Dear Secretary of State,
Congratulations on the new(ish) job. What a mouthful – Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy – and what a wide and important brief. I have been enjoying your media slots which must be really tricky given the number of competing and sometimes conflicting messages coming from elsewhere in Government or from the Opposition. I don’t envy you but at least this job is about trying to build a future for the UK rather than handling flak from Brexit negotiations.
I am not writing in any official capacity although I have discussed this, as a courtesy, with Stephen Lotinga, CEO of the Publishers Association (PA), our amazingly agile, creative and cost-effective trade body. Whilst I carry no official weight, I have been a publisher for nearly fifty years and have served as President of the PA, UK representative on the Board of the Federation of European Publishers and President of the International Publishers Association. I have held senior executive positions at Oxford University Press, RELX, Macmillan, and Bloomsbury (as you may remember from your authorial days). I am currently serving on the boards of Bonnier Books UK, Liverpool University Press, Bloomsbury China, Frankfurt Book Fair and have set up my own independent publisher, Mensch. This keeps me pretty busy but still allows me to think about the industry as a whole.
My biography is not the point of this letter. The point is about Britain’s Build Back Better and Global Britain agendas post-Brexit, and the difficulty of meeting everyone’s demands whilst working constructively with other government departments.
There are many industries that you will be proactively looking at, including the car industry, renewables, pharmaceuticals, steel manufacture, and any number of new technologies. They each have their challenges and complexities which you may need to tackle. However, I cannot help feeling that in every case there are other nations that might be as competent or even ahead of us in these areas. At the very least these industries face very intense international competition at a time when every nation is addressing which industries they should be betting on.
I would contend that there is one industry that is vital to all parts of the economy and society, is genuinely world-beating, requires relatively modest support, and its success would bolster almost all other governmental objectives. It is, as you must have guessed by now, the creative industries. I cannot speak for movies, theatre, computer games, or music, but I think I can speak for the publishing industry in all its complexity. Here are some arguments (and there may well be others) why publishing should be among the highest priorities for your department’s attention (in no particular order).
Digital. The industry has turned on a sixpence (a bitcoin?) to adapt its processes, products, and infrastructure to support authors and readers with the opportunities of the digital world.
Environmental. The industry has moved to sustainable raw materials (paper, board, ink) as fast as possible and progressively the combination of digital delivery and print on demand technology is fundamentally reducing our carbon footprint. In truth publishing is a green industry centred as it is on human creativity and electrons rather than CO2.
Global. The industry is systemically global because of the our incredibly valuable and defendable asset, the English language, our geographical and time zone position between North America and Asia, and our relatively small domestic market which for two hundred years has obliged publishers to develop global sales and marketing networks.
Human resource. We are increasingly a modern, flexible work force with a very high proportion of SMEs and freelance workers working from home and from all regions of the UK. We have a very high proportion of well-paid women and a robust programme for improving ethnic and other diversities.
Education. Apart from the well-established synergies between our industry and school curricula and textbooks the UK higher education infrastructure works closely with publishers to produce textbooks for the world, attract foreign students, and indeed runs courses for the growing graduate and postgraduate population of publishing professionals from around the world. Britain is also the world’s largest exporter of examinations, curricula and testing through, for instance, Cambridge University Press and Pearson.
Research. British publishers are by far the most important scientific, technical and medical disseminators by volume, value, and impact. They have adapted to the challenges of new business models such as open access, block chain, and double blind peer review and are well-positioned to take advantage of all the additional funding being made available for post-Covid research and development throughout the world and specifically as promised to UK researchers by the Prime Minister.
Soft diplomacy. British culture, history, and education are supported and amplified through books and journals around the world for children, adults, and institutions. In addition books form a significant driver for the export of British culture in other media such as film – e.g. Harry Potter, the Booker Prize, The Gruffalo, David Attenborough etc.
Priority investments to help the industry. The following thoughts are personal and do not necessarily reflect industry views although I hope they would broadly be in step with most of my colleagues and the relevant trade associations. Please bear in mind that publishing is very largely self-sufficient and wishes to remain that way for economic and cultural reasons, not to mention pride in a vibrant commercial trade.
Enhanced support for public libraries via central government, in particular for educational materials (including non-English-language materials to help with the levelling up agenda) and for digital access, ebooks, and downloadable audio.
Enhanced support for school and prison libraries to enhance literacy via educational authorities and literacy charities.
Increased investment in the pool for public lending right for authors.
Greater Government support for university R&D feeding into British scientific publishing.
More clarity about Government attitude to open access. Financial support for publishers to make research papers available at nominal cost in emerging economies and to allow scientists from such countries to afford to publish open access in high-quality British journals such as Nature, Lancet, BMJ. An open access policy from UK government that does not put scientific publishing at risk. I understand that the publishing industry has been urgently trying to reach you on the very topical issue of open access in recent weeks, so any focus in this area would be very much appreciated.
Financial support for publishers to make vocational textbooks in e.g. agriculture, nursing, accounting available at appropriately low prices in emerging and strategic countries (c.f. the ELBS scheme of the last century).
Extension of the zero VAT rate to downloadable audio.
Continued help for independent booksellers via business rates holidays and extended furlough.
Help for the establishment of British 21st century digital printing plants for colour and black and white books and journals.
I could go on, but just wanted to ensure that the creative industries and publishing in particular are not being judged solely by direct impact or financial size, but by the post-Brexit opportunity to build an even greater, more sustainable industry for the benefit of British employees, shareholders, tax receipts, and the balance of payments. Punching above our weight is what publishers have done and will continue to do, but it would certainly help to know that the British Government was standing behind us.
I am happy to discuss further if you would like.
All best wishes