In the publishing world we are rightly, if obsessively, concerned with the possible ramifications of the digital revolution. The demise of the bookshop, the undermining of publishers, the death of the physical book itself, the decimation of the printing trade, these are among the most feared consequences. There are also legitimate worries about the eventual impossibility of maintaining a geographical divide in the selling of rights and protecting exclusive territories. These are enough headaches for anyone.
So it is with impeccable timing that our newish chancellor Gideon George Osbourne and his colleagues decide, while digital is smashing in our front door, to go round and trash the back door. Legislation has rarely been used intelligently to support the book trade – you only need to think back to the deeply inflexible competition law which led to the collapse of the Net Book Agreement and the consequent erosion of prices, customer choice and mid-list, to see how damaging ill thought out laws can be. Now just consider the effects of some of this Tory-led government’s breakneck policies.
Firstly, our libraries are facing their most serious threat to date, with a third of all libraries expected to close. Huge numbers of people rely on public libraries – for various reasons of course, including social interaction, but ultimately because of the access they offer to books. Lots of books. A good library’s shelves are infinitely better stocked than the average Waterstone’s. And librarians are at least as knowledgeable as the average bookseller – they even have formal qualifications. I’m sure I don’t need to press the point in this particular forum, although I would point you to the best piece I’ve yet read on the value of libraries, by Philip Pulman, here. With a drastically weakened library sector, hardbacks will become rarer, mid-list and back-list books will become even harder to find, people’s exposure to and awareness of a diversity of books will shrink even further. But this is all happening simply because the government is obsessed with slashing the nation’s deficit faster than any serious economist deems necessary or wise.
Then there is the rapacious withdrawal of funding to bodies like The Arts Council and The Poetry Book Society, which make a huge contribution to the discovery and development of new talent. Just as subsidised fringe theatre is the training ground that gives us world class money-making theatre in the West End, so too do – or did – these bodies enrich the pool of writing talent available to publishers and readers.
And of course, tuition fees. Alarming opinion polls suggest that the number of school leavers intending to go to university will fall drastically once the new fees are introduced. Never mind the botched nature of the programme – the £9000 exception becoming the overwhelming norm, the government suddenly wondering how it will fund all these top level fees for the several years before any graduates even begin to pay them back – one of the effects will be a decline in book sales. Not just of textbooks, but of all books, because university is an environment steeped in books. If that environment contracts, the book trade suffers.
What can we find to be pleased about? Well, they still haven’t slapped VAT on books. But given the stagnant economy, increasing inflation and rising unemployment leading to a higher benefits bill, they’re probably going to need to find more money somewhere.
A government that claims to want to boost the private sector and create jobs and wealth, has a very funny way of demonstrating that in our industry.