Brexit: The ripple effect

It has become clear that the outcome of the EU referendum was one that few people in publishing wanted. It’s also apparent that it wasn’t the outcome that most people in government wanted, either, nor what many of those campaigning for “Leave” expected.

However, ours is a business based on optimism. On the optimism of a writer, who spends years crafting a narrative with which they hope to catch an agent’s eye. On the optimism of an agent, who is prepared to pitch exhaustively in order to place their client’s work, and to strike the best possible deal with a publisher for that writer. On the optimism of a publisher, lobbying for a Richard & Judy selection or that elusive front of store space. On the optimism of a bookseller, cultivating a community that loves books and will buy, buy and buy again. And on the optimism of a reader, who wants whatever they pick up to be The Next Big Thing, a story they can lose themselves in.

So why all the gloomy prognoses? Last week I read statements from within the publishing community that read as though “Project Fear” was a manifesto to be fulfilled rather than a challenge to be met. Be careful what you wish for: if you build it, it may come.

I’m no Pollyanna (bloomers don’t suit me) and the days after the vote saw me with hatchet face as my default setting. It’s been bloody hard to get anything done, what with a sense of collective shock, and the collateral damage and repositioning among our political leaders, as well as some ugly encounters on the streets. But we’ve got to acknowledge that in publishing we have something wonderful we want to cherish and save, not prematurely mourn. It all starts with someone having an idea that becomes a book, and working within a structure that enables them to earn a living.

Last week (5th July) saw the first ever British IP Day, when representatives from all sectors of the creative economy with Intellectual Property at their heart converged at Westminster. The Association of Authors’ Agents (AAA) fielded two clients from within its membership to meet their MPs, together with their publishers and the Publishers Association (PA). They represented the breadth of endeavour and achievement in literary IP: on the one hand, Luke Kelly of the Roald Dahl Estate, which sits at hub of an astonishing range of activities related to Dahl’s work (a museum, global film and TV success, book publishing worldwide, children’s literacy outreach); on the other, Millie Marotta, whose works are “trending” in the fullest sense of the word, defining and driving a market and facilitating sales of books to many for whom reading isn’t a habit, and through retailers for whom they have become a mainstay.

First past the post

However, these visits marked not only the red-letter British IP Day. Conservative MP Cheryl Gillan held her meeting with Kelly, his agent Anthony Goff (DHA), publisher Francesca Dow (PRH Children’s m.d.) and myself while on a short break from invigilating the first round of the Tory leadership ballot.

Marotta met her Tenby constituency MP Simon Hart, with Pavilion publisher Polly Powell, agent Karolina Sutton (Curtis Brown) and Susie Winter of the PA, and the day ended with the culture secretary John Whittingdale presenting her with a Nielsen Gold Award, for sales of 500,000 copies through Bookscan [see Picture Page, p39].

The day after the referendum I said there would be an enormous amount of work to do together to mitigate the damage caused and noted the “ripple effect”. Now’s the time to engage the flood defences and work to stop those ripples turning into anything that can pull authors under.

On the one hand, nothing has changed on an operational level; even after the Article 50 trigger is pulled, we have around two years to redefine the status quo. It would appear that the government is working either to maintain access to the single market (within which we would be bound by its rules), or to define a version of it that is similar. A number of publishers have indicated to me that they would still expect to contract for European territories on an exclusive basis where those rights are available. The commercial provisions we have established with publishers are that where the EU and European Free Trade Association (EFTA) market is exclusive, then royalties are payable on the same rates as for sales in the UK itself. I can’t see UK publishers wanting US publishers to be more active in Europe as a geographical territory, regardless of our EU/ EFTA status, so they are going to need to remain competitive about these territories. We have long worked on the basis of granting exclusive rights over and above actual national borders, so there is no sudden need to change. We also have a valuable seat at the table in Brussels and remain engaged in the negotiations that will frame the digital single market, which will affect us in terms of trading with it even if we aren’t formally within it. This is no time to be walking away.

The Alliance for Intellectual Property (AIP) advises me that there are an estimated 6,000 pieces of UK legislation that will have to be reviewed as we unpick ourselves from the EU, which is likely to require a team of 15,000 people and a minimum of six years. The risk is that there will be a temptation to deregulate aspects of, among many other things, copyright protection. This we have to resist and indeed, a number of bodies, such as the AIP and the Creative Industries Federation, are drawing up lists of key points on which we must have assurances. Whether it is bodies such as these dealing with the government or the civil service, or authors and agents dealing with publishers, we need to engage positively and, when necessary, defensively, in negotiating the outcome. In my view, given the enormity of the task, working to retain a healthy status quo will be a big victory.

When I began writing this piece, we effectively didn’t have a prime minister. As I finish it, we seem to have sidestepped a destructive couple of months of political backbiting. Let’s hope this stabilising process is one we can roll out in our own dealings, as we work towards a process of collective reassurances.

Gordon Wise is president of the Association of Authors' Agents and a senior agent at Curtis Brown.