British Fiction Focus

The British SFF Book Trade on Brexit

Last Thursday, more than thirty million British people turned out to answer a critical question about the UK’s future. “Should we remain a member of the European Union?” was what the government wanted to know, and although Scotland answered in the affirmative—as indeed did large parts of London and Northern Ireland—overall, the numbers said no.

This has already led to a number of potentially great changes, quite apart from the eventual consequences of Brexit itself. Great Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron, a politician from the Conservative camp who campaigned to Remain, is soon to step down, the leader of the Labour party is under pressure to follow in his footsteps, and Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister, has said a second independence referendum is “highly likely.” In other words, the United Kingdom is united no more.

So where does that leave the British publishing industry and its literary luminaries? Let’s start the tally with the latter.

“We had a headache, so we shot our foot off. Now we can’t walk, and we still have the headache,” tweeted Philip Pullman, author of His Dark Materials and the forthcoming Book of Dust.

Also on Twitter, J. K. Rowling, whose play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is opening in London imminently, bid goodbye to the UK as we know it and, in response to a now deleted tweet, said “I don’t think I’ve ever wanted magic more.”

Former Children’s Laureate Malorie Blackman described the news as “bad” before apologising to “my daughter and her generation who will have to live with full impact of this result. Sorry, love.”

The author Robert Harris commented that it feels “as if I’m living in a bad dystopian political thriller,” a reaction repeated by Johnny Geller, the literary agent of the likes of Susanna Clarke and David Mitchell.

Meanwhile, Matt Haig, the mind behind The Humans and several other speculative texts, recast the result as a soccer score: “Hate 1, Love 0,” he tweeted, adding that “we’re now in a smaller, sadder, more divided, poorer, closed off, unpopular, less safe, less kind little land.”

Susan Hill, on the other hand—the author of The Woman in Black—voted Leave, and is clearly pleased, but even she characterised the difficulties now facing the book trade in Great Britain as “hugely challenging.”

“My colleagues and I are disappointed at the outcome of the EU referendum,” Hachette UK’s outspoken CEO Tim Hely Hutchinson has it. “We wanted a Remain vote for both cultural and economic reasons. The various uncertainties are likely to be bad for business but Hachette is a strong, international publisher and we will stay strong whatever happens. We are not planning any action until there is more clarity.”

The CEO of Penguin Random House, Tom Weldon, also nodded towards the need to remain calm.

“Whatever the headlines or immediate financial market response, it is worth bearing in mind that there is a two-year minimum period of negotiation before Britain will actually leave and during this time our country will still have to abide by EU law. This is uncharted territory and no-one knows what the full impact of this change will be—either positive or negative.”

Anthony Forbes Watson, the managing director of Pan Macmillan, was a mite more optimistic. “I’m disconcerted by the new reality, but remind myself that change can bring fresh perspectives and opportunities. I’m testing the old cliché about clouds, and am starting my search for that silver lining!”

I sincerely hope he finds it—that we all do, to be sure, over the course of the complicated months to come. That said, some already seem to seen the light at the end of the tunnel, such as agent to the stars Diane Banks, who is “hugely excited by the possibilities and relieved that the UK has rejected the insular, backward looking entity which is the EU.”

My own opinion, in the event that it isn’t already evident, is that the results of Thursday’s referendum represent a dark day for the UK. As Philip Pullman says, “Everything in Britain, including the book trade, will be worse off for this; I can’t see any good coming out of it at all.”

But who knows? History has proven me wrong before, and I’m sure it will again. Where Great Britain goes from here is, at this early stage, anyone’s guess. But I can’t help but suspect that whatever happens next, we’ll come out of this time of transition a less great Britain than we were.

Let me leave you with the words of Waterstones’ managing director James Daunt:

“We face deep uncertainty and will learn over the next months quite how challenging the retail environment may become. Personally, I will be turning off the radio and putting aside the paper to seek solace in a good book. The Essex Serpent looks excellent.”

Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative ScotsmanStrange Horizons, and Tor.com. He lives with about a bazillion books, his better half and a certain sleekit wee beastie in the central belt of bonnie Scotland.

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