London’s Sadiq Khan on the Climate: ‘Buy My Book’

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

London mayor Sadiq Khan pitches his book to the publishing industry, a potential ally in the UK’s response to the climate crisis.

The Publishers Association’s Dan Conway, left, with London Mayor Sadiq Kahn in a keynote conversation at London Book Fair, April 19. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Porter Anderson

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

Khan on the Deniers: ‘The Science Is Against Them’
The keynote appearance by Sadiq Khan at London Book Fair today (April 19) benefited from several dynamics, even if one of them was not the cramped seating of the 2023 fair’s Main Stage on first floor.

Most apparent, of course, is the fact that Khan has a book, Breathe: Tackling the Climate Emergency, set for a May 25 release (Penguin Random House UK/Hutchison Heinemann). And with sustainability—both social and climate-related—being a central theme of the fair this year, the fit obviously was a good one, between the forthcoming publication and complementary programing on ground floor at the new Sustainability Hub.

A second bit of helpful alignment is that the International Publishers Association (IPA), of course, is working with its publisher association-members on issues relative to the crisis:

And this was clear in introductory remarks from IPA president Karine Pansa.

Karine Pansa

“There are two ways that our sector can play its part in tackling the climate emergency,” Pansa told the packed Main Stage area. “The first is through the books we publish, exactly like this, sharing ideas, enabling debate. Publishers have been at the forefront of the ideas revolution for centuries, at least since Galileo and Luther. Just walking around the stands yesterday I could see so many examples of this.

“The second is the way we conduct ourselves as businesses. More and more, publishers and publishers’ associations are recognizing the urgency with which they need to engage in making our sector more sustainable. I must commend the Publishers Association here in the UK for its work in this area.”

And as it had happened, Pansa would be handing off to the Publishers Association’s CEO, Dan Conway, who had ably stepped into the onstage conversation with Khan, replacing the originally announced Kwame Kwei-Armah, artistic director of the Young Vic.

And Conway has been able this week to share with London Book Fair’s trade visitors the news of the United Kingdom’s record-breaking performance in 2022. Total sales for the UK publishing industry reached £6.9 billion (US$8.6 billion), up 4-percent from 2021 and with a total 669 million physical books were sold last year.

Having been a point of deep concern as Brexit jettisoned the UK into its strange nearby-but-dissonant orbit to Europe, the all-important export sector of the British market showed remarkable resilience in 2022. This is important because something around 60 percent of the revenues of this market are based in export: the country’s robust book business has less than half the population in its home market needed to support it on the high street.

Publishers Association, ‘A Year in Publishing’ 2022 summary graphic. Image: PA

Happily, exports were up a gratifying 8 percent in 2022, rising to a total £4.1 billion (US$5.1 billion), even as the association reported Monday (April 17), “We have seen a 1% decrease in the home market, which now totals £2.7 billion.”

As Conway had put it at the time these new figures were released, “The industry has shown strength in the face of what was a difficult year for many and has again proved the vital role it plays amongst the wider creative industries, as well as building the UK economy.”

Khan: ‘A Story of Hope’

So it was that Khan arrived Wednesday as power speaking to the truth that the UK’s publishing industry can be one of his most supportive assists in putting across the ambitious and in some ways controversial plan that City Hall is offering in the climate emergency that Khan has declared.

“If we were speaking 20 or 30 years ago,” Khan told his audience—so savvy to a book promotion and yet seriously shaken by the climate crisis—some people would be denying climate change. The climate change deniers no longer do that because they know the science is against them.”

His book, Khan said, “is a story of hope”—a note of upbeat regard that many in the climate science community are trying to adopt this spring, as the United Nations’ latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change drives home the fact that the emergency is much more imminent than had been believed. The IPCC’s new Synthesis Report: Climate Change 2023 puts it in the starkest possible terms:

“We are not on track to limit warming to 1.5 Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) or even 2.0 Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit),” the report tells us.

This, as Publishing Perspectives readers know, is what has driven the London Book Fair’s creation of its Sustainability Hub (sometimes “Lounge”) in association with its sister RX corporation Elsevier and its ace global director of sustainability, Rachel Martin. Sherri Aldis of the UN’s office for Western Europe in Brussels has been here much of the week, supporting the drive to raise sustainability to its necessary level of attention for a book business that’s likely more on top of the moment than are some other industries.

Asserting that the progress against toxicity on Central London is putting the city some three years ahead of the World Health Organization’s time tables, Khan’s task is to rev up one of the world’s most populous and complex capitals with the kind of exhortations that can seem tired at times but now become critical.

“If you can walk, walk,” he said to the gathered assembly. “If you can cycle, cycle. If you’ve used public transport, I’m grateful.”

Khan also has what seems this week to be a relatively clean wind at his back. The air quality in London has seemed good during the trade show in a mostly warm week with an uncharacteristically high level of sunshine.

But Khan, like so many—especially in publishing, which needs to contribute not only the nonfiction of accurate climate science but also inspirational fiction to play its role fully—really needs new talking points. He, and the book business, now need to search for new ways to describe the alarm and promulgate the response.

While repetition of the basics is clearly needed in a world that would prefer to ignore intensifying weather patterns and rising seas, it’s going to take the imagination of the most creative of our industries to explicate what even the most eloquent of mayors can say in a Wednesday morning book-tour chat.

Nevertheless, Khan—who on another day might have been working to block London City Airport from opening to Saturday afternoon flights (which could “undermine collective efforts to decarbonize”)—was ready when the London Book Fair produced the typical question from the audience of “but what can we do?”

Coolly and pleasantly, Khan shot back: “Buy my book.”

More from Publishing Perspectives on the climate crisis is here, more on London Book Fair is here, more on sustainability in the international publishing industry is here, more on the United Nations’ Sustainability Development Goals is here, more on the IPA and UN SDG Publishers Compact is here, and more on the United Kingdom’s publishing market 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.