The Guardian view on a book glut: to the victor go the spoils? | Editorial

Many publishers are enjoying record sales – but not all. We must take care that those with the biggest names and deepest pockets are not the only beneficiaries

As the weather turns and the days shorten, as trees bend low with fruit and blackberries darken the hedges, bookshops are bracing for a bumper crop of their own. September and October are always rich, but this year is exceptional: nearly 600 books will reportedly be published in the UK on 3 September alone.

About 55% of these books are academic and professional, and will not enter a bookshop at all. But 20% more trade books will be published than on the same date last year – a rise replicated on nearly every weekend of the autumn, while Super Thursday the following month is predicted to see a 50% increase.

Partly this is because of lockdown, when most publishers moved spring books into the autumn lists or next year. But it is also because, in direct defiance of gloomy predictions about the death of the book, numbers have been rising by 5% every year of the last decade, not counting the explosion in self-published works. Sales have kept pace: last year was the strongest in the history of publishing. And 2020, against all odds, seems already to have beaten it – sales of hardbacks are, so far, 23% greater than last year’s. The sense of relief is palpable.

Behind the shiny stacks, however, there is a different and concurrent story. The main sellers since lockdown have been the big names, the “bankers” everyone already knows about (JK Rowling, David Walliams, Margaret Atwood, Hilary Mantel, et al), and the main beneficiaries have been the big multinationals – sales are up at Bloomsbury, for instance, by 28%. Small presses have struggled to survive, while lesser known and new authors have been published with little fanfare. Shopping for books on Amazon or in the supermarkets (where publishers pay for display space, an advantage independents can ill afford) simply does not allow for the serendipity of stumbling on an author one hasn’t read before. Bookshops in big city centres are still seeing low footfall and are wary of taking risks.

The books business can sometimes feel like fast fashion – pile ’em high, move ’em along a couple of weeks later to make space for the next new thing. This speed is inimical to the way in which books are actually read, and to the slow and unpredictable ways in which a culture is actually enriched. And in such a publishing climate, the window for making an impact already feels small. This autumn’s harvest, full of household names – from Martin Amis to Ant and Dec, Mariah Carey to David Attenborough, Jilly Cooper to Arsène Wenger – has the potential to narrow it even further.

There is much to celebrate, not least the fact that publishers are belatedly rushing to sign books by writers from marginalised backgrounds. But we must also be very careful that a coronavirus effect – which has led to the exacerbation of pre-existing inequalities in everything from education to death rates, home ownership to the stock market, women’s rights to race and class relations – does not apply to this sector too. “A book is a version of the world,” noted Salman Rushdie. We cannot be complacent about what that version is.

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Editorial

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