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Books can die too

Books can die too

A terrifying but ironic side-effect of the coronavirus pandemic is that it will spell the end for many independent bookshops and many independent publishers. Just as some people realise the central role books can play in their lives so the economic devastation wrought by the disease is hacking away at the wider publishing industry. The Bookseller, the trade’s magazine, recently surveyed 72 small publishers and found that almost 60 per cent fear closure by the autumn. It also reported that 57 per cent of them had no current cash flow to support their business, and 85 per cent had seen sales drop by more than half. The magazine’s editor Philip Jones wrote that: “These are not big publishers, or even the bigger indies, but the very smallest, many of them Arts Council-funded, publishing into areas often overlooked by other publishers, with a particular emphasis on debut writers, and those from BAME or working-class backgrounds.” He warned that: “There’s a whole tranche of writers that either will not write, or will be unable to see their work published.” How chilling that at a point when the small presses have begun to gain wider recognition, helped in some measure by Booker Prize publicity (Oneworld, for example, saw its fortunes transformed by Marlon James and Paul Beatty’s Booker Prize wins), they should face this existential threat.

Of course, all arts organisations are suffering. One of them, despite its hallowed name, is the Old Vic Theatre in South London. It is fighting the fight with various initiatives and online programmes under the title Your Old Vic. One involves the current joint Booker Prize winner Bernardine Evaristo. In 2018, the theatre commissioned a series of monologues to mark the 70th anniversary of the NHS, and now they have asked Evaristo for a new work to add to the series and “mark the dedication of those in the service at this time of national crisis”. It should be right up her street; before she turned to writing prize-winning novels she was a founder-actor in an experimental theatre troupe. All eight of the existing monologues can be seen on the Old Vic’s YouTube channel while Evaristo’s will air as a special feature on Sunday 5 July to coincide with the NHS’s 72nd birthday.

Evaristo also finds herself nominated for another prize. She has been named on the Goldsboro Books Glass Bell Award shortlist for Girl, Woman, Other, as does the Booker Prize longlisted Oyinkan Braithwaite for her My Sister, the Serial Killer. The prize is offered by the venerable Goldsboro bookshop to reward “an outstanding work of contemporary fiction” and is worth £2,000 plus, naturally, a hand-made glass bell. Every literary home should have one.

In a recent discussion with PEN America – the transatlantic branch of the writers’ charity – Ben Okri, Booker Prize winner in 1991 and a trustee of the prize’s charitable arm the Booker Prize Foundation, paused to consider what an extraordinary thing the book is. It is, he said, “a dual thing. It is the thing that we read – that is, the repository, as it were, of the wisdom of the race, the repository of our dreams and our thoughts, our craft, our analysis, our language, our poetry. It’s the repository of what we learn from other people of our foolishness, our errors, our lies, our truth, our vision, our hopes” but it is also a world in itself, “the book that we live in. . . . that we intuit, that somehow, the whole of life is folded inside of.” He is, of course, right and these magical powers are why the book is worth fighting for.