Bookseller Briefing 9/19 – week ending 1 March

The Bookseller


China crackdown on maps sparks major production delays

A new censorship crackdown in China has led to Beijing officals checking all books being printed in the country for maps, causing delays of up to eight weeks for production teams and derailing launches for books featuring any kind of map.

Chinese censors have long taken a hard line on politically-charged subjects such as Tibet, Taiwan and the Tiananmen Square massacre. But, since late last year, the authorities have been tightening their printing approval processes and the main source of contention is maps.

Printing firms and publishers say books being printed for publication both within the country and overseas are now being checked for maps of any area in the world, not just China or territories it disputes. One publisher told The Bookseller an entire launch campaign for a book on a western city had been derailed because it included a map.

Until recently, non-sensitive content was checked by local government officials in a matter of days. But companies say now anything containing a map – even one that is centuries old, has no link to China or has been printed before – is sent on for approval at state level in Beijing.

In some cases, production teams have had to send books to other countries like Singapore for printing at a higher cost, or simply swapped the problematic content for different images. Of those companies contacted by The Bookseller, none had been given an official reason for the policy change.

One production worker at a large publisher, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “We’ve got titles we’ve promoted in China quite happily for years, things like walking guides to the UK. There’s nothing controversial in there at all but they’re now having to be checked by the Chinese government because they include a map.

“We don’t know why but it may be that everyone’s particularly paranoid about it there at the moment. With some of the stuff we’re having to say, ‘We just can’t print this in China’.

“Eight weeks is probably the worst delay we’ve had, but that can be pretty disastrous for the way we publish now and for stock for reprints.”

A letter sent out in November by one Chinese printing firm warned publishers of tightened regulations on maps, nudity and topics such as religion, war, rebellions and recreational drugs. Clients whose work falls into those categories were urged to send over files well in advance so they could be examined internally by the printers first, to see if they were suitable.

The company was warned it could be placed under “close supervision” or have its licence revoked if authorities found it had applied to print “improper” material three times in a year. The printing firm also claimed Chinese officials had threatened to look at books published overseas and trace who the printer was to check the content had been through the proper approval process.

Another Chinese printing firm, C and C Offset, has asked publishers to make the company aware of any map content well in advance so it can be checked with the authorities and minimise disruption.

Director Tracy Broderick told The Bookseller: “We hope that things will calm down eventually but at the moment everyone’s working to the exact letter of the law.

“There have always been sensitive issues but this additional timing on maps has taken us all a little bit by surprise.

“We haven’t come across many issues so far but we’re warning everybody and everybody’s taking a bit more caution when placing map work at the moment.”

A production manager at a medium-sized UK non-fiction publisher, which does most of its printing in China, said the changes had caused a “chaotic situation” with one problematic title potentially causing whole batches of other books to be delayed.

He said: “They always used to require books to be checked for the same things but we’d got into a routine of pretty obviously contentious material getting through. If a book did include a map and maybe mild nudity the context would be taken into consideration. But there’s been a raised level of attention towards it by government so that’s not happening now.

“It’s causing me a massive headache to be honest because, currently, for small to medium-sized publishers producing books in China is the most cost-effective way to do things, especially if you try to do things in batches so the costs are not so prohibitive.”

Ken Fund, chief operating officer at the Quarto Group, said his company was also looking for ways to mitigate the problem.

He said: “We have experienced some printing delays in China, affecting books shipping to all markets, as additional checks are currently required for some titles and topics. Our production teams and printing partners in China are working closely to help us understand and anticipate potential issues before they arise, or to find alternative solutions if needed.”

The Bookseller has approached the Chinese government for a comment.

‘Don’t let the fox in the coop’; Daunt warns against Amazon’s dominance

Waterstones boss James Daunt has warned the Scottish book industry against the growing dominance of Amazon, saying that if the retail giant ever implemented print book subscriptions it would make working in the books business “frankly intolerable”.

Giving the opening keynote speech at the Scottish Book Trade Conference run jointly by Publishing Scotland and the Booksellers Association on Tuesday (26th February), Daunt said that while the threat posed by retail giant Amazon may have “slowly receded in our minds”, their “extraordinarily attractive propositions [of Prime and Same Day Delivery, among others] are providing a continued and brutal competitive pressure for us.” He added: “Should subscription appear in the world of physical books life would become frankly intolerable.”

However, he countered that publishers are in a strong position to protect the trade from this threat, and that the way publishers and booksellers work together has never been better than it is now.

“Amazon is a commercially driven organisation of extreme vigour, and everything indicates that that internal dynamic within its nature… Amazon is definitely a fox, but publishers control this industry, they have the talent, and content, as long as they do their job, by protecting and nurturing that talent and if they live alongside high street bookshops in relative harmony [the book trade can weather the storm]… but do not believe that [Amazon is] anything other than a fox, and don’t let them in the coop.”

As for the health of the industry, with growing numbers of independent bookshops as well as increasing print sales, Daunt said the trade is in “pretty good shape.”

“Publishing is vibrant, producing bestsellers, and running huge events which support and nourish the trade. Publishers clearly at the fore of [the improvement], publishing better and a little less, investing in good writing, editing, covers, getting marketing and publicity right; and booksellers are investing in their shops, making them more attractive and investing in thought processes behind shops, getting the presentation better, the curation better, and working on personality and bookselling skill taking our shops worth coming to.”

Although business is relatively good, Daunt highlighted the “difficult environment” faced by booksellers, driven by economic uncertainty and the deterioration of the high street.

“At the moment, our political leadership is obsessed with [its] own internal survival, and has very little sense of responsibility for wider economy or prosperity of the country, and is charging down a suicide route, while the opposition is increasingly rudderless,” said Daunt. “We clearly face a really difficult environment, exacerbated by a fundamental and structural shift to online. We find key shops closing down, with every BHS, M&S, and HMV that closes, it deprives the high street of footfall… the truth is we will find ourselves with fewer people in our shops this year and then the year after and there’s nothing we can do about that.”

Considering whether the book trade could survive another decline like it experienced between 2012 and 2014, Daunt said that while times are good, the industry needs to work on adapting to survive.

“We are all of us still wedded to old ways of working, we need to become more productive, efficient, and clearly committed to paying people who work for us more. Now whilst the sun is shining, we need to mend the roof. A key thing is the manner in which we move books around: printing, supplying, unpacking — within that process there are extraordinary inefficiencies. Return rates are high. They are lower than they were but they are still significant. To become more profitable, we need to drop cost base.”

Daunt also emphasised the problem of class and ethnic diversity, and highlighted that libraries are vital tools for getting new generations reading.

Crankstart revealed as new Booker Prize sponsor in five-year deal

The Booker Prize will be sponsored by Silicon Valley venture capitalist Sir Michael Moritz’s charitable foundation Crankstart in a five-year deal, it has been announced. But the Booker Prize has said it will not use the opportunity of the change in sponsor to reverse its controversial decision to allow US writers to enter the award.

Crankstart’s support will begin on 1st June after this year’s international prize is awarded – the last to be funded by the Man Group after an 18-year partnership. Afterwards, the contests will simply be known as the Booker Prize and International Booker Prize, rather than carrying the new supporter’s name. The Booker Prize Foundation said it had begun a search for a new sponsor, once the trustees knew that the Man Group’s sponsorship was coming to an end in the summer of 2018, but that the link to Crankstart came through a personal connection to Mike Moritz and Harriet Heyman. “Aside from the Crankstart discussion, which was already well advanced, we had many interested parties enquiring about sponsorship rights as soon as the news broke of Man Group’s withdrawal,” the Foundation said.

Crankstart was set-up by venture capitalist Moritz and his wife Harriet Heyman in 2000 with the aim of supporting “the forgotten, the dispossessed, the unfortunate, the oppressed and causes where some help makes all the difference”. It has funded scholarships for low-income students at Oxford University, the University of Chicago, the Julliard School and others. Money has also been given to the American Civil Liberties Union and homeless projects in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Helena Kennedy, chair of the Booker Prize Foundation trustees, said: “We are thrilled that the Booker Prizes have found such marvellous philanthropic supporters in Crankstart, whose founders share our vision and values. With its support, we look forward to developing initiatives for the Booker to reach new audiences of every generation and background around the world.

“Thanks to Crankstart, we will be able to continue the charitable activities of the Booker Prize Foundation, working with, among others, the National Literacy Trust in prisons, with RNIB to make the shortlist accessible to blind and partially sighted readers, and in universities around the UK.’

Moritz, born in Wales, is an Oxford graduate, ex-Time journalist and a partner at California investment firm Sequoia Capital. He has written a number of books including two on Apple and its founder Steve Jobs, alongside Leading (Hodder & Stoughton) with ex-Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson. His philanthropic and business dealings saw him awarded the KBE in the Queen’s 2013 birthday honours. Heyman is an American writer has worked at Life and the New York Times along with producing a novel and photographic book.

Moritz said: “Neither of us can imagine a day where we don’t spend time reading a book. The Booker Prizes are ways of spreading the word about the insights, discoveries, pleasures and joy that spring from great fiction. These days I’m a global traveller but, just like the Booker, I was born in Britain and before coming to America was reared on English literature. Harriet and I feel fortunate to be able to support prizes that together celebrate the best fiction in the world.”

Crankstart will have the option to renew its support for another five years while the £50,000 Booker prize money will remain unchanged.

Profile Books m.d. Andrew Franklin, said the new sponsor was “really good news and they’ve done it really cleverly”. He told The Bookseller: “I think it’s great. It seems like small change to him and if he’s interested in supporting books and literacy this is a good way of making a difference.”

Franklin was one of a host of publishers who last year called for the Booker to reverse its decision allowing US authors to enter the prize and suggested there should be a third Booker prize launched instead to include Amercians. But he said he was not concerned about a US-based organisation stepping in.

Clare Alexander of Aitken Alexander said: “I’m delighted of course and I think the whole industry must be delighted. It’s our most important book prize, globally it’s very important and now it’s future is secure. I’m relieved also they’ve done it very fast so there’s less uncertainty than there is about Brexit.”

She added: “There’s no pressure on them to change the rules other than people in the business hoping they do. It’s nothing to do with sponsorship and I think it’s now even less likely they’ll change them.”

The Man Group publicly announced it was ending its sponsorship of the prize in January although Booker trustees said they knew in the summer of 2018 and had been searching for new funding since then. Man’s involvement had proved controversial in recent years, with Sebastian Faulks calling it “the enemy”. But the Foundation said the Man Group had informed it about its decision before Faulks’ comment was made.

There are currently no plans to change the rules on which books are eligible, despite criticism of American authors entering the contest, the Foundation added: “A sponsor or funder has no say over the rules. There is no plan to reverse the rule that writers of any nationality are eligible to be entered, providing that their books are written in English and published in the UK. However, BPF continues to have an open dialogue with stakeholders. Both prizes are constantly evolving and will continue to change to ensure that readers are exposed to the best books, either written in or translated into English, in any one year. BPF looks forward to working with Crankstart to develop ideas to reach new audiences around the world.”

The 2018 Booker winner was Anna Burns’ Milkman (Faber). The 2018 Man Booker International winner was Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights (Fitzcarraldo), translated by Jennifer Croft.

Indie bookshop ordered to pay extra £11k in business rates

An independent bookshop in Pinner must pay an additional £11,680 in business rates following a new valuation, which will leave BrOOK’S paying more in rates than the bank which previously occupied the site, in a situation branded “outrageous” by the Booksellers Association.

Bookseller Peter Brook took over the premises of the TSB bank on Bridge Street, Pinner on 7th July 2018 with a rateable business value of £42,250 pa. Earlier this month, Brook was informed the description of the premises has been changed from ‘bank’ to ‘restaurant and premises’ with the rateable value increasing to £52,500 with effect from 20th August 2018 following a revaluation at the request of Harrow Council. The change in rateable value means Brook will have to pay £25,200 in business rates rather than £13,520, as well as the backdated £6,200 bill.

Brook told The Bookseller: “My wife Sarah and I negotiated the lease of the property and we knew the rateable value and that was all fine, and that was what we had been paying. Harrow Council asked the Valuation Office Agency (VOA) to revaluate the business rate for our property. I can only assume that this happened because of a change of use application from bank to shop.

“They are charging an indie bookshop more in rates than other shops around us and a bank. It’s quite staggering. With the average paperback selling for £6.99, we would have to sell an extra 114 books a week in order to keep up with rates.”

In a further blow, the new tariff puts BrOOK’S, which also sells wine, coffee and cake, over the £50,000 threshold for small business rates relief and Brook is being forced to pay the backdated bill while he considers his appeal. “That revaluation puts us over that £50,000 threshold, we have to pay an extra £1,100 a month while we appeal, and the extra £6,000 from the last year. We’re only in our first six months of starting and cash flow is tight at the best of times,” said Brook. “A realistic scenario is we might get the money back at the end of the calendar year if we’re lucky.”

Brook is appealing the amount, saying mistakes have been made regarding the base rate per square metre. He said: “We have a ‘base’ rate of business rates of £500 per square metre whereas neighbours and businesses opposite have their’s set at £450. There is no rationale reason, if we were correctly classified as a bookshop and not a restaurant, that ours would be the same. If this was the case our business rates would drop immediately to £47,250 pa and this is without the actual inaccuracy of the measurements that our business rates are based on. They think our business is 197 m² whereas it is actually 172m² gross.”

He added: “The system is not defendable, it’s ridiculous. Heads they win, tails we lose. I’m going to have to pay business rates consultant money for something we should never have had to pay in the first place. I will have to pay to fight this. The minimum this will cost us is £4,000 in cash.”

Meryl Halls, MD at the Booksellers Association, said: “The predicament BrOOK’S in Pinner find themselves in is nothing short of outrageous.  Here is a brand new business, run by creative, risk-taking entrepreneurs, entering a new industry with verve and gusto, being slapped with a punitive and potentially ruinous business rates hike.  The appeals process requires them to pay the bill before appealing, and the bookshop now finds itself not only with a new bill, but just over the threshold for small business rates relief, adding insult to very considerable injury. This illustrates all that is wrong with the current outdated and inflexible rates system – clearly local authorities have to get their funding from somewhere, but crushing the spirit and the viability of new businesses is not the way to encourage investment or a thriving high street.  We would urge Harrow Council to reconsider the BrOOK’S case urgently and sympathetically.”

A spokesman for the VOA told The Bookseller: “We cannot comment on individual cases. If a ratepayer thinks the details we hold about their property are incorrect, they can see how their valuation has been calculated and update their facts, if needed, by registering with our check and challenge service.”