Boyd Tonkin: A Year in Books

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This year, the book business in Britain did many things that it shouldn't have, and failed to do much that it should. We'll come to those sins of commission and omission in a moment. First, consider a 3bn domestic art-cum-industry that exports more than a third of the products it creates at a higher per capita rate than almost anywhere else on earth. For the third time in six years, this craft saw one of its number anointed as recipient of the world's most coveted honour. Meanwhile, another local contender smashed every record for volume and rapidity of sales. If other national squads managed a fraction as well as the team that plays Nobel laureate Doris Lessing on one flank and JK Rowling, who completed her Potter septet, on the other, the media would not fret so obsessively about whether the latest imported saviour had learnt the language yet.

For all its faults, British publishing and literature performs year in, year out at a championship-winning level. Yet such is the dread of culture and ideas in the upper reaches of our public life that the routine triumphs of this trade count for next to nothing against the latest horror story of sporting underachievement. As it happens, that syndrome owes a lot to the same neurotic fear of creative intelligence. Ask Monsieur Wenger or (after a few more lessons) Signor Capello.

We could at least welcome a prime minister with book-loving credentials. Gordon Brown singled out literary festivals as a glory of the thoughtful country he sought to lead. Those festivals went on thriving, but too many corporate publishers and booksellers persisted in taking the sort of readers and buyers who flock to them utterly for granted.

A small storm blew up when it emerged that Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach had accounted for more than 90 per cent of all sales of the six novels on this year's Man Booker shortlist. (Anne Enright's The Gathering, the eventual winner, has now caught up fast.) The problem rests not with the authors in fiction, the year saw auspicious debuts by the likes of Nikita Lalwani (Gifted) and Tahmima Anam (A Golden Age) as well as searching and ambitious work from blue-chip novelists such as Rose Tremain (The Road Home) and AL Kennedy (Day) so much as an institutional failure to find and keep fresh audiences for any books outside safe generic boxes.

A decade after the arrival of Amazon, UK publishers still look slow and clumsy when it comes to harnessing the might of the internet to engage and excite readers. Groundhog Day-style, they spent another year arguing in circles about digital gadgetry and legality, but again proved half-hearted when it came to profiting from the established synergy between net culture and the printed word. Look at Men in Space, the ingenious second novel by Tom McCarthy, a bright youngish thing with a vocal internet fan-club. However trad the product (from adventurous indie Alma Books), the online route that led McCarthy to cult status could hardly be more up-to-date. The galaxies of Gutenberg and Facebook can meet, to everybody's benefit.

Chain bookshops, on the other hand, are stuck in a star-struck past peopled by the likes of Russell (Brand), Nigella (Lawson) and Jeremy (Clarkson), where only TV exposure buys success. Still, exciting non-fiction prospered on the back of critical acclaim, from Simon Sebag Montefiore's Young Stalin and Charles Nicholl's sleuthing into Shakespeare's life, The Lodger, to Robert Macfarlane's The Wild Places one of a flock of first-rate works about the threatened natural world.

The chief defect of the literary team in 2007 lay not with writers or readers but with the sclerotic system of marketing and retailing that mediates (or fails to) between the two. It does not have to be this way. All the devices of the digital era lie ready to be pressed into the service of talent rather than trash. Yet, in a smallish, urban country, actual bookshops will still matter as C4 chairman Luke Johnson confirmed when he voted with his chequebook to acquire the Borders chain. How pleasant to report, too, that travellers at the spanking new St Pancras rail terminal will leave or enter Britain to the sight not of some bog-standard Waterstone's (as timid as ever during 2007) but to a handsomely stocked branch of Foyles. Once his English is up to speed, we might spot Signor Capello browsing in there.

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