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It has been a year like no other, one in which death, ill-health and economic disaster have stalked the streets. The year began with the passing of Knopf editor-in-chief Sonny Mehta on 30 December aged 77 from complications following pneumonia. Though not Covid-related, in hindsight it almost seems like a warning.
February saw the first news of something that would become common: the Ministry of Culture in Taiwan announced the postponement of the Taipei International Book Exhibition, saying “Taiwanese publishers have expressed their concerns about the coronavirus affecting readers’ attendance and participation.”
But at the time the London Book Fair’s (LBF) International Excellence Award were due to take place with the Yemen Bookstore among companies shortlisted for the first time.
However, the following month the seriousness of the Covid-19 pandemic became apparent with Waterstones and Blackwells announcing they were closing all their stores. With frightening speed the list of cancelled shows – including the LBF – events, author tours, launches and festivals became depressingly familiar.
In April, Barnes & Noble CEO James Daunt bowed to the inevitable and closed 400 of the 627-strong chain, saying: “This is a devastating situation in which to find ourselves and we understand the personal impacts of such action.” May saw more grim statistics around the world. In China, stats body OpenBook Beijing estimated that sales at superstore bookshops were down more than 60% between January and March. In Russia it was estimated that the book industry had lost more than $680m, with the majority of the decline coming from the closure of physical bookshops which account for around 80% of sales.
June saw an angry response from the International Publishers Association (IPA) to the attempt by President Trump to prevent Simon & Schuster from publishing John Bolton’s The Room Where it Happened. July saw Harper magazine publish a letter deploring the rise in ‘cancel culture’, signed by numerous writers, among them JK Rowling, Salman Rushdie and Margaret Attwood.
The Federation of European Publishers report on the Consequences of the Covid-19 Crisis on the Book Market, published in August, did not mince its words. “The impact on sales was immediate and dramatic…,” it said. “The chilling effect on demand was unmistakable: sales in bookstores dropped anywhere between 75% and 95% in most countries where a lockdown was in place.”
The explosions in Beirut’s harbour on 4 August devastated libraries and bookstores in the city. In September Sharjah stepped in to support renovation with Sheikha Bodour al Qasimi, vice-president of the IPA saying: “Restoring libraries and cultural centres is as important as supplying humanitarian aid. As we stand by people who lost their homes and businesses, we should not forget how vital the cultural role played by Beirut’s libraries, art galleries and institutions, has been — not only for Lebanon but the entire Arab region and the world.”
The 39th Sharjah International Book Fair took place as planned, and saw a successful combination of the physical and the virtual. There were 73 nations represented by 1,024 exhibitors. Sheikh Sultan bin Muhammad Al-Qasimi, Ruler of Sharjah and member of the Supreme Council, spread hope by providing both a 10m UAE dirham fund for the purchase of books for Sharjah’s libraries, and waiving exhibition fees for Lebanese, Syrian and Egyptian publishers.
November saw the big five become the big four with Bertelsmann’s swoop on Simon & Schuster. At the same time the IPA announced all female leadership for the first time in its 124-year history. Sharjah’s Sheikha Bodour al Qasimi founder of Kalimat publishers, and Karine Pansa owner and Publishing Director at Girassol Brasil Edições in Sao Paulo, Brazil, are to become respectively President and Vice-President of the body from January.
Which brings us to December and the arrival of the vaccine in the UK and USA – a Christmas present to the world. In the UK, the MD of the Booksellers Association, Meryl Halls, predicted: “We will return from this with a new appreciation for each other, for human endeavour, for writing, for community. There will be lots of hugging. Lots of tears. Some wine. Many parties. More hugging. A billion books sold. Bookshop doors thrown open, authors spilling onto the pavement. Laughter.”
But everyone knows there is more pain to come before then.