United Kingdom is a market seriously dependent on its skill in selling abroad. We’re reminded that during Brexit discussions, the Publishers Association has estimated that exports accounted in 2017 for 60 percent of the British book industry’s revenues. Europe accounted for 36 percent of 2017’s exports’ value.

“Historically this trade has always leaned into Europe,” Jones writes.

“Whatever your philosophical leanings on Brexit and the public vote that led us here, there remains very little clarity over what comes next.”

On the River Thames. Image – iStockphoto: Aliandris Photography

More from Publishing Perspectives on the UK market is here, on Brexit is here, on the UK’s Publishers Association is here, and on political books is here

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.