Saturday, May 23, 2009

Writers Need Publishers

Imagine, for an instance, if the Tate, Tate Modern, and National Gallery, alongside every other publicly funded gallery in the country closed down because of lack of funding. It wouldn't just be an outcry about the philistine nature of our society, failing to show due care with its national assets, but a cry about the nature of the future: asking where our artists - one of the country's key "creative assets" - would be shown in the future? The art economy that makes a Damian Hirst worth millions, and a rich man, begins in many ways with a range of public subsidies, not all to Hirst of course. It's the same with theatre, and with classical music. But literature, the one art form that we are not just curators of the world's best, but historically, the world's finest, remains left to its own devices.

Writers need publishers, because they also need readerships. It is not Gilbert & George in their East End studio visited by some curious art fans that made them on the world stage, but major exhibitions in our public galleries. The publishing infrastructure is different... perhaps because it is by necessity distributed, and perhaps because, in its curation of the word, its somehow got mangled with the newspaper industry, its primarily a commercially driven world. Yet though it has been this way since the mass market book became possible, the world of gentlemen publishers mixing commercial hits with critical beliefs is long gone. If 90% of novels don't make money, then the publishers could of course just publish the 10% - but of course they'd then have less turnover, no need for staff, in fact, very little need to be publishers. They could just be fulfilment houses for Dan Brown and Stephen King.

It is the little publishers, who, over the last few years, with technology costs coming down, and the big publishers throwing up their hands in confusion at what might be "good literature", who have shown a massive energy. Yet, same as with CDs and DVDs, there's a declining market. Salt Publishing, coming to the end of an Arts Council grant, have found this underpinning vital to their business. Whatever you think of their business model - too many books perhaps, a diversity of authors that its hard to get your head around, concentration on the notoriously low-selling fields of poetry, short stories and lit. crit - their books have been always been lovely items, their literary aesthetic high, and their use of new technologies ahead of the game. A fall off in sales - part economic recession perhaps? partly operating in a falling markeT? - threatens the whole press. Their "Just one book" campaign a reminder that fans of the press who've maybe not bought from them for a while, might want to have a look. Like the Polar bear, once they're gone, they're gone.

But it takes me back to my initial point. Jen and Chris Hamilton-Emery would no doubt get good jobs in the commercial publishing industry, or, as likely, as ambassadors for literature/publishing paid out of the public purse. Yet, the thing that writers need more than another creative writing course, another Arvon weekend, are stable entry points - publishers, magazines, and events - where there is an opportunity to be put before the public. Literature is the cinderella of our subsidised arts, yet this week the BBC is running a "poetry" season which I would guess probably cost more money than the poetry budget of the Arts council this year. Writers don't need buildings; we don't need our Tate Modern or National Theatre or Bridgewater Hall. But we do need places for our work to exist; whether its a magazine or on a publishers list.

UPDATE: Chris Hamilton Emery's blog about the campaign so far, and why it was necessary.

(It can't help me think how difficult it is to keep any sort of creative infrastructure in this country without some public funding. Not necessarily of writers and publishers themselves, but by embedding them or supporting them from larger institutions.)


Sheila Bounford said...

Adrian you make a number of interesting points here. Maybe it is precisely because literature & writers don't need buildings that they are so difficult to fund from the public purse. Investment in tangible assets is always so much more comfortable than the intangible.
One of the problems is that much public funding into literature and writing has been of such questionable value or succcess. Writers don't just need publishers they need markets and routes to market - and without a demonstrable market it is very difficult to get books into the supply chain.

Adrian Slatcher said...

I would say that "questionable value of success" is part of the problem. Funding for writing often has incompatible aims. Interestingly, I notice that local authorities are increasingly keen on literature development as a cheap easy way of reaching targets for inclusion because you don't need a building - just a library - and writers are often cheap tutors, or workshop leaders. I think its the uncoordinated nature of public funding - and the lack of a genuine national literature strategy that are the problem. I'd love to see a national endowment for literature recognising the longer-term stability thats needed to identify, develop and grow writers and their audience. Instead, everything is piecemeal.

Sheila Bounford said...

Do you know Chris Meade @ifbook ? If not you should!

I'm not quite clear what you mean when you say funding for writing often has incompatible aims? Do you mean incompatible with business?

I read an interesting article somewhere recently that pointed out that it is only in the past couple of centuries that writing has been a viable source of (sole) income. Walter Scott was one of the first to live off his earnings. We may have a history of fantastic literature in this country, but many have been supported by private patrons or independent incomes. It is possible that we are returning to the times when writers were not exclusively writers.

This doesn't mean, however, that I disagree with you that there could be better infrastructure. Presses like Tindal Street Press are a great example. Seed beds for writers supported by public funding - but operating in a very commercial way. But the problem inherent in the model for them is that once the writer makes their name, they can command better advances from bigger presses.

I am not sure that a "national endowment" is the answer (or not if it has the same homogenising effect as the national curriculum! I think that the needs of organisations like the Arts Council to be able to demonstrate fairness and inclusivity are very difficult to reconcile with the diverse creativities at work behind our up and coming writing talents.