The Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) recently released the latest figures on how much the creative sector contributes to the UK economy, as expressed in “gross value added” (GVA). The headline statistics are both enormous and enjoyable. The sector has grown a whopping 43% since 2010, making it one of the most robust and impressive contributors to the UK economy.
Publishing alone accounts for 0.5% of the GVA, a small percentage, but valued at slightly over £10bn. That’s a lot of Pinches of Nom. Publishing also sits solidly, if not spectacularly, among its creative cousins. Music contributes slightly less, at £9.3bn. Architecture is a comparatively minuscule £3.6bn. Film (£20bn) and advertising (£18bn) are larger contributors, but not inordinately so. Publishing can hold its head up high: £10bn is nothing to be sneered at.
In How to Lie with Statistics (1954), Darrell Huff reveals how “the secret language of statistics... is employed to sensationalise, inflate, confuse and oversimplify”. In the case of publishing’s £10bn, we have a number to be proud of, but only in isolation. Taken as part of a trend, it starts to tell us a very different story.
Since 2010, that 43% growth in the GVA has been predominantly driven not by publishing, but by its more commercial cousins. Across the creative sector as a whole, the industries split into two categories. The high growth areas include music (+48%), film/TV (+37%) and advertising (+96%). Even tiny architecture boasts a whopping +115% growth rate since 2010. The low growth areas are museums (+1%), craft (a contraction, actually, of 4%) and... publishing (+9%).
In 2010, publishing generated £9.2bn GVA, so 2018’s £10bn is “only” £800m growth. By contrast, the now similarly-sized music category has grown 48%, contributing £3bn more to the UK economy than it did in 2010.
Even more worrying, the DCMS figures do not account for inflation. When can a £10bn contribution make for gloomy reading? When, in 2008, it was the equivalent of £12.1bn. Which is to say: publishing’s overall contribution to the UK economy has declined by almost 20% in the past decade.
Huff also notes that there is “terror in numbers”, and this article, so far, has been a nightmarish procession of them. It is certainly worth noting that GVA is merely one measure of success; it is an estimate. There are, as always, methodological questions, and so on. As Churchill said,
“if you put two economists in a room, you get two opinions”. (Unless, he added, one is Lord Keynes, in which case you get three.) But, if nothing else, the flat, or even descending trend in GVA illustrates that publishing, as an industry, is in no position to rest on its £10bn laurels.
Public or private
Publishing’s growth curve, such as it is, resembles those of the heritage sector—cultural industries such as museums and craft that rely heavily on public funding. Yet as an industry, publishing is commercial. We have far more in common with our cousins in film, TV and music. They share our problems: trying to sell to busy and distracted consumers, the erosion of high streets and their retailers, ruthless online monopolies, and the ever-increasing ability (and capability) of creators who can go direct to market. Not to mention the challenges of meaningful inclusion and representation, both in the product and the industry itself. But unlike in publishing, these problems have not inhibited their growth.
Which, ultimately, is why the £10bn figure is dangerous. It sounds successful, and encourages congratulation rather than introspection. If we are convinced that all is well—that the status quo is as bright and shiny as a trillion pennies—we are merely accepting the coziness of our decline. As an industry, we already have an insidious tendency to default to the same again: to find something that works, then repeat until (or throughout) diminishing returns; to re-target our existing audiences to the point of exhaustion. If there’s one lesson to learn from our commercial cousins in other media, it is that we need new audiences not only to grow, but also to survive.
So £10bn may not be the £12bn it should be, but it still buys a lot of clout, a lot of attention, a lot of talent, and even a fair amount of time. How we spend it, however, is up to us.
Jared Shurin is head of strategy at M&C Saatchi’s Social Impact Practice. He is also a reviewer, speaker and editor. His latest book is The Outcast Hours (with Mahvesh Murad, published by Solaris).