Together we have the ability to make a difference

Nigel Newton

This speech was delivered by Nigel Newton at the Publishers Association’s Annual General Meeting which was held on Tuesday 26 April.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

An unknown disease has killed 6 million people and locked us in our homes for over two years.

It has also triggered the biggest reading boom in history.

We have much to be sad about and much to be glad about.

Professionally, we are riding the most bucking of broncos with £1.82 billion of physical book sales in the UK last year, up a staggering 13% on 2020 by volume.

It seems that the death of the book was mis-predicted and that the book is a superior mid-technology like the bicycle which has continued to flourish in the age of the car – as well as being, if it has an index, the fastest random access device known to man.

54 brand new independent bookshops opened in the UK and Ireland during 2021. BA membership is at its highest for years climbing to 1,027, for the fifth consecutive year of growth. 

So the question is how do we hang on to those pandemic reading gains ? 

Recent polling conducted for the Publishers Association, showed that 56% of people read more during the pandemic and over a quarter read vastly more, reading twenty additional books. Hurrah !

For the next year I will be your President.

What do I hope to achieve in that year ?

  1. To concentrate on growing the book market and book readership
  2. To concentrate on securing the financial viability of book and journal publishers
  3. To concentrate on growing the diversity and sustainability of this great industry.

How do we do this?

Firstly, I want us to communicate more effectively than we have ever done before that publishing has a social purpose and that it has had one since long before the rest of the world decided that would be a good idea.

Secondly, we need to adjust our mind-set about diversity to get more Black, Asian and other diverse executives into middle and senior management of publishing companies and not just entry level positions.  As Nels Abbey of The Black Writers’ Guild said to me, ‘Why are you concentrating your diversity efforts on the entry level of your company ? What about your top management?’

Where do we find these great publishers of the future ?  Perhaps from broadcasting, film and other employers who may be ahead of us but which also are in the business of commissioning and selling creative content. We must be open minded to learn from those around us.

Thirdly, we have to acknowledge the enormous challenge of sustainability for our industry. We know that most of the carbon emissions driven by book publishing come from subcontractors in printing and distribution. But to solve this we must work with them and keep the pressure on them in helping our planet to survive.

Collaboration is needed to drive supply chain emissions down and enable us as an industry to achieve the ultimate and ambitious goal of Net Zero. 

This is not an easy goal to achieve and there are smaller publishers for whom this will seem an impossible task.  It is incumbent on us to use our collective voice to support and demand change.   

The PA’s own Sustainability Taskforce will launch a carbon calculator, available for free to all members, that will allow publishers to begin tracking their supply chain emissions and for the industry to understand what our carbon footprint is.  We cannot reduce what we do not measure. 

We should be the change we want to see.  Leading by example, we should ask our suppliers and customers to measure and reduce their own emissions.  Many of them are already doing amazing work in this area and we want to encourage that practice to spread.  There are two challenges I would like to lay down at the start my Presidency at the PA: Measure emissions and engage our supply chain.

Together we have the ability to make a difference.

Fourthly, we have to address the issues which threaten the financial viability of book publishing.  All of us are grappling with the global supply chain crisis – the cost of fuel, heating, paper pulp, book materials, labour, space on ships, shutdowns of centres of Chinese printing all combining in a horrible alchemy of spiralling inflation and increasing barriers to getting our books into shops. This is likely to get much worse before it gets better.

The second issue of financial viability arises from what has now become a dependence on tech platforms as a major route to our customers.  It is not in the long term interest of readers, authors or the UK’s world leading publishing industry when that dependence can be exploited by those platforms.

That is why I am calling today on the Government to live up to its commitments and bring forward legislation in the Queen’s Speech next month to give the Digital Markets Unit at the Competitions and Markets Authority the power and the teeth it needs to do its job.

This is the only way that we can ensure fairness reigns in negotiations between tech platforms and their suppliers as it now does in the grocery industry since similar action was taken thirteen years ago for that industry. I hope we will soon see action at a European level, with the EU already agreeing legislation to regulate digital market “gatekeepers”.

The dependency of our industry as a whole on large tech platforms as gatekeepers to our retail markets and the gross imbalance of power which this gives rise to need to be urgently addressed.

My message to the Secretary of State for DCMS is a simple one – as an author you know how important books are to this country’s culture and economy. You must restrain the tech platforms through legislation now or we risk publishing’s future.

At the same time as correcting this imbalance, we must acknowledge our huge good fortune that the tech platforms kept goods flowing to people’s doors even as they were locked down at home and other meeting platforms enabled working from home to flourish. But having a world-leading tech sector requires world-leading regulation. 

A further example of the benefits technology can bring to publishing is TikTok. TikTok has empowered a new generation of readers to engage with each other in a more powerful and authentic way than ever before. A clear trend emerged in the pandemic for cathartic books that moved readers to tears. BookTok in particularly taught publishers that trends can’t be solely manufactured or dictated by companies – it is a social network that thrives on fun, authentic, ephemeral content from real readers.

And what was particularly encouraging about this trend was it drove many young people into actual bookstores to find these books, helping in part to support the 54-brand new independent bookshops.

But what we must celebrate most is what this industry did to make such a difference to so many people through the pandemic.  Our authors and our books provided them with the means of escape, entertainment, education and inspiration through some of the hardest times.

And these very same benefits of reading are also what constitute our social purpose and probably explain why so many of us sought careers in book publishing rather than the other more lucrative forms of employment which we might have chosen.  We are so lucky to have careers in books where we are working with authors whose creativity is changing the world. 

The ability to send a thank you email to one of your own authors after reading their latest book is one of the biggest joys of my job to me. 

I did that the other day to James Runcie who is best known for his books about a priest and detective in Grantchester in the 1950s but who has just published The Great Passion, his enthralling novel set around Johann Sebastian Bach’s life as the music master at an unruly boarding school in Leipzig in 1723. I felt lucky just to get off my chest my enthusiasm for his book to him.

Thank you all and I look forward to working with all of you and with the wonderful staff of the Publishers Association itself – Stephen and Dan in particular – and with the PA Council and my fellow officers David and Annie and now Antonia.

Dan, you will be a brilliant leader of the PA.

Stephen, you have done a magnificent job and we thank you and wish you well at Sky. I’ve had a bit of trouble with reception on one of my Sky boxes lately and perhaps we can have a word about that afterwards.

Thank you!