At the inaugural Saltire Society Scottish Publisher of the Year Awards in this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival, Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs Fiona Hyslop MSP, praised “Scotland’s fantastic publishing industry.” But is it so fantastic?
With almost every dinner table or barroom conversation in Edinburgh bringing up the question of independence sooner or later, issues of cultural autonomy have never been more pertinent. And writers and literature have always been critical to Scotland’s modern sense of identity and nationhood, from Walter Scott’s creation of the cult of Caledonia to Edwin Morgan’s transformative donation to the Scottish National Party.
Does it have a publishing industry to match? I asked around Edinburgh to find out.
“Publishing is a cultural and educational industry and in a small country such as Scotland can be vital in providing a written record, particularly championing areas of culture such as Gaelic and Scots that would not be published elsewhere,” states the website of Publishing Scotland, the trade body for Scotland’s book publishers. According to the website, “there are around 110 publishers in Scotland,” employing around 1,500 people in publishing companies, and producing an average of 3,000 new titles each year (some 30% of them fiction), with an average turnover of £343 million ($534.4 million), yielding royalties for over 14,000 writers. This for a nation of just under 5.3 million.
Writers and publishers I spoke to in Edinburgh agreed that Scotland has some brilliant writers, and is producing more. The two “Ians”—Iain Banks and Ian Rankin—Alasdair Gray, Liz Lochhead, Irvine Welsh, form a modern Scottish literary establishment well able to stand up to anything England can field. J. K. Rowling, meanwhile, has made Edinburgh probably the British Isles’s number one destination for film producers and entertainment groups looking to license rights. And younger writers of strength and talent seem to be finding their way up all the time.
Yet the people I spoke to mostly believed that there is just not the fertile undergrowth of local publishing in Scotland to allow those writers to take root and flourish there. Most of them, ran the current of opinion, would sooner or later have to go down south to find a house able to take them through the crucial career-building phase. And Publishing Scotland’s figures do suggest that if anything the industry is undermanned compared to the size of the creative community, with almost ten authors per publishing professional.
As a contrast, here’s a perspective on another publishing industry from another northern nation of almost equivalent size: Norway. As book bloggers Andrew Goldstone and Lee Konstantinou reported in digital salon Arcade in 2011, drawing on Wendy Griswold’s book “Regionalism and the Reading Class“:
“Norway buys 1000 copies of every book a Norwegian author publishes. It provides a $19,000 annual subsidy to every author who is a member of the Authors’ Union. The Association of Bookstores is allowed to have a monopoly on the sale of books—but is prohibited by law from engaging in price competition. It requires, by law, that bookstores keep books in stock for two years regardless of sales. And it exempts books from its very steep sales tax.”
I’m not advocating anything to Norwegian levels for Scotland, even if the upcoming independence referendum does deliver a yes. I’m not sure if this is even affordable. All the same, it’s interesting to consider the options that could be available for Scottish publishing in future.