It’s no secret around this parish that, despite occasionally unprofessional lefty leanings, I read the Financial Times. I have many, many reasons for doing this, none of them book-related, but given its business-oriented viewpoint, occasionally the FT will come up with a cracker of an article that neatly encapsulates the publishing industry in a fresh way.
A few weeks ago an article by Alex Clark called “How the financial crisis changed our reading habits” (behind paywall) did just that, asking the question: “beyond the business of making books what effect did the 2008 crash have on the books we actually read?”
The article then ran through a neat timeline of reading trends in the past decade, starting with the fantasy and modern takes on the quest story which dominated in 2009 from Stephenie Meyers, Dan Brown and Stieg Larsson.
Brown and Larsson could be said to have come from similar stables to the legal thrillers which had dominated pre-crisis, but Meyers’ Twilight series was to have the most lasting effect, marking a decided turn into the fantasy and YA fiction which would come to dominate the next 6 or 7 years.
Most commentators are of the opinion that when things go badly economically, we tend to seek solace in fantasy. Even I agree with that, because I’m only 97% contrarian. Also, misery memoirs went gangbusters in the last economic boom, so what does that tell you?
The article also pointed to the connection between Twilight and EL James’ thin reworking of its characters into the Fifty Shades trilogy. Fifty Shades was the result of both the internet-based fan fiction phenomenon which was enjoying its heyday around 2011 – 2013, and the post-crisis turn towards characters with obscene wealth, a trend which hadn’t been in vogue since the bonkbusters of the 1980s.
Around the same time, readers were eating up a different kind of fantasy. Dystopian smashes The Hunger Games and the Game of Thrones were to dominate both page and screen for years: other less fantastical, but still dystopian, books also found bestselling success, such as Dave Egger’s tech-horror The Circle and Lionel Shriver’s reverse US-Mexico immigration satire The Mandibles.
On the non-fantasy side, books dealing with the direct effects of the financial crisis were finally getting to market, both in fiction and non-fiction, where Big Think books explaining both the financial crisis and capitalism itself were starting to own the bestseller lists.
More recently, as political instability eats all the headlines and some of our will to live, we’ve seen a turn towards the ‘Up-Lit’ of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine and a noticeable trend in empowerment books such as Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls and Slay In Your Lane: The Black Girl Bible.
All this reads like a logical progression through the minds of readers struggling to deal with economic and political turmoil in the real world, even if we only realise it long after the fact. So now a different question remains: with Americans spinning political plates on one side, and the UK walking merrily into a Brexit fog on the other – what the hell does all this mean for publishing?
This is a question that even I won’t mess around with comically, because it’s too damned important. Also, I think anyone reading this blog as either a reader or a writer needs an answer. With that in mind, here are the questions I believe we should all be asking right now.
1. What will we be reading after Brexit?
Judging by what we read after the financial crisis, my guess is that we’ll be straight back into fantasy – but what type? Given the recent awakening of diversity demand in publishing, will we see more dystopian stories dealing with racism, sexism, radicalisation, or the demonisation of the poor? Or will the up-lit readers have been enjoying lately go two steps further and turn into a hard demand for utopian fiction? One thing’s for sure: the books we’re going to be reading after Brexit are being written as I type this.
2. What should writers be writing now, in light of Brexit?
See above. There are strong feelings out there about the issues at the top of today’s agenda. Most of these are currently political rather than economic, but they’re sure to turn economic in a post-Brexit world, a fact which writers will be aware of subconsciously at the very least. The headlines screaming on our screens today are slowly turning into the stories of tomorrow in writerly brains.
But if you want my take on it, my gut is telling me that the rise of global anxiety is creating a demand for truth and optimism, given the environment of fear and anger stoked by political upheaval, together with the stress and strain caused by social media and fake news. So my money’s on utopian fantasy, with trust, truth, love and community at its heart, despite the inevitable barriers.
3. Ireland and the UK are currently grouped as a single book market. Will this stay the same after Brexit, or will publishers have to open non-UK based European offices?
I don’t know the answer to this question. In finance, Brexit is top of the agenda every day. Newspapers also are filled with answers every day: this bank is moving operations to France; that insurance company is setting up a brand new office in Dublin; that hedge fund is going to move 100 staff to Amsterdam, etc. I can find nothing on what publishers or agents are doing.
I really, really want to know the answers to these questions. If any booksellers out there have anything to say I would really like to hear it.
4. What will it mean for writers outside the UK, now that the majority of their agents and publishers will be in a non-European market and legal jurisdiction?
I assume that those published authors based outside the UK who have publishers and agents inside the UK – i.e. most of them – have been had at least one professional conversation about this, but it’s a question worth asking for unpublished authors, too. If you’re an EU-based author writing in English, is it even worth submitting to agents in the UK anymore?
Again, sorry: I don’t know the answer to this. But just like banks are expected to explain to their customers and shareholders what’s going to happen after Brexit, it would be good to know this about publishing, too.
5. What does Brexit mean for the sales and distribution of English-speaking books after Brexit?
Again, for those of us buying books online, or buying books which are produced and distributed in the UK for other English language markets, Brexit is going to have an impact, and not through trade tariffs alone: but what impact? What’s going to happen with Amazon? Will book prices go up because of Brexit? Is there anybody out there? Anybody??
Now, see what happens when people write excellent news articles? They get me thinking, and asking questions. And just like Brexit, we all know that very little good can come of this…