Inside the World of Publishing with Andrew Holgate, Helen Conford, and Georgina Laycock
From the Read Smart Podcast, Presented by the Baillie Gifford Prize
To mark 21 years of rewarding the best nonfiction writing, The Baillie Gifford Prize has launched a new podcast generously supported by the Blavatnik Family Foundation. On the second series of the podcast, host Razia Iqbal will explore the increasingly popular world of nonfiction books. Each episode includes discussions and interviews with prize-winning authors, judges and publishing insiders, with guests including prize winner David France (How to Survive a Plague, 2017), publishing director at John Murray Georgina Laycock, 2020 prize judge Simon Ings, 2019 shortlisted author Hannah Fry, and many more.
On today’s podcast, we hear from insiders from the publishing world about trends in non-fiction and the world of books, and what we need in times of crisis. Joining host Razia Iqbal is Andrew Holgate, Literary Editor of the Sunday Times; co-founder of Particular Books and publisher at Profile Books, Helen Conford; and Georgina Laycock who is a publisher at John Murray.
Together, they discuss the shift over the last few years to more serious publishing, the relationship between the internet and books, and the reasons for an increase in popularity in certain genres of nonfiction publishing. Razia also asks our guests for their views on the current crisis in terms of what’s being written and published, and what we turn to and reflect upon in times of crisis.
From the conversation:
Razia: Let’s talk about the current trends in nonfiction, if it’s possible, indeed, to talk about trends. Given that you are a literary editor of the national newspaper, Andrew, let’s start with you.
Andrew Holgate: Well, I think the first thing I say is that things have got a lot more serious in the last few years that the publishers are concentrating less on mass market for nonfiction, and they’re moving very much into the more serious end of the market. That I think is partly because of the growing health of Waterstones under James Daunt. This has had a huge impact on the market. So you’ve seen publishers like WH Allen and Transworld suddenly move from mass market and much more into what you would call, I suppose, light literature, like Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens. From my point of view, that is an absolutely wonderful thing. That is what I see as a main trend. There are lots of sub-trends which we can talk about, but that would seem to me to be the main thing that’s happened in the last few years.
Razia: So things are becoming more serious. I would say that Profile Books and John Murray are pretty serious publishers. Georgina, how would you define the trends that you’re seeing?
Georgina Laycock: I think it’s one of those things, as we’re told, that experts aren’t necessary anymore. I think the kind of the trends in the market show that experts are more important than ever before and that authors, like the authors of some serious nonfiction books, can offer the answers that people are looking for. I think that we as a publisher, six years ago it felt as if maybe the book was under serious threat by the Internet, and the fact that you could obtain information so easily when you wanted to find out something that people might not be turning to books anymore. Well, actually, I think quite the reverse has happened, and the people that use the Internet go on these trails after knowledge that are just really, really inspiring. So I think it’s been an amazing area of the market to be working. So I can see why Transworld and these other very savvy publishers are muscling in suddenly because it’s the best place to be.
Razia: Helen Conford, would you concur with that? Is publishing the best place to be?
Helen Conford: I think it’s definitely true that you have this sense with nonfiction that everywhere there is a constant change. It’s definitely a more competitive place to be now because so many more publishers that are working in it. I agree with Andrew that a lot of that has to do with with Waterstones. But the interesting thing with the sort of seriousness and the experts, which I would probably add, is that there’s something about personality which is mixed in with that, because I think that’s this really interesting thing where the books that are really connecting, if it’s not sort of the light literature or narrative space, I think it has a lot to do with the grounds of psychology or history or science, it has to do with self. That’s why we see books like Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, which is partly about the science but it also has the sense that it might change your life. I think that is part of what’s going on as a broad trend in nonfiction.
Read Smart Podcast is commissioned by The Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction and is generously supported by the Blavatnik Family Foundation.