Our December blog is written by the Chair of our Management Committee, Daniel Hahn.
Those of you who came along to our AGM last month will have heard me talking about the state of the world for writers today, and about what the SoA has been doing, on our behalf, to make it better. I mentioned then that there are new opportunities as well as new challenges, and suggested that perhaps in our worry about the latter we fail sometimes to appreciate the former.
It hasn’t been long since ALCS shared the results of their survey that showed a precipitous drop in authors’ incomes over the past decade. There is plenty of entirely justified concern among writers I know – as there was, too, expressed at that AGM – about a grey, grim-looking future for our profession; and it can be difficult not to be overtaken by that anxiety.
Surely none of us can have failed to recognise the threats to the old publishing world, a world that has often seemed to serve us and our readers pretty well, and which has in some cases supported us our whole careers. (True, of course, it has never been the most stable of professions, but the uncertainty we face now is something quite new.)
The value of the book – even something as simple and fundamental as that – is no longer taken for granted; every player in the chain of production and supply (I’m sorry to call it that, if it seems vulgar, but you know what I mean – from the author to the reader and everyone in between) has to fight harder to justify their share of ever-diminishing total returns.
A prospective world in which we’re all basically self-publishers and all sell via a single company – one which increasingly looks like the only game in town – and then fight with no kind of support to get our books noticed amid a huge flood of mediocrity, is not an endgame many of us relish. It may work for some of us, occasionally, one-off, and it may look good to the consumer in the short term, but we know what the longer-term damage will be.
But that is not the whole picture.
Here, then, are three very recent pieces of news:
•After campaigning by the SoA and many others, the High Court has ruled that restricting prisoners’ access to books is unlawful;
•Waterstones looks like it’s turned a corner, and is beginning to show signs of growth; it’s very modest growth, but it’s still the best in a while. New shops are opening, and they’ve just announced that they are expecting to break even this financial year for the first time in an age;
•In his autumn statement, George Osborne announced the so-called 'Google tax', levied from companies who have hitherto been taxed abroad on profits on their UK sales. The effect in practice remains to be seen, but it is, at the least, an indication that there is scrutiny on these practices, and some political will to address them.
Three stories, all of them from within the last three weeks.
I know, the big problems are still the big problems. Have we in these three weeks seen a really massive shift in any part of the writing, publishing, bookselling world? No, of course not. But each of these three stories is a small victory, and a push back against a tide of troubles that can sometimes feel just too huge to challenge. Each of these stories is one more part of a fight to preserve something we all value. And as we come to the end of the year, and inevitably strike a retrospective tone, I’m choosing to remember these small victories, and many like them, and the individuals and organisations – the SoA at their forefront – who make them happen.
There’s oh so much that needs to be done… but so much, also, that we can do – individually and as a profession, as a Society, and with our allies, to continue to question and challenge the things we don’t like, and protect those we do. So, time to limber up for 2015 – it’s going to be busy.
Meantime I’m going to be spending this holiday reading. Working my way through the intimidating to-be-read piles that have been accumulating over the past twelve months. And while I do complain occasionally – OK, maybe more than occasionally – about these towers of books blocking out much of the light in my flat, looming dustily over me, demanding to be dealt with… well, the truth is that far from being a burden.
Being allowed to gorge on them is always a thrill, because the richness I keep finding when working my way through those piles is a reminder of how powerful such great writing can be. How bold and innovative great publishing can be, how extraordinarily lucky we readers are to have these experiences. That all sounds a little trite, I know, but it’s also, simply, why we do what we do, and why it’s so important. So amid the grey and the gloom, I choose to remember these things, too.
See you next year.