'A professional, properly funded arts scene is crucial'

Words such as "severe", "brutal" and "cuts" are familiar to the ears of those who work in the public sector. Although the Autumn Statement bought a surprising sense of relief to the arts world in England, it followed five years of harsh reductions. In recent years the arts have fared better in Wales. However, things might just get worse in the Land of Song, with the recent announcement of a 4.7% cut for the Arts Council of Wales (ACW), and Cardiff City Council looking to make huge savings in its own arts and culture budget.

More worryingly for the publishing sector in Wales is the news that the Welsh Books Council (WBC) is to face cuts of 10.6%. This means a reduction of £374,000 from an overall budget of £3,526,000. The WBC has issued a statement saying that there will be “challenging” times ahead as it tries to maintain and support the book industry in both languages in Wales.

"Because of the size of the cuts, priorities willl have to be set for the grants to publishers programme. It will not be possible to maintain the same level of activities to promote a diverse readership that have come to expect and enjoy them over the last few years."

One of WBC’s main activities is in the distribution of grants to publishers, totalling over £500,000 per year. The severity of the cuts to WBC is bound to have a lasting impact on the range of books supported each year, as well as how the industry – including the myriad of small independent publishing houses – can be developed.

In the context of the publishing sector, Literature Wales, as a revenue client of ACW, is mainly responsible for developing writers in Wales, with a particular emphasis on nurturing creativity and innovation. Long-standing funding schemes such as the Writers’ Bursaries, which by now are funded by the National Lottery through ACW, have been extremely effective over the years in "buying time" for writers to spend intensely on their writing. Writing which has often gone on to win critical acclaim. Kate Hamer, author of the hugely successful Costa-nominated The Girl in the Red Coat (Faber & Faber) was a first-time bursary recipient in 2013.

Although the success stories of authors such as Hamer, as well as the 2014 Costa-winning poet Jonathan Edwards, helps to demonstrate directly the value of writers' bursaries as time-out to write – other examples are less tangible. Many writers reading this will agree that being allowed the space and time to write is not merely a luxury, but a necessity. In this sense it’s very different to the commission. Having the opportunity to develop their own creativity, and to take risks in their writing, is vital to ensure a diverse literature sector and to allow excellence in the field to flourish. And it doesn’t cost much – the average bursary is less than £5,000 – and it does allow the writer the freedom to adapt and change during the process. The future of this scheme, like others, is now in question.

In speaking to the press last week, the chair of ACW, Professor Dai Smith, urged people to consider private donations to the arts, as a way of mitigating cuts. Developing a philanthropic society is certainly useful, but it should not take away from the state’s responsibility to support the arts. We don’t want volunteers – however well-meaning – to run libraries, as we will devalue and lose vital expertise. Similarly we want to recognise the writers of our children’s books as professionals.

A professional arts scene, properly funded, is crucial for a country to develop a strong identity, both amongst its own people, and internationally. And the arts need to be free from having to rely too much on commercial needs. No-one knew that the Harry Potter books would go on to sell millions and become the biggest film franchise of all time. Somebody needed to take a risk on what was then considered a rather old-fashioned series of geeky wizard books.

Apart from the glitzy award ceremonies, it’s not easy for writers and their books to attract major philanthropic funding. There are no sumptuous velvet balconies or VIP previews with celebrities to entice the wealthy. It’s not easy to get private funding for literacy projects with refugee women in small run-down towns, or reading clubs in prisons. The writers themselves are usually far from well-off, even the successful ones. They don’t even get paid to attend their own events at literature festivals. This at a time when we will need to ask so much more of our writers. Writing and promoting your book will no longer be enough – writers will also be called upon to motivate, inspire and tackle some of the deepest challenges facing our society today.

Unless the voices in the literature world in Wales are heard, the future is uncertain for both Literature Wales and the Welsh Books Council – and at the moment it’s difficult to fully predict how this will affect the industry in Wales. One thing is certain, the battle to democratise literature, and make it relevant to all people in Wales, regardless of income or class, will continue to be fought over the coming years.

Lleucu Siencyn is chief executive of Literature Wales.