Scotland’s literary culture is world-renowned. There are few other countries that can boast so many global household names, past (Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, Robert Burns) and present (Ian Rankin, J. K. Rowling, Alexander McCall Smith, Val McDermid). As an example of Scotland’s love of books, there are more literary festivals per capita here than anywhere else in the world. Amongst that number is the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the largest celebration of the written word in the world. Edinburgh was also named UNESCO’s first City of Literature, in homage of its unique contribution.
However, publishing in Scotland over the years has withered. The conglomeration and globalisation of the book trade, now dominated by multinational corporations such as Penguin Random House, Amazon and Hachette (Lagardère), has disproportionately affected the north. Large publishers act like combine harvesters, tearing home-grown publishers from their roots and funnelling them into their hoppers under the strong gravitational pull of London. Well-known companies such as HarperCollins, Chambers and Churchill Livingston, all once based in the Central Belt, have been bought, merged and migrated south. Authors such as Ian Rankin, first published by Polygon books, move too – large London publishers, with their global marketing reach, are attractive.
The tough economic environment since the banking crisis, leaving many small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) vulnerable, has further exacerbated the situation. However, it remains that SMEs are a large portion of Scotland’s contemporary economic makeup. According to a government report in 2012, they comprise 55% of private sector employment and 38% of total turnover in Scotland.
Scottish publishing, consisting typically of SMEs, is worth £343m (or 9.6% of the total UK industry in 2012), on par with the cashmere and salmon industries. Many thrive upon a hefty global appetite of crime fiction and Scottish-subject books, and publishers like Canongate and Birlinn have a good reputation. But this is pre-referendum, what would happen if Scotland voted ‘yes’?
Well, there are a few qualms. Sure there are overarching questions concerning economy, currency, EU membership and so on, but those are for lawyers and accountants to sort out during the transition.
Within the UK, Scottish publishers currently enjoy a 0% VAT rate – EU legislation requiring most countries to carry at least a 5% VAT rate for printed material (with exceptions). The British Isles, including Ireland, are the only counties who do not charge an added tax to books. If Scotland fails to renegotiate VAT exemption with EU membership (a feat which may prove difficult in lieu of EU ‘tax harmonisation’ inclinations), unbalanced tax rates within these islands will add further difficulties to the industry. Publishing Scotland is taking steps to clarify this situation.
Furthermore, some publishers, like Hugh Andrews, managing director of Birlinn, are against independence, stating that it will create a division between Scotland and London, a wall of ‘foreign-ness’ if you will. He also takes exception to the government’s fixation with Amazon – that monopolising, tax-avoiding mammoth of a company who has revolutionised online retail. For SMEs who make up the Scottish industry, it would be inviting the fox into the chicken coop.
Andrews expresses frustration with the lack of practical support from funding bodies such as Creative Scotland. Here he is joined by pro-independence publisher Mark Buckland, managing director of Cargo. Culture is a devolved matter and so any changes to support the publishing industry surely would have seen implementation by now? Or do they expect too much funding? Marion Sinclair, chief executive of Publishing Scotland, believes that independence may well see an increase in literature funding.
And sometimes, the Scottish Government does not act in the best interest of small business. A recent deal was announced concerning the book provision to Scottish schools (a large potential market for many publishers). The Scottish government decided to give the contract to larger conglomerates, leaving SME publishers in the dark. Such poor representation, coupled with support for Amazon, does not bode well for a future fair competition market.
Yet, others don’t foresee much of a change at all. Publishing is a global industry which is fundamentally shifting. Questions of foreign markets, digitisation, pricing, discounts and conglomeration weigh more on the minds of many publishers than the improbable doom-and-gloom worst-case scenario. Still, even slight fluctuations in GDP and economy further constrict a publisher’s tight margins.
The past decades have seen companies with global outlook harvested by London-centric conglomerates. However, while the upper crop has been cleared away, new undergrowth has sprung up. Scotland’s publishing industry is resilient, in the face of everything. The literature produced here is of global calibre.
The point is that a local, Scottish government will look after Scottish businesses more effectively. It is important that steps be taken to weaken the London-centric pull. The proposal to lower corporation tax is an example of this – if somewhat poorly considered, their heart’s in the right place. If governmental policies are misguided, at least Scottish SMEs can go to Holyrood and yell at their local MSP. In London, they are just overwhelmed by the thundering bellows of goliaths. An independent Scottish government would have the power to regulate influx through national floodgates, much as Norway has done. In the intensifying deluge of globalisation, that might be all-too-necessary to protect a unique industry, an industry too small and too distant to register on Westminster’s radar.