This week, I finished the first draft of what I hope will be my next novel. Normally when this happens, I treat myself to coffee and cake at Steep Street Coffee House, a delightful, book-lined café on the Old High Street.
With the country under lockdown as a result of Covid-19, however, this time I had to content myself with a cup of tea and a piece of homemade millionaire’s shortbread at the kitchen table.
This wasn’t the only thing that was different about the experience. Finishing a book draft is odd. On one hand, it feels like a big achievement – the culmination of months of effort. But it brings plenty of doubts with it too: you wonder if the novel will turn out to be any good when you return to edit it; you needle yourself with the possibility that no-one will want to publish it or, if they do, that readers will hate or, even worse, ignore it.
Never before, however, has it occurred to me to ask myself whether the publishing industry itself will still exist by the time my book is ready to sell. But this week, this thought has been playing on my mind.
When the coronavirus crisis began to hit the UK a few weeks back, it was clear that, along with many lives, the economy would be one of its casualties. There would be job losses and a slowing of growth that would probably lead to a recession; already, the Bank of England has cut interest rates to their lowest ever level.
The book world responded with its characteristic mix of wit and ingenuity. There were chipper tweets from literary agents claiming that, now they had no meetings and were working from home, it was a great time to submit manuscripts. Meanwhile, several generous organisations clubbed together to offer £330,000-worth of emergency grants for authors who would face hardship as a result of losing work and income during the pandemic.
The message seemed to be that we’d get through this. And we’d publish even more wonderful books on the other side.
In the short-term, the evidence seemed to support this idea. As lockdown approached and people faced the prospect of weeks at home, book-buying boomed. British bookshop chain Waterstones, which came under fire for keeping its stores open after initial restrictions were introduced, reported that its online sales were up 400 per cent, with readers focusing particularly on lengthy classics, including such quarantine-appropriate titles as One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera.
All the same, I can’t help feeling this initial surge of optimism will not turn out to be the full story. The truth is that the publishing industry was hardly in great shape before this crisis came along. Although audiobooks have experienced a boom in recent years and print sales rose modestly for the five years to 2018, traditional publishers have long been squeezed. With the rise of self-publishing and platforms such as Unbound, as well as competition from TV box sets and other forms of increasingly slick and accessible entertainment, there simply wasn’t the money flowing in that publishers in previous decades had enjoyed.
As a writer, this was obvious everywhere you looked. You saw it in small shifts, such as the fact that most authors now have to bear the cost of book launches if they choose to have them, through to long-term business decisions that mean it is now extremely rare for most mainstream publishers to invest in writers’ careers and retain authors with anything other than stellar sales for more than a couple of books. This situation hardly seems likely to improve in the economic slowdown ahead.
What’s more, I’m not sure that the Covid-19 pandemic will do much to increase the appetite for new, adventurous work. When you look at the titles that boomed in the pre-lockdown splurge, the pattern is clear: people were seeking comfort reads, tried-and-tested classics, and those contemporary big-hitters that had been stamped with the seal of approval by an award panel. They were already contending with enough uncertainty without taking a risk on a book as well.
Still, as someone who has witnessed the transformative power of storytelling – not least through my life-changing quest to read a book from every country – I have to believe that good work will out. We humans have always shared narratives, and used stories to organise and understand our experiences. And in the years ahead we may need that more than ever.
Trends come and go. Companies rise and fall. It is likely that there are tricky years ahead. But it may also be that, when the dust settles, this crisis forces the reimagining of some of the rather creaky processes by which we bring books out into the world.
I can’t control any of that, however. I’m just a writer. And so I’ll focus on what I can do. I’ll eat my cake and drink my tea, and I’ll do my research, and in a few weeks’ time, I’ll return to my first draft and try to make it the best book it can be.