What’s going to happen to publishing?

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.

Lockdown begins

Coast Folkestone © Kenny Milton Freeland on flickr.com

What a difference a day makes. Yesterday, in front of a television audience of some 27 million people, the prime minister announced that the UK was now on lockdown.

People would be allowed out once a day to exercise alone or with a member of their household and for food shopping. Public parks would be kept open, but all other non-essential shops, facilities and entertainments would be closed. People were urged to work from home where at all possible. Outdoor gatherings of more than two people were banned.

This morning, during my government-sanctioned run shortly after 7am, the change was palpable. The streets were much quieter and those people I did encounter (mostly other runners and dogwalkers) were generally careful about giving each other space. Several times along the sea front, I or the person approaching stepped off the path onto the shingle in order to maintain the minimum 2m distance judged necessary to prevent the transmission of Covid-19.

The experience was strange, but the atmosphere was oddly amicable and peaceful, with many people smiling in a comradely way and one regal old lady sitting on a wall issuing greetings to everyone who passed.

Later, I heard similar reports from friends, who told me that, although it was eerie seeing playgrounds empty, and shops and cafés shut on one of the first sunny days of the year, there was a sense of calm that has been sorely lacking lately. News footage from supermarkets that have been offering a one-in-one-out policy suggests that the tightening of restrictions has also done a lot to curb the panic buying that has been a problem since the beginning of the month.

It’s strange. If you had told me a month ago that the removal of many of my liberties would have improved my state of mind, I would have been appalled. But the truth is, it is a relief not to have to worry about what is and what is not acceptable. The restrictions have proved liberating in that they have supported people to protect themselves and done a lot to minimise risk. I no longer fear that a trip to buy food could require me to act like a weirdo in order to safeguard myself and others.

Freedom – at least for now – really is a state of mind.


Don’t mention the war

I live a short walk from Folkestone Harbour station. One of the world’s earliest international rail hubs, it played a key role in World War One, when some 10 million troops and auxiliary personnel passed through the town on their way to the frontline. Now closed and restored as a public park, it serves as a poignant reminder of the sacrifices of many young people for whom this turned out to be the last glimpse of home.

Much has changed in the hundred years since then. And yet I suspect some of the rhetoric that has been knocking around these past few days would be familiar to the ‘Your Country Needs You’ generation.

As the restrictions on movement have tightened as part of the efforts to limit the spread of Covid-19, we have heard many stirring injunctions about pulling together. On Thursday, the Queen issued a message urging the country to ‘work as one’. Meanwhile, the daily government briefings are studded with rousing exhortations about everyone doing their bit to send the virus packing, couched in precisely the sort of jingoistic, old-fashioned vocabulary that evokes rose-tinted images of British steeliness during the Great War and, later, the Blitz.

Of course, there are parallels. For the first time in most people’s memory, we are united in confronting a threat that could cost us our lives and loved ones, and shred the fabric of our society. Today, everyone faces the prospect that many of the things we have come to take for granted may never be the same again. How we respond will define our era.

© Kit Ballantyne

However, there is a danger in leaning too heavily on wartime rhetoric. For one thing, the stirring evocations of Blitz spirit are incomplete. We shouldn’t forget that while many demonstrated great courage and altruism during the wars, there were plenty of instances of callousness and selfishness (the plundering of the corpses of those killed in bombing raids, for example, was a known problem during the Blitz). You can only beguile people with two-dimensional representations for so long – sooner or later, they are liable to punch through the image and be outraged at the grubby complexity beyond.

In addition, such jingoistic references can legitimise some of the less noble aspects of wartime thinking. Already, I have seen and heard chilling comments about the need to stop considering individuals and to sacrifice the vulnerable in the interests of safeguarding the general population. ‘This will just clear away people who’ve had their time. You can’t look at it on a personal level. In the war, the government didn’t tell Coventry it was going to be bombed, did it?’ one writer reported having overheard a relative say.

Another problem with likening the Covid-19 pandemic to a world war is that it is not a perfect comparison. This is not a battle of ideologies, a struggle for political power or a fight against oppression. Our enemy is not a human force but a micro-organism.

What’s more – with the exception of medical staff and certain other key workers – the sacrifices that are being required of the general population are not active but passive. Instead of drafting us into new and dangerous callings, this crisis requires us to reduce what we do. To stay in. To lie low. To refrain from social contact. Active though the verbs carrying these instructions might be, there is little that can be done to disguise the fact that most of us are effectively being rendered redundant for the coming months.

Of course, there are things that people can do to use the time well. They can think of vulnerable neighbours. They can volunteer their services for online initiatives. They can read, blog(!), exercise, spend time with their families, and keep up with friends and colleagues (through one of the many of the video apps now experiencing a boom). They can learn new skills. They can even take part in a global art project to create a virtual coronaquilt.

For some, this time will be a welcome break from a punishing routine. For others, it may provide the impetus they need to make meaningful changes in their lives.

For many, however, the absence of occupation will weigh increasingly heavily as the weeks go by. I suspect it won’t be long before the rhetoric wears thin: dress it up how you like, there is very little heroic about killing time.

For a lot of people, the biggest challenge may turn out to be confronting not the virus but their own existence once a lot of the noise and busyness is stripped away. Perhaps the major war we will have to fight will turn out to be with ourselves.

Socially distanced children

Child walking alone © JosephB on flickr.com

And so it begins: schools closed; theatres and concert halls dark; pubs, bars, restaurants, cafes, gyms and leisure centres shut until further notice.

As a parent, my thoughts turn to how all this is going to affect children. I’m lucky: my daughter is still very young and relatively easily amused. Even so, I’m sure that weeks without much contact with other people will have an impact on her and take a toll on her development.

For older children, the challenge could be even greater. Much has been said about the effect that the closures and exam cancellations could have on the prospects of teenagers, as well as on vulnerable kids, for whom school may be the only refuge from neglect or abuse.

But there are also those who were never lucky enough to be in the  formal education system to consider. Recently, in my capacity as a fellow of the Royal Literary Fund, I’ve started running a story group at the Kent Refugee Action Network (KRAN) centre, a short walk from my house in Folkestone.

The teenagers I’ve been working with there all arrived in the UK without their parents, having fled horrors and, in many cases, spent months in camps like the notorious Calais Jungle. The three hours of Learning for Life sessions (of which my story group is a part) that KRAN provides for them four days a week are often the only regular activities to which these extremely vulnerable young people have access.

Despite this, the kids remain remarkably sparky, hopeful and enthusiastic. (The first session I ran for them focused on the story of Dick Whittington. At the end, I asked whether they, like Dick, had been disillusioned when they arrived in the UK and found the streets weren’t paved with gold, expecting that the sullen reality of this town – where racism and deprivation are rife – would have proved a disappointment. Not at all, they told me. The UK was everything they dreamed of. There was safety here, and law and order, and respect for human rights. They thought it was amazing.)

Now, with the centre closed for all but urgent casework, the KRAN young people have little to do but sit alone in their accommodation and wait. If I were a teenager, I don’t think I’d be able to put up with it for long.

Already, many people their age are defying the advice to stay home. Yesterday, just before the tighter restrictions kicked in, my other half went out to the shops. The centre of town was pretty deserted, he said, but there were groups of teenagers hanging around, looking bored. Possibly coincidentally, in the last couple of days, a window of a closed shop on the old high street has been smashed.

With nothing to do and few other people around, kids like these in small towns like this may find that social distancing permanently changes their behaviour and interpersonal codes in ways that we will all come to regret profoundly.

What restrictions mean


A murky day here on the south coast. From my writing-room window, the white cliffs look drab and unimpressed with the world. 

As well they might. It’s been a week of profound change in the UK: yesterday the prime minister announced that schools will close indefinitely from tomorrow afternoon as part of the efforts to combat the spread of coronavirus.

For some people, the immediate future has already altered drastically. In addition to the more than 100 families that have so far lost people to the disease, numerous freelance workers have had months of bookings cancelled. Some are facing extreme hardship. 

Meanwhile, many of those in permanent employment are living with the possibility of losing their jobs or being forced to take unpaid leave.

I am one of the lucky ones. As most of my work is either self-generated or home-based, things, so far, remain fairly normal for me. I continue to write my next novel, compose articles, mentor authors by phone and online, edit texts, answer emails and read as widely as I can. Were it not for the absence of meetings, speaking events and social engagements in my diary for the next two months, it would be possible to believe nothing has changed at all.

While my health and the restrictions allow, I’m still also able to get out to exercise. My usual running route along the seafront, early in the morning or in the middle of the day, rarely brings me into contact with many people.

Yesterday, however, I saw something that brought me up short. Running through the village of Sandgate at around 1pm, I glanced through the windows of a café.

The place was busy. Most of the tables were full of people drinking coffee or eating lunch, much as usual. 

I’m not about to get into the rights and wrongs of hospitality businesses staying open or of people patronising them. 

Nevertheless, the sight of the bustling eatery sparked an interesting reaction in me: surprise and uneasiness, mingled with a strange relief. If all these people were out and about, doing something as ordinary as ordering a sandwich in a café, I found myself thinking, things couldn’t be that bad.

I think I’d been holding onto something similar in regard to schools being open. If it was judged acceptable for children to gather in their hundreds, then the risk must not be too great. The decision yesterday shifted that for me.

It also made me wonder about the effect of rules and restrictions on the way we human beings think.

As mentioned above, my normal life is fairly cloistered. Much as I enjoy a lot of people’s company, self-isolation-lite is my default setting. If, however, I were a more outgoing person with a job that regularly brought me into contact with many others, I might easily have been lulled into continuing my patterns as normal by the fact that schools were operating on a business-as-usual basis.

Laws, rules and restrictions, it turns out, have implications for more than the specific issues for which they are designed to legislate. They make statements about the kind of society we are. They tell us what is reasonable. They provide templates that we automatically apply to other situations and use to justify our choices.