Six ways to make things better

Bringing back the Net Book Agreement would be a good start for badly-paid authors

Books Columns

This article is taken from the January/February 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

The secret author has been accused of — that dreadful modern word — “negativity”. He has, even more distressingly, been accused of cynicism. He has been accused of living in the last century. He has been accused of being a middle-aged, middle-class and possibly hetero-normative white man. The final charge, alas, is incontestable. But here, to begin the year, is something positive, expressly conceived to demonstrate to everyone beyond this exclusive demographic that he is on their side — a six-point manifesto designed to make the literary world a better place for the people who labour in it.

1. Too many writers.

However much it may affront the sensibilities of the average arts world apparatchik, and however depressing the implications, there is no getting away from this elemental point. Ours is an overcrowded and underfunded profession, further compromised on each occasion that an MA creative writing course releases another batch of graduates onto the market. If the increasingly limited cake is to go round then, sadly, we need fewer people writing books and more people reading them.

2. Too many book prizes.

The proliferation of literary awards over the past couple of decades has removed most of the distinction that used to come with winning them. Also — something that tends to be forgotten in media excitement over the Booker or the Costa — most of the money laid out on book prizes is spent on promoting them rather than rewarding the authors who compete.

Arts world pundits are always keen on sponsoring the young

If the Booker trustees really wanted to help literature, they would do far better to cancel the prize altogether and distribute the funding in the shape of bursaries to the deserving. It goes without saying that most of these petitioners would be older writers. Arts world pundits are always keen on sponsoring the young. In fact, it is the veteran hack who needs support in these difficult times.

3. Bring back the Net Book Agreement.

Younger readers may not know that until the mid-1990s, when the opportunists swept it away, we used to have price-fixing in the UK book trade. But what is wrong with selling a book for the price marked on the cover?

One advantage was that it established a level playing field for retailers, rather than creating a situation in which an independent bookseller finds the new J.K. Rowling — list price £20, say — on sale at the Waterstones down the road at £13 and on the internet at £10.99.

You hear occasional suggestions that cheap books are “democratic” and allow greater freedom of choice. They aren’t, and don’t, for with high discounting all that happens is that more copies are sold of fewer titles. Curiously enough, a new Net Book Agreement would mean that many books would become less, not more expensive. Most publishers currently overprice their wares, on the assumption that Amazon and the big retailers will undercut. Oh, and nothing would be more calculated to diminish Amazon’s power than an inalienable cover price.

4. Proper support for libraries.

You probably don’t know the name of the current UK libraries minister. Her name is Caroline Dineage. Such is the low profile that this lady keeps that I confess I had to look her up on Wikipedia. The history of the post she occupies, certainly over the past two decades, is one of managed decline sometimes amounting to outright neglect.

The current incumbent has the ability, vested in her by the 1964 Libraries Act, to intervene whenever a local council starts pruning its budget. Why doesn’t she? Libraries, as the Manic Street Preachers once so memorably put it, “gave us power” — writers,
readers and the public at large — and their incremental demise shames our culture.

5. Books on television.

Why can’t the BBC run to a decent books programme? Even mainstream critics were disposed to laugh at this past autumn’s effort, in which Sara Cox and a few literary-minded comedians sat around puffing the latest celebrity trifles. It doesn’t have to be terrifically highbrow (a quality which scares the average TV producer stiff).

If that’s not public service broadcasting, then I don’t know what is.

Why not simply convene, say, Professor John Carey, Ben Okri and Kae Tempest in a studio and get them to discuss the week’s new books, with an accompanying feature in the Radio Times? The cost would be minimal, product would be sold and knowledge diffused. If that’s not public service broadcasting, then I don’t know what is.

6. More recognition for writers.

This is a tricky one, given that most of the kudos and most of the money in the British book trade are bestowed on the people who neither need them nor deserve them. But the Royal Society of Literature and the Society of Authors could make a very good start by getting up a public subscription to fund a tablet, executed by one of our leading engravers, for display in Westminster Abbey and known as “The Tomb of the Unknown Author”. The whole enterprise should be begun with a round-robin letter to The Times, and I am more than happy to sign it myself.

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