At the start of the pandemic, independent and left-wing publishers faced a crisis. The closure of bookshops looked set to accelerate the dominance of Amazon, and as people lost their jobs or were placed on furlough, the money they had to spend on books plummeted. Small left-wing publishers do not have big cash reserves to see them through hard times, and in late spring it seemed that the industry was on the brink. Jennifer Tighe from Verso summarised the situation to me, saying: ‘As bookshops shut around us, with no clear idea of when things might return to normal, the effect on publishing seemed catastrophic.’ Had left-wing publishers gone bust, the UK Left as a whole would have lost crucial contexts for in-depth and enduring history and analysis.
However, left-wing publishing in the UK has, if anything, emerged from 2020 in a stronger position than before. Part of the reason for that is grassroots and publisher-led book clubs and book subscriptions. Verso accelerated the launch of their book club, including a substantial e-book element to address the crisis in distribution that the pandemic produced for many publishers. Literary left publisher Influx Press started a subscription-type book club in the autumn of 2019, and after seeing an initial precipitous drop in sales in early spring, they then told me they saw ‘a huge surge in support for independent publishers’ as the first lockdown got underway. Left Book Club, which I work for on a part-time basis, also saw a marked increase in subscribers during the same period. Inge Hudson, who helps run a book group in Finsbury Park, spoke to a common theme in this book club surge, writing to me to say that she joined a book group because ‘it now feels more important than ever to be in touch with like-minded people; it’s not easy to remain hopeful given what is happening in the world.’
Kit Caless from Influx told me that part of the benefit of the book club is that it pushes them to announce all their upcoming titles well in advance. Big corporate publishers have more lead-time, which enables them to get better press coverage, but Influx are using their book club to try to ‘rectify that and get the buzz starting months and months before release.’ In this way, the book club is not only a response to the conditions of the pandemic, but also an attempt to sidestep some of the challenges that beset smaller left-wing publishers long before March 2020. (Influx published the brilliant, hilarious and unsettling Boy Parts in summer 2020 and are bringing out Frankie Miren’s much-anticipated novel The Service this coming June, cementing their role as one of the most interesting UK publishing houses of any size.)
Everyone in publishing who I spoke to noted the effect not only of the pandemic but also of the Black Lives Matter movement on what people are buying and reading, and how that reading is happening. I saw a sharp rise in informal book clubs among people exploring police and prison abolition in response to the ongoing murders of Black people by the state. I reached out to Abolitionist Futures, a grassroots group which organises against prisons and policing in a UK context, about their book groups, and found that my anecdotal sense matches what they were seeing – over the summer, their reading groups grew from around twenty attendees per session to around a hundred, and their guide for how to start a book group has remained the most popular resource on their website for the last nine months.
Abolitionist Futures linked this interest in book groups in part to the pandemic, noting that they ran well-attended sessions on mutual aid, which ‘helped people make connections between what was happening [with Covid-19] and abolitionist movement building.’ They also highlighted that reading groups are a natural fit for exploring ideas they work with, telling me: ‘abolition requires people to challenge the way they think about a lot of things, not only the criminal justice system but also things like interpersonal harm, education, community, care. There’s as much to unlearn as to learn.’ In exploring a politics which prioritises community, it makes sense that people would want to chew over these sometimes knotty ideas collectively.
This echoes what Left Book Club reading group organisers told me, too. Lottie Staples runs a reading group in Barnet, and she told me: ‘Having been in fight-mode for so long, discussion of political ideas always seemed to come second, and yet political education is a vital part of building a strong Left long-term. It felt important to create a space locally to hold more long form discussions about political history, ideas, and ideologies.’ Exhausted Labour Party activists, in particular, seemed to turn in part to book groups at the start of 2020 out of the sense—emerging from the wreckage of the 2019 general election—that building a case for left-wing ideas will have to be made from the ground up. Like every other book group organiser I spoke to, Lottie, who set the group up in early 2020, has also found that attendance has risen over the course of the year: an impressive feat, given the prevalence of zoom fatigue.
Hyper-local but now entirely online, book groups seem to mirror other aspects of how people have coped under the pandemic, like street-by-street mutual aid groups springing up over WhatsApp. Radical publishing in the UK is certainly not out of the woods, but the way that people have chosen to read communally amid the crisis seems to have helped shift it back from the brink. As multiple book group organisers and publishers told me, we need texts that hold capitalism, white supremacy, and imperialism to account now more than ever.