Libraries and bookshops are a vital part of the community – protecting them from closure is crucial for levelling up
Writers, booksellers, libraries, and publishers are part of an important creative ecosystem that also includes local schools and colleges. Despite the growth of online reading, books are an indispensable aid in improving and maintaining literacy.
But it is a system that should also be encouraging the enjoyment of reading and – crucially – support authors who make such a significant contribution to society, including many whose livelihood is a fragile one.
It is clear one side effect of the pandemic – with so many people housebound – has been to stimulate an interest in reading. Post-pandemic we need to capitalise on this interest.
Yet in many other ways the effect of the pandemic has been catastrophic, particularly on those significant secondary sources of income for authors, such as visits to schools, libraries and festivals, while publishers have had to cancel projects.
Many freelancers have fallen through the gaps in support provided by government schemes. While the Cultural Recovery Fund is appreciated, the fund has benefited organisations more than individuals.
The pandemic happened against a background of long-term cuts due to austerity; between 2010 and 2019 almost 800 libraries were lost in the UK. The pandemic itself could lead to further permanent closures. Libraries provide a significant resource for the whole of society including those less well-off. If the levelling up agenda is to be taken seriously then that trend needs to be reversed. Local authorities need to be provided with enough funding to maintain libraries. This should be a clear government objective.
It is important that the current system of business rates is reviewed if a large Amazon warehouse is paying lower rates than a high street bookseller
Libraries are also important for the livelihoods of authors. The government can help would by increasing the Public Lending Right (PLR) fund which has been frozen at £6.6m since 2015. PLR is a fair system of remuneration, yet we are falling behind other countries in Europe with similar schemes; the fund being currently half the level per head of population in Germany, for example.
Like libraries, booksellers are important to a local community in terms of their social and educational value. They act as hubs – many now have cafes attached to them. Bookshops provide a very different service to online sellers, as they allow for potential customers to browse a wide range of genres. A reduction in their number would mean the loss of opportunity for many writers.
The government needs to take steps to protect bookshops. The All-Party Writers Group has recommended the introduction of an online sales tax. But it is also important that the current system of business rates is properly reviewed if this has the effect of a large Amazon warehouse paying lower rates than a high street bookseller.
One of the biggest threats to authors would be the change to post-Brexit UK copyright law currently under consideration. Most immediately, the removal of copyright protection on global resale of books would affect authors’ livelihoods - royalty income makes up a vital part of an author’s earnings.
But it would also reduce the number of British authors available worldwide and domestically. It would affect diversity in the writing profession and reduce our cultural standing in the world. Ultimately, big tech would benefit at the expense of British cultural exports. We need to retain the current exhaustion model.
At the heart of this ecosystem are reader and writer. Writers, alongside other creators, need better representation with DCMS through a “creators council”. This would facilitate better understanding by government of their needs which differ from the creative industries as a whole. The DCMS Select Committee has supported this proposal and the government should listen.
Earl of Clancarty is a crossbench peer.
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