Tagholm's take - the news in books at 17.2.17

Roger Tagholm
Opinion 17 February 2017

Roger Tagholm, in association with the London Book Fair, offers his take on the book trade news


One doesn't want to start with Donald Trump again, yet it's so hard not to. Whatever side of the fence you're on (should that be wall?), his election to the US presidency has certainly sent a shockwave through the industry and led to some extraordinary actions - some serious, suchas publishers offering to contribute to the cost of PEN membership for their staff because of concerns over freedom of speech, and some more comical, such as Simon Key at the north London indie the Big Green Bookshop tweeting the entire contents of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone to the TV presenter Piers Morgan, after he - deep breath because this goes on a bit - defended Trump on a US talk show which led to him being sworn at by Australian comic Jim Jeffries which led to a twitter row with JK Rowling because she said she loved him being sworn at, which led to him tweeting that he hadn't read a single word of her Hogwarts series, which led to Key deciding to tweet him the whole of the first novel (which, in case you're wondering, will take an estimated 32,500 tweets).

None of which would have happened if Trump hadn't been elected. Nor would there have been a candlelit vigil opposite the White House following the end of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference, at which Sarah Browning of organisers Split the Rock, the Washington-based radical poetry body, said: "This is a freedom of speech issue, a freedom of expression issue, this is a writers' issue." And nor would George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four be riding high in the charts, thanks to all those "alternative facts" being bandied about by White House staff giving it publicity and aided by some anonymous benefactors such as the person who bought 50 copies for staff to give away at Booksmith in San Fransisco - with similarly generous gestures taking place at other bookstores in California too.

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None of this would have happened without Trump. So it is almost with relief that one turns to industry news in other parts of the world (though we shall be back in the US soon for sure). The Taipei Book Fair has just concluded, with the age-old issue of fixed prices reared its head. Publishers have been concerned about the number of closures of independent bookshops on the island, and book sales in 2016 are estimated to have been down 25% on the previous year. Rex How of Locus Publishing commented: "The vibrancy and well-being of small bookstores are crucial to the longevity and survival of the publishing industry. [Fewer] outlets for distribution and sales means lower revenues for publishers - fixed prices to cap deep discounting is one way out…It is not the cure, but it will stop the bleeding."

But observers also point to the island's strict, examination-and-results-focused education system, which limits leisure time during which students might buy and read books for pleasure. This situation is mirrored in South Korea, where suicide among the young - because of the pressures of the education system - is a concern.

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Congratulations to Tony and Maureen Wheeler, founders of Lonely Planet, who have received the United Nations World Tourism Organisation's (UNWTO) Lifetime Achievement Award. The UNWTO recognises "responsible and sustainable tourism", and in its citation noted the "inspirational role that Lonely Planet [offered] worldwide to travellers, writers and the tourism sector in general… The work of Tony and Maureen Wheeler goes beyond Lonely Planet publications and has reached a wider scope through the Planet Wheeler Foundation [which] is currently involved in more than 50 projects in the developing world, principally in Southeast Asia and East Africa, with a focus on poverty alleviation."

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Congratulations in advance, too, to Brazilian publisher Luiz Schwarcz, of Companhia das Letras, who is to receive the London Book Fair Lifetime Achievement Award next month. In its 30-year history, Companhia das Letras has published 38 Nobel laureates, including Toni Morrison, Doris Lessing, José Saramago and JM Coetzee.

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To return where we came in, with author of the moment, George Orwell. While that north London indie is busy tweeting Harry Potter, the US indie Bookshop Santa Cruz is preparing to host on 2 March a live reading of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. The readathon begins at 10am and will see local authors, teachers and Trump critics give 20-minute readings until the text is finished.

But that's not until 2 March. Who knows what will have happened before then?

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