Boyd Tonkin: Time to gather the daring books of May

The Week In Books

As night follows day and a juicy book deal follows a crowd-pleasing triumph on a TV talent show, so critics of publishing follies will always accuse the industry of hype. True, even in these skinflint days, bargain-basement writing will attract de luxe publicity if the firm has paid enough to panic about recouping the cost. Yet, this spring, the book business in Britain stands open to exactly the opposite charge. Have you spotted the billboard ads, the excited chat-show discussions, the online teasers and commercial-break slots alerting readers to a Miracle May for fiction? Of course not: they don't exist, and neither could they ever unless publishers opt to smarten up their act and hang together – instead of hanging separately, as they otherwise will.

Contrary to the smug predictions that books will always ride out a recession, sales have dropped during the current crunch. New figures for 2008 in Britain already reveal a small fall of 1.6 per cent in the value of the market – with much worse expected this year. Rolling statistics, which take account of the first quarter of 2009, show a decline of more than 3 per cent. However, pain will be unevenly spread. Well-promoted genre fiction may hold its expensively-coiffed head above the choppy waters, while publishers of ideas-driven non-fiction tell me that tough times seem to have whetted the national appetite for hard thinking.

Every side agrees that one sector above all will suffer a steep downturn: so-called "literary" fiction, however you define that term. But, right on cue for this season of maximum gloom, the next four weeks or so will see a reinvigorating shower of new works from many of the best loved or most promising novelist in Britain and beyond.

If ever there were a moment for publishers to sink their petty rivalries and mount a united-front campaign, this must is it. From AS Byatt (The Children's Book), Kazuo Ishiguro (Nocturnes) and Amanda Craig (Hearts and Minds) through Hilary Mantel (Wolf Hall), Colm Tóibín (Brooklyn) and Monica Ali (In the Kitchen) to Anne Michaels (The Winter Vault), Tash Aw (Map of the Invisible World), Iain Pears (Stone's Fall) and Jake Arnott (The Devil's Paintbrush), the breadth of May's spring spread should make any sane business salivate. Then, in the first days of June, two more novels arrive which might outpeform even this month of marvels: Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger and Carlos Ruiz Záfon's The Angel's Game.

The point is not to proclaim that each of these titles ranks as a modern masterpiece. Rather, their clustered nativity at least proves that ambitious fiction from beyond the rigid commercial categories can make a collective splash. Fatally, no one in the industry will ever think of staging a shared push to celebrate this blossoming. Chain retailers have their own seasonal agendas, while publishers will make a fuss of their own precious babies while striving to cut their competitors' throats.

Only at the non-conglomerate end of the business has the co-operative penny dropped. The Independent Alliance, which brings together ten of the country's most distinguished imprints (such as Faber, Canongate, Profile, Granta and Atlantic), has pioneered joint action on sales and marketing to raise the visibility and impact of their books. Authors and readers should hope that non-aligned bookstores can also act for the general good. The titles I have cited - plus a few more, ideally from the shortlist of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize - might make an alluring enough display when topped with some suitbably upbeat corny slogan ("Pick yourself a book in May: the month when fine fiction flowers").

At any rate, such a non-partisan jamboree might pass the time cheerfully while the entire trade pines for its September salvation in the guise of Dan Brown's long-awaited return, The Lost Symbol. For Britain's beggar-my-neighbour book people, this year is shaping up to look more like the lost plot.

P.S.By the time you read this, Carol Ann Duffy may well have been confirmed as the new Poet Laureate. After a near-miss a decade ago, when Andrew Motion got the nod, she will assume the post better prepared than any other national poet in literary history. In her 2007 children's collection The Hat, the title poem presents the progress of English verse as it jumps over centuries of inspiration from head to head, mouth to mouth. "Whose head, whose head, whose will I settle on next?" Now the bardic cap fits her; she will wear it well. And how satisfying to see a natural rebel, maverick and mischief-maker ready to take on a role that undue pomposity can kill stone dead. As that celebrated non-laureate, WH Auden, wrote in 1932: "Private faces in public places/ Are wiser and nicer/ Than public faces in private places".

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas