Tagholm's take - the week in books at 13 October 2017

Roger Tagholm
Opinion - Publishing Friday, 13 October 2017

Roger Tagholm, in association with the London Book Fair, on rallying calls at Frankfurt and other book trade news


There were rallying cries for the importance of books, bookshops and reading at the Frankfurt Book Fair this week. Opening the fair, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel said: "We [the German government] respect and treasure the book, as well as bookstores… which are places where people can build opinions, reach decisions, and receive advice. And therefore, a heartfelt thank you to everyone who works in a bookstore."

Heinrich Riethmuller, chairman of the German Publishers and Booksellers Association, spoke with passion about the importance of the book industry in troubled times. "It seems that wherever one looks, one sees a polarised social climate shaped by tensions and crises. In these challenging times, the book industry is called upon more than ever to make a stand. In the face of increasing social tensions, political uncertainty and fake news, publishers and bookstores function as guarantors of common understanding… For this reason, I ask you to permit me to send out a very clear message today… this is the book industry's hour."

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Like The London Book Fair, Frankfurt aims to be a forum for new ideas, a place where one might hear about the Next Big Thing. Whether "Blockchain" - a new word for many - will turn out to be one such remains to be seen, but as the fair begins to wrap up today (Friday, 13 October), Orna Ross, the founding director of the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), was due to speak at the International Independent Author programme, hosted by Publishing Perspectives.

Broadly speaking - and some of the concepts are hard to follow - Blockchain seeks to do for books what it has done for currency with Bitcoin. Alli believes it could be "the next disruption in publishing", heralding a new financial model for the industry that will include innovations such as "smart publishing contracts" that will use automation to "simultaneously represent ownership of an intellectual property and the conditions that come with ownership".

Ross says: "The Internet business model based on big tech extracting big data for free needs to radically change - and may be about to. At ALLi, we believe [Blockchain] presents an opportunity for authors who are willing and able to seize it. Could we possibly develop a creator-led financial model for the first time in recorded history?"

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Away from the Messe, there was a sense of the industry replicating what happens to cells under a microscope (stay with this please). We've all seen those globular circles join with others to make larger entities, which sometimes then split and a new circle slides away to begin another life.

The same has happened in publishing. In recent days, Octopus has bought the eponymous independent cookery publisher Kyle Cathie, the David Higham literary agency has acquired Gregory & Co, and Canongate has bought Severn House. Meanwhile, when it comes to a complete new life, the agent-come-bookseller-come-events director Susie Nicklin announced a new publisher, Indigo Books, and Dorling Kindersley decided to shrug off Rough Guides - which hasn't become an independent again, but has slid towards a new home with APA Guides.

It was ever thus, perhaps, but these announcements one after the other mark a shift in what have been fixed points in the industry for a number of years; and at a time when there is much talk of capitalism itself, they underline one of its most basic principles: you buy or you are bought.

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Hot on the heels of Simon & Schuster's announcement of the launch of Scribner in Australia and New Zealand in 2018, Penguin Random House (PRH) Australia has declared it will bring the personal development and healthy living imprint Penguin Life to its shores in January. PRH Australia group publishing director Nikki Christer said: "Penguin Life enables us, as a business, to better connect with communities and social issues, and take more responsibility for how we influence and contribute to readers' lives."

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Meanwhile, away from any Yiannopolous woes, Simon & Schuster US has had a good start to the autumn, with the publisher's titles filling the number one slots on no less than eight New York Times bestseller lists in one week - which just may be an industry record. It certainly prompted ceo Carolyn Reidy to send a congratulatory note to staff. The titles included It by Stephen King and Hilary Clinton's What Happened.

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Following the grim events in Las Vegas, Johns Hopkins University Press in Baltimore, Maryland, is offering free PDF copies of its 2013 title Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy with Evidence and Analysis.

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Norway is guest of honour at Frankfurt in 2019 and a new word surfaced when a number of the country's authors met with publishers and agents in New York recently. Forget "Scandi-crime" or "hygge" or "lagom", the literary critic Marat Norheim talked about "Scanguilt" - that's nothing to do with a way of living as such: it refers to Scandinavians' guilt about being happy and privileged.

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