Opinion: it is a recession - apologies for being an optimist

Trevor Dolby
Opinion - Publishing Friday, 2nd January 2009

It's official. We are all going to hell in a handcart. The Daily Mail says so, BBC News says so, and - most important - Robert Peston says so. From Tiverton to Tobermory, journalists rove high streets brandishing microphones like cudgels despatching optimists and jostling pessimists with gleefully leading questions: 'It must be terrible watching your life go down the toilet?' They loiter out front of provincial Woolworths fabricating statements about the concerns of employees and shoppers. They swarm at Whittard and Zavvi. One after another these hacks end their pieces with 'and people are just worried which retailer will be next and if their job is the next on the line'. Jonathan Ross may not be worth a thousand of these mass-produced pace-the-high-street-and- spout-bollocks-very-er-slowly-er-TV-journalists, but it's a close call.

The economy apparently contracted by about 1% last year and will contract (according to the professional economists and bankers who got us into this mess) by about another 2.5% this year. By my crude calculations, this means that we will, by the end of this year, have the same size economy as we had at the start of 2006. In the worst-case scenario, these big-brains reckon that about 6% of the potential working population will be jobless, which leaves 94% in work. I'm not trivialising how dire it can be losing one's job, and I 'm not advocating that we should have let the banks drift down the swanny. Most horrible, it's evident that it's going to be toughest yet again for those people who have little, and I think it is these people who should be sharing out bankers' bonus payments estimated to be north of £2.5 billion in their December pay packets.

This week, commentators are starting to report how the book trade fared over Christmas. There will be percentages down and percentages up; there will be analysis of analysis. Pert prose will litter journals, newspapers and blogosphere, confusing the difficulties in the book business with difficulties for the book. The economy as a whole will or will not be as bad as predicted.

These things are of course vitally important in deciding the health of the book business. But let's face it chaps, most of us have as much influence on these things as a potato.
What we can do is concentrate on what remains in our control. We must run our business tightly and well from top to bottom. We must be swift not ponderous. We must empower everyone. We must embrace even more vigorously than hitherto ebooks, video promotion, web sales and the rest. We must try new formats and price points. We must cultivate acquiring editors and make them feel comfortable taking risks. We must be sober about our title count. We must work on the supply chain both on a practical and a creative level. We must work with agents collaboratively. Above all, we must work with our authors to help them connect effectively with readers and potential readers no matter how their words are delivered. Sorry to be an optimist, but good (publishing) companies run with confidence, with good people, producing good products, with energy and good ideas, will thrive... just so long as we do not allow ourselves to be paralysed by the-er-soothsayers.

In January 1936, Allen Lane launched Penguin Books. He is quoted on Penguin UK's stylish website: 'I would be the first to admit that there is no fortune in this series for anyone concerned, but if my premises are correct and these Penguins are the means of converting book-borrowers into book-buyers, I shall feel that I have perhaps added some small quota to the sum of those who during the last few years have worked for the popularization of the book-shop and the increased sale of books.'
In 1947, Paul Hamlyn rented a bookshop in Camden Town to sell remainders 'and anything else I could get hold of'. He soon ran low on stock and, to satisfy demand for low-priced illustrated hardbacks, he started printing books cheaply in Czechoslovakia. Hamlyn's Books for Pleasure sold on counters in department stores, started a whole new industry, and cultivated a whole new generation of book buyers.

In January 1982, in the grip of recession, Gail Rebuck, Anthony Cheetham and Rosie de Courcy started a company called Century.


Trevor Dolby is Publisher of Preface.

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