Tagholm's Take: the news in books at 18 April 2019

Roger Tagholm
News Thursday, 18 April 2019

Roger Tagholm, in association with the London Book Fair, on wage campaigns, high street openings, and other book world news


It is perhaps too early to call it a "Bookseller Spring", and Waterstone shop floor staff haven't been burning cars on Piccadilly and elsewhere in the country. But the strength of feeling about their pay among the entry level booksellers at Waterstones and beyond is evident. More than 9,000 staff have now signed a petition calling for the "real living wage", and more than 2,000 - including authors such as Kerry Hudson and David Nicholls - signed an open letter to Waterstones' MD James Daunt in support.

The campaign is beginning to be noticed elsewhere, and has led Blackwell's MD David Prescott to address the issue in a letter to staff. Daunt, who at heart is an independent bookseller, said he was "sympathetic" to the booksellers' cause, but added: "There is an equation to be had as to what is a sustainable level of profit for the business and whether it's wise to inflate the cost at the base rate at the moment when there is a lot of peril on the high street."

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Talking of high street peril, that is where what you might call another "Bookseller Spring" is taking place. According to research into the welfare of high streets by PricewaterhouseCooper, bookshops joined the top five among retail openings in 2018, alongside gyms, ice cream parlours, vaping and tobacco shops, and cake shops. They bucked the trend towards closures seen in other sectors.

There were 42 bookshop openings and 24 closures, leaving a positive figure of 18. But Booksellers Association MD Meryl Halls warned against complacency. "Booksellers are creative and deft, but they can't save high streets by themselves... We need government to recognise the enormous part high street retail plays in the culture and economy of the UK and act to support it, partly through business rates reform, which currently clearly unfairly favours online and out of town retail."

The same trend is apparent in the US. According to the American Booksellers Association (ABA), indie booksellers grew by 35% between 2009 and 2015, with sales rising by 5% over the past year. Indie booksellers in the US have worked hard to bring back increased discounts for new store openings. These dropped with the financial crash of 2008, but thanks to booksellers such as Robert Sindelar of Third Place Books in Seattle - now president of the ABA - they have returned, though he says that publishers may have to go even further.

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Diversity remains an issue on both sides of the Atlantic. Jasmine Richards, formerly with Oxford University Press UK, has set up Storymix to develop stories with Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) protagonists and to find emerging BAME writers and sell their ideas to publishers. While accepting that there has been some progress in BAME representation in teen books, she says that there is ground to make up in children's fiction. "I have a five-year-old and in five to eight, there isn't much out there. If children don't see themselves earlier in the reading journey, we will lose them to other media."

Similar points were made in New York at the Kweli Colour of Children's Literature Conference, produced by Kweli Journal, which publishes international writing. Hilda Eunice Burgos, author of Ana Maria Reyes Does Not Live in a Castle, said that because there was not enough BAME representation in children's literature, writers of colour and their books ended up carrying greater individual weight than would novels about white characters. Some authors felt under pressure from within their communities to create characters who were "outstanding and perfect", rather than just realistically human.

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Many congratulations to former Hachette UK CEO Tim Hely Hutchinson, who has become surely the only UK publishing figure to receive the Légion d'Honneur, France's highest civic honour, for services to Anglo-French relations. He received the honour from Hachette worldwide CEO Arnaud Nourry at the Insitut Francais in South Kensington. Nourry noted how Hely Hutchinson had helped Hachette Livre set up in the UK with its purchase of Hodder Headline from WH Smith in 2004, adding that this was a major step towards Hachette becoming "an international player - and a significant amount of that credit lies with Tim Hely Hutchinson".

In a special week for the popular and much respected publisher, Hely Hutchinson also opened the Hely Hutchinson Centre in Didcot, Hachette UK's new state-of-the-art distribution centre, which will, according to Hachette UK CEO David Shelley, eventually deliver "one in every two books distributed in the UK".

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