Gesa Stedman rounds up the most important news from the literary field from in-house audio production to more or less feeble attempts at diversifying publishing in the UK to alleged Brexit silver linings.
In-house Audio and Discounts
One of the strongest trends in the literary field in the UK, but also elsewhere in the Western world, is the unstoppable rise of audiobooks. Penguin Random House and other publishers want to profit from this trend, not just by having their authors’ books turned into audiobooks, but by becoming audio producers themselves. In order to achieve this, PRH have launched their own three new recording studios, complete with a new team to ensure their impact on the wildly competitive audio market. This new venture is once again technology-driven, but it does not seem to disturb publishers as much as the advent of the e-book, which was talked about as a threat to the physical book for many years, until it became clear that the printed book is still something readers need and want.
That not all is well for authors, however, becomes clear when one understands how detrimental the British discount culture is to authors’ earnings. Countries which have kept to a fixed book price and only allow discounting on second-hand and books marked for remaindering of course ensure a more reliable income for authors. Countries such as the UK, which abolised the fixed book price with the Net Book Agreement in 1995, allows enormous discounting (“2 for the price of 1”) and competition between retailers. Publishers cannot ensure revenue unless they allow retailers discounts – and of course the less they get themselves, the less they pass on to their authors. But even if publishers are successful, they still do not pass on a fair enough share to their authors which means most of the latter have a day job that has nothing or little to do with writing.
Any News on Brexit?
And how much influence has Brexit had so far? No one knows as yet, but claiming that there is a silver lining on the horizon for the book trade seems to be rather optimistic, and the argument that e.g. the possibility of reducing VAT on e-books is now available seems to be the only positive aspect. And as the Irish publisher Ivan O’Brien from The O’Brien Press (Dublin) points out in a letter to the editor of The Bookseller ( 7 February 2020, 9), this has long been the case within the EU (since September 2018) and is not something Brexiteers should pretend to be an outcome of Brexit. None of the other aspects such as mainting “gold-standard” British copyright rules as mentioned by some publishers – most notably, the very large ones are quoted in The Bookseller – seem at all feasible or about to happen. It therefore remains to be seen how the industry reacts to the challenges of tariffs and trade obstacles, quite apart from the larger political and ideological challenge of dealing with the political context of the Brexit decision.
Diversity: Silver Linings?
The non-diversity of the literary field is a feature we have mentioned frequently in our blogs, and will continue to do so, as change seems to be extremely slow. Three recent positive developments and a timely petition to the government deserve a mention: The chair for this year’s Booker Prize is Margaret Busby, the first African-born British publisher, and founder of publishers Allison & Busby. This year’s TS Eliot Prize for Poetry went to Roger Robinson who was born in Britain, spent his childhood in Trinidad and returned to Britain as a 19-year old. The activist, musician (King Midas Touch), and dub poet who had Bernadine Evaristo as one of his mentors via Spread the Word is outspoken about the political role his poetry can and should play: “Poetry could touch their lives and reading could be useful for them”, he explains his former role as a young teacher of mostly black young people in a recent article in The Guardian (link to Guardian article , last access 24 February 2020).
That more of these young people need to be welcomed into the industry is a well-documented fact. LDN Apprenticeships (link to their website, last access 24 Feburary 2020) offers an alternative route into publishing – alternative to the usual white graduate-entry middle-class good schools, good university-type career – and has just started 16 apprentices who work in different publishing houses who attend a set of 12 workshops across the board of publishing roles from editorial to marketing and sales in order to get an overview of the publishing industry within a period of 13 to 15 months. They end up being qualified publishing assistants and are employed like any other employee. How does this help diversity? Because this kind of approach – practical, debt-free – allows people from backgrounds other than those mentioned above to join publishing, thus providing the much-sought new and other voices which are desparately needed in order to shift publishing from its white middle-class southern English bias. This, in other words, is an initiative one should watch to see how it develops.
And finally, more than 600 authors have signed a petition to the government asking them to reduce VAT on digital publiations. Why is that important? Because the reading tax on digital books – there is no VAT on printed books – makes it harder for people with low incomes to access books and other digital sources of knowledge for which one needs to pay. People who find it hard to read print but read digitial publications would profit from cheaper access and people who don’t earn much cannot afford printed books, but might be able to manage digital books if they did not have VAT on them. The campaign explains the details on its website here (link): www.axethereadingtax.org (last access 28 Feburary 2020)
None of the above developments are more than a drop in the ocean, but one does need to start somewhere…