'If we lose our celebrated bookshops and our libraries we will never improve our nation's literacy'

My Lords, I would like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Bird, for initiating this debate. The big issue for me – if I may borrow a phrase from my noble Lord – is books and their enduring importance to civil society and the extent to which both bookshops and libraries are essential to their continued success. Without both, we will not achieve 100% literacy which is an essential aim in the 21st century and a bedrock of social mobility, social cohesion and a strong economy.

I declare an interest as a publisher and founder of two literacy charities - World Book Day for children and Quick Reads for emergent adult readers where Lord Bird contributed one of its first books. I also declare an interest as chair of a high street bookseller campaign, Books Are My Bag, to which I will return.

Books have been central to our history - in particular, the history of ideas - and to human experience. First, painstakingly hand crafted and painted, then hot off Caxton’s printing presses, then sold as sixpenny paperbacks, finally mass-marketed for a post Second World War public hungry for self-improvement, now digitally available at the click an icon. From the pages of books have come fable, soap opera, knowledge, solace, and inspiration for hundreds of years.

Matthew Arnold, writing in 1869, believed that social equality would result from the spread of culture, that all people could live in ‘sweetness and light’ if exposed to the civilising influence of books.  

I am sure all of us here today love books.  For me, as a publisher, it is a passion for discovering new talent and valuing reading as a way of changing people’s lives.

The publishing industry, as a whole, contributes £10.2bn a year to the UK economy, of which retail sales from books account for £5bn and whether we go for a hard or a soft Brexit - hardcovers, softbacks and digital books - will have a significant role to play in our export market in terms of jobs and growth.

Last year book exports were over £1.4 billion:
•    and Europe accounts for over a third (35%) of that.
•    but we don’t know if we will continue to have access to the single market
•    we don’t know if our exports will attract tariffs
•    or, if we will continue - unimpeded - to hire the essential international staff we need or even if intellectual copyright will continue to be adequately protected.

The entire publishing industry supports over 200,000 workers in the UK, many in highly skilled well-paid jobs - the model the government says it wants to see for our economy - and there are 2,270 UK book publishers registered here for VAT.

Most importantly, books sit at the epicentre of the UK creative industries, responsible for £84bn annually of our economy and growing year on year.

Broadway and West End hits are often adaptations of great books by British authors - such as Roald Dahl’s Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.  

Film also relies on the creativity of our authors. The top three grossing film franchises of all time - James Bond, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter - are based on books by UK authors.  

Television too takes inspiration from works by our finest authors such as the late P D James and Ruth Rendell, two former distinguished and much-missed members of your Lordships House, and more recently, dramatisations from "The Night Manager" to "DCI Banks", or the continuing franchise of the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs’ riveting, reinvented "House of Cards".

The Noble Lord, Lord Bird spoke eloquently about the delicate book eco-system and the role of libraries and bookshops in supporting reading for pleasure, learning and literacy and in helping readers discover new works – I agree with all of this.

They also play a vital role in developing the talented authors of the future. Ask any novelist what made them want to write and I guarantee you the seed was planted when they discovered the joy of reading – a joy which began or was augmented through visits to their local library or bookshop.

Recently many of our top authors, including Philip Pullman, Malorie Blackman and Michael Holroyd, wrote to the new Secretary of State for Culture pointing out the crisis in the library sector.

Since 2010, 343 libraries have shut. Opening hours have been cut, alongside educational programmes and mobile libraries and 8,000 trained library staff have been lost, together with hundreds of thousands of new books.

There has been a 93% increase in volunteers - this civically minded army of helpers amazingly is in excess of the entire staff of some of our well known book chains. And this, my Lords, all due to the impossible choices local authorities have to make when their central budgets are slashed.

Libraries should be seen as essential community centres - open to all - where alongside books, people can rely on other essential life services. Arts Council England also recently evoked a vision of libraries as cultural and performance hubs for local communities.

Reversing the decline in library provision and ensuring every school has its own library will be a start to reversing our decline in the literacy skills of the young - we are the only developed nation where our young people significantly underperform their elders according to the OECDs 2012 survey.

And our poor performance is affecting our economy too - it is estimated that over 9 million adults of working age in England have low basic skills - which is costing our economy around £80 billion per year.  

But, my Lords, bookshops are under pressure too. The number of independent book shops has halved since 2005 and they continue to be under threat, with expensive rents and business rates while their online competitors trade from warehouses in less expensive out of town locations.

Online retailing of books has been welcomed by consumers who can shop at any time of day or night and have books delivered to their door.

And readers can elect to read on an electronic reading device, most choosing a Kindle where Amazon have invested early and heavily in the UK, achieving over 90% of e-book sales.

But if we want a diverse and healthy market in bookselling we urgently need to consider the competitive landscape both in e and physical books.  

But why does any diminution of high street locations actually matter? Let market forces prevail say some…

Because bookshops bring something that online just can’t do. As bookseller Rohan Silva – a former adviser to Downing Street says - if you buy online and click on a book by a specific author the other books you will be recommended will fall resolutely into that same category.   

That’s not how it works in bookshops - the careful curation they bring provides for serendipity with the displays arranged to encourage discovery, staff who get to know the customers and whom customers trust to recommend new books that may otherwise never get read.

If you know what you want and prize convenience, you will order online. If you want the serendipity of discovery, you will visit a bookshop, an exciting cultural hub where, research has shown, about 70% of new book discoveries take place. Bookshops alongside book groups, literary festivals, talks by authors all lead to enriching our cultural life.

Algorithms cannot yet replicate this. They cannot replicate the eagerness, enjoyment and wonder that I saw on the faces of young children as they sat and browsed at my local - now defunct - Books etc. children’s section on Saturday mornings.  

Watching children in a local bookshop just across the road from my daughters’ school - one of London’s largest state primary schools on a housing estate in Bayswater - led me to think about how the UK could join the international celebration of World Book Day which led to the World Book Day charity now in its 20th year, making a connection between schools and local bookshops. More than 13 million £1 book tokens have been given to children each year to exchange in bookshops, together with the special production of £1 (effectively free) World Book Day books, allowing children to experience the joy of bookshop discovery and of reading.

But the leading creative position of UK publishing, the global influence of British authors and the whole extended creative industries which thrives on books is in danger of collapsing if we do not have a diverse and vibrant high street for bookshops, both chains and independents as well as a decently funded library system.  

We publish hundreds of thousands of new books a year and the democratisation of access to books via print on demand, or digital only editions has encouraged an explosion of self-published and crowd-funded books.

But very few new authors - carefully curated, funded and edited by publishers - will be discovered without choice on the high street.

Our independent bookshops are the places that unlikely bestsellers are made, but for many indies it is a hand-to-mouth existence powered by passion and a love and belief in the transformative power of books rather than the usual returns of a business.

Some independents are only able to develop thanks to the philanthropy of authors like James Patterson whose financial grants have helped nearly 300 indies to date. From Scarborough to Surbiton, from Peckham to Penzance, independent bookshops have been awarded grants for basic repairs, renovations, new projects and storytelling corners to help boost a love of reading in the young.  

My Lords, our bookshops, such as the newly refurbished Foyles in London, are temples of culture which we would be foolish to allow to wither away - this is why publishers, bookshops and authors have joined forces to create the Books Are My Bag campaign, an initiative created pro bono by my friend for many years the noble Lord, Lord Saatchi’s company, which underlines how a passion for books and literature and pride in our unique global contribution to letters is an issue that resonates across parties. I trust many of you will have visited your own local bookshop last Saturday on National Bookshop Day (8th October) - which is part of this campaign.

But there is only so much the allied industries can do to support our local bookshops.

THE BIG ISSUE is how can government assess and help rebalance the competitive landscape in bookselling in the UK and help encourage more people to value our bookshops before we lose them all together.

Central government also needs to address the funding deficit in local authorities where competing essential services too often result in library closures. Our trajectory towards one library per 50,000 people is simply a disaster.  

My Lords, we have a stark choice, if we lose our celebrated bookshops and our libraries we will never improve our nation’s literacy and we will also lose our next generation of authors and the source of our competitiveness in the creative industries. This simply cannot be allowed to happen.

Baroness Gail Rebuck, chair of Penguin Random House UK, delivered this speech on Thursday 13th October as part of a debate in the House of Lords, where Lord Bird moved that the House of Lords take "note of the cultural, civic and educational significance of local libraries and independent bookshops in the United Kingdom".