Tagholm's take - the week in books at 3.3.2017

Roger Tagholm
Opinion - Publishing Friday, 03 March 2017

Roger Tagholm, in association with the London Book Fair, offers his view of the book trade news


Ahead of the London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards on 14 March - when the Bookstore of the Year Award will be presented for the second time - the existence of physical bookshops, especially independent ones, and their role in communities, has perhaps never been more centre-stage.

Following Brexit and Trump, and related rows over Milos Yiannopoulous' book Dangerous, bookshops and booksellers in the UK, the US and even in Australia have found themselves at the heart of the debate about free speech and responsibility, curation as opposed to censorship, about what values and beliefs they uphold, and about what position booksellers play, or should play, in shaping society. And, needless to say, when a related row does erupt, social media makes a very local story go global.

The row between the novelist Susan Hill and the Book Hive Bookshop in Norwich is a good example. The author cancelled her appearance at the shop, because she felt the store was biased against President Trump. She wrote that she did not expect a bookshop "to have posters and a Twitter feed and a Facebook page telling me it is so against what the President of the United States stands for/believes/is/is doing that it is stocking only books devoted to those writers who oppose him too, and what is more, will give them away free".

On the latter point, the owner of the shop, Henry Layte, replied that when a local book group came to him having read about a bookshop in America "giving away free copies of certain titles they thought people should be reminded of in the light of the Trump administration's behaviour, they felt they would like to do the same. Not having a book shop of their own they asked me, and I happily obliged."

People have rightly raised two simple points. Just because a publisher receives a manuscript or a proposal, should it be published? Similarly, just because a bookseller is shown a title, should it take it? The Book Hive said it would not stock - or even order - Hitler's Mein Kampf. "In that case, I am expressing a political opinion through my business," said Layte, adding: "In fact, I am not sure that a shop like The Book Hive doesn't actually have a responsibility to stick its neck out over such matters, if for no other reason than because it is not answerable to a chain of command, because it can…"

***

In Australia, following the harassment some booksellers received after they said they would not stock Yiannopolous' book, Nathan Hollier of Monash University Press in Victoria noted: "Independent booksellers are increasingly seeing their role as, necessarily, an active, educative, political one… Though, as a publisher, I am committed to selling books, I also recognise that books as an industry do well in a society in which reasoned thought and considered discussion are properly valued. Booksellers, who were instrumental in the forming of the public sphere itself in the 18th century, have an increasingly important role again to play in this regard, as indeed do all institutions committed to the public sphere."

On the same score, the New York Times recently noted: "All over the country, independent bookstores have filled their windows and displays with Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell; It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis; and other books on politics, fascism, totalitarianism and social justice. Booksellers have begun calling the front table devoted to those titles the #Resist table."

***

The turbulent times in Europe and the US have unleashed a new energy, with publishers feeling they have an added responsibility in a world of "alternative facts", and booksellers a similar duty to publicly demonstrate where they stand. Not to forget librarians. American Library Assocation president Julie Todaro said: "The ALA believes that the struggle against racism, prejudice, stereotyping and discrimination is central to our mission. The ALA is committed to using its national platform for speaking up and speaking out for its members and constituents in these chaotic, unprecedented and challenging times."

***

Meanwhile, on a calmer note, back in Australia, a small coup for the online publishing platform Tablo, based in Richmond, Victoria. The relatively new company - it was set up in 2013 with backing from the people behind online general retailer CatchoftheDay and online wine shop Vinomofo - has appointed the former artistic director of the Sydney Writers Festival, Jemma Birrell, to be creative director. By a neat coincidence, Birrell was also once head of events at Shakespeare & Co in Paris - and that happens to be one of the stores shortlisted for Bookshop of the Year.

See you at the fair.

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