If the last five years have taught us anything, it’s just how pervasive the European Union, for better or worse, has been on a whole multitude of public policy areas. From food to fisheries, immigration to economic activity, the five years of Brexit wars over our prospect for departure brought numerous policy areas to the front of political attention that had previously been ignored. One of those, surprisingly, is the world of book publishing and copyright rules.
Throughout the UK’s membership of the EU, authors could sell the territorial rights of their work to other countries. This also gives publishers the power to be the sole individuals to sell their books within the UK. It therefore provides vital protection both for the author and the official publishing company they are with.
However, like with so many aspects of Britain’s departure, that looks set to change. The government is planning to leave the European wide regime and operate their own standalone practice. According to the Independent, this scheme, similar to what is used in New Zealand, would allow the import of books from overseas at a cheaper price. Naturally, this flooding of the market would mean consumers buy the cheaper book, and thus damage the official publishing company.
While all writers who seek publication want their tales to be shared with a large group of people, this is done so with the knowledge that ultimate ownership for the book rests with the author
Currently, the UK publishing industry is worth £3.4 billion, providing literary pleasure for so many, and being the inspiration for other art forms. It is thanks to the exclusivity of copyright within the UK that publishers can continue receiving an income, paying authors, and inspiring new writers.
The Publishers Association has predicted that 64% of book revenue, accounting for £2.2 billion each year, could be at risk because of cheap imports. Authors including Hilary Mantel, who has twice won the Booker Prize, and William Boyd have condemned this plan because of the damage it would offer to publishers and the lack of financial protection it provides. The industry currently employs 29,000 directly and 70,000 people indirectly, clearly demonstrating the range of ways individuals would be affected.
Copyright for authors is vital for their recognition as writers. While all writers who seek publication want their stories to be shared with a large group of people, this is done so with the knowledge that ultimate ownership for the book rests with the author. To simply allow other companies that bear no relation whatsoever to the original publishing company to import their copies of the book, is to entirely demean the very definition of copyright.
The declining revenue that these companies face will likely further encourage publishers to deal with authors guaranteed to bring in a high degree of revenue
What are those long term consequences? Yes, obviously job losses. Where possible, I try to not buy my books from Amazon, but I am always looking for a cheaper copy of a book, where it is likely to cost less. If copies of books are flooded in on an international scale, people will undoubtedly shift towards them. Publishers will therefore have to let people go, and not renew authors’ contracts.
It is also likely to make publishers far more risk averse. At the best of times, the publishing world is unstable and an industry nobody enters, along with writing, for the money. The declining revenue that these companies face will likely further encourage publishers to deal with authors guaranteed to bring in a high degree of revenue. Taking a chance on a new writer who brings no guarantee of publishing success may become a thing of the past. That would be damning for ensuring that new voices are pursued and able to have their stories told.
Fundamentally, many great books are properly appreciated when they are brought to the screen. This exposure through film and TV encourages an uptake in book purchasing by individuals who may not have previously been inclined to purchase a copy. What will the impact then of the copyright changes be? Fewer new books published, a decrease in commissioning availability, and ultimately less for viewing pleasure. We all fundamentally lose out.
I would like to think the scenario I am painting is one that does not come to pass. The government has not guaranteed any new scheme yet. They may formulate something that ultimately protects writers at home. But I am not optimistic. Culture must never be seen as a good ‘add on’ for a meaningful society. Rather, it is at the core of what it means to be human, and how all of us reflect on the world. The government would take care to make note of that.