The general election may feel like last week’s news, but the book trade is now facing what may be an unprecedented era of political interrogation—both here and from across the channel. And the implications may not always be comfortable. As Profile Books founder and m.d. Andrew Franklin said at The Bookseller Industry Awards earlier this week, the next five years could be difficult for all of us—bookshops, publishers and libraries. And as our analysis of last week’s European Commission announcement of its digital single market (DSM) initiative shows, Eurocrats have also launched a far-reaching probe into how the internet changes the open market, with e-books and digital content in their sights.
Many in the trade will share Franklin’s views on the new Conservative government, and judged by their past performances (and voting records) the combination of new culture secretary John Whittingdale with culture minister Ed Vaizey and Sajid Javid, who is taking on Vince Cable’s former business brief, does not make the heart skip in anticipation for the creative sector. But wise voices have been politic, with Publishers Association c.e.o. Richard Mollet, a former Labour Party candidate, tweeting: “Great to see strong supporters of the creative industries in senior govt and shadow roles: Sajid Javid, John Whittingdale & Chris Bryant.” In the times ahead, gaining their support will be vital.
Reaction to the DSM initiative has been similarly circumspect. The disconnect here is between the ambition and how to get there. Book markets are not homogenous, and while a single digital market may seem desirable it is the giant tech companies that will benefit most from barriers to trade being erased. Furthermore, the scope of the investigation into e-commerce already looks convoluted and disappointingly narrow. Other concerns are around copyright and what—if any—new rules around geo-blocking (a level price for digital content across Europe) will have on regions that think differently about how to price creative content. More positively, a resolution over the differing rates of VAT imposed on digital content and printed works is to be welcomed, with the UK government likely to be up to a battle to maintain its exemptions.
Lobbying will be crucial and there is a strong argument for investing in this area for fear of what we will lose if we are outflanked. But we must all also continue to stress the value of the creative industries—as was evident at our wonderful awards night—and to meet head-on any challenges to the structures that underpin this. The book trade is inhabited by some immensely talented, articulate and charismatic people whose chief concern is to broadcast ideas around the world. Politics is in some ways alien to us, but we must all be minded to intervene.