Scottish Book Trade conference calls for cultural change as Brexit looms


The cloud of Brexit hung over the Scottish Book Trade conference on 26th February, although the mood of the day was one of optimism and resilience.

A record number of 250 delegates attended the conference, held jointly by Publishing Scotland and the Booksellers Association, at its new location of Surgeons Quarter in central Edinburgh. With a jam-packed programme featuring three keynote speeches and a range of sessions squeezed into one day, the possibility of extending the conference to two days was discussed.

Publishing Scotland chief executive Marion Sinclair kicked off the conference with a note on the importance of the trade’s cultural impact in our current political climate.

“If there is a theme, tone or mood to this conference, it is that we need to think about our role in helping bring about cultural change,” she said. “If this year looks like we’re moving into a different area, we should remember that we are geographically close to Ireland and the continent of Europe. So, how do we reflect that in books? Values of openness and tolerance are writ large in the books we publish. Booksellers and publishers have huge role to play in bringing these values to readers.”

Despite political uncertainty, Sinclair expressed optimism about the coming year. “Publishing Scotland is 45 years old this year, and since our last conference, print sales are up, Waterstones is in profit, we have a new Saltire Society Publisher of the Year in Canongate, and the new Small Press category at the British Book Awards has an impressive shortlist of Scottish publishers, we look forward to results of that. Most importantly, we have great award winning books being written published and sold—Scottish publishers are responsible for new books every month.”

BA m.d. said Meryl Halls praised the healthy independent bookselling sector which is in its second year of growth, although warned the trade to be aware of the challenges. “Bookshops are resurgent, and the bookselling sector is interdependent as never before, with the stark divide no longer between chain and indie, but between high street and online. The challenges are deep and systemic. We cannot and should not be asked to attempt to survive upward rents, a stupid rates system, poorly managed high streets, and a tax system that rewards multinationals and penalises local businesses. We need to stay vigilant of the threats.”

A closing keynote from Canongate author and activist Gina Miller echoed First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s earlier message of the power of books and language to help foster learning, understanding and togetherness. “The whole debate around Brexit has been characterised all too often by language that is emotional rather than rational, that harks back to the past, rather than looks to the future; that is about individual wants, rather than collective good; and sadly the words deployed are all too often intended to hurt rather than heal,” she said.

Arguing that this language “seems to be against everything the United Kingdom stands for: our grace under pressure, our pragmatism and good humour, our tolerance and ability to hear out people with whom we may passionately disagree”, Miller decried the rhetoric around Brexit that has abandoned ” normal rules of decency [and] basic good manners.”

She said: “Words can be weaponised – think of Boris Johnson when he spoke of Mrs May, with her Chequers deal, placing a suicide vest around the United Kingdom. Let us decide to talk in terms of the facts not fantasy – there is a place for that but not in political debate or at times of crisis. And we are at a time of crisis.”

The conference also saw an opening keynote from Waterstones boss James Daunt, sessions for booksellers on Green Bookselling and The Unwin Charitable Trust Mentoring Scheme as well as sales analysis from Nielsen Book and a talk from Oneworld publisher Juliet Mabey on the challenges facing independent publishers.

Published in 2019.


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