Back in February The Bookseller approached me for an agent’s perspective on the UK potentially leaving the EU. Wearing my presidential hat at the Association of Authors’ Agents, I approached our committee and we offered: “The AAA has over 100 member agencies and within each of those agencies there are likely to be divergent views on a matter as important as this, and our clients will have as many views again. So as an association it would be a challenge to present a party line. However, what an agent will always be factoring into their thinking is the protection of their clients’ Intellectual Property rights and a trading of them that is fair and advantageous to their clients. I can’t imagine any agent advocating a change in the status quo, within or without the present system, that doesn’t respect those crucial points.”
I fear that this was seen to be so fence-sitting that it wasn’t even quoted in the piece. But I was happy that we had reached a consensus that we should say something, and agreed upon the core concerns of an agent’s professional life.
A month on, the c.e.o. of one of our member agencies rang. She and her colleagues were about to embark on pre-LBF trips to continental Europe. Those they would meet would pull no punches in trying to fathom where UK publishing was coming from in all this. Would the AAA, she asked, be asserting a position, possibly in conjunction with one of the bodies with whom we have regular discourse, such as the Society of Authors or the Publishers Association?
Don’t be shy
It was a timely call. Over the weeks that had followed The Bookseller’s original fishing for comment, the wider media debate had heated up. Personally, I had begun to feel uneasy about how many of us have been shy of revealing our views on the topic to each other. We try to sound well informed when talking with friends, but most people I have encountered shut a metaphoric door behind them before almost apologetically expressing a cautious point of view. This made me think, which is the responsible position to take, not only in terms of “leave” or “remain”, but whether to express an opinion or not?
Your perspective might be that publishing is a generally left-leaning, social justice-aware and internationally-conscious creative industry and so would march under the “remain” banner. But our businesses aren’t without people for whom “leave” is the only logical argument. And proponents for both sides of the debate argue around the same sets of merits and demerits, checks and balances, yet each in the reverse order and weighting to the other.
I’ve polled several industry contacts whose views I respect and whom I thought would represent a significant range of opinions. The communications director of one publishing house cautioned that without full understanding of all the economic arguments it would be irresponsible to comment. The heads of several professional organisations felt as the AAA did, that an umbrella organisation could not represent a single view on behalf of its members. Those engaged with translation rights sales tend to have a fire in the belly about remaining. Conversely, an agent who is no slouch on the foreign rights side of things was keen to speak “not from a political point of view, but specifically from the point of view of a business owner in the publishing industry, why voting out is the best way forward for the publishing industry”.
In a sense it’s true that on one level the referendum is not a political issue; it’s to do with broader human ideals and aspirations. A hallmark of our industry is that, above and beyond our attempts at sound business, we work to build an empire of ideas and improve the condition of humanity as a whole. But at the same time, the debate is inherently, intensely political: both sides feel they have right on their side and both want to win. This is perhaps discomforting for an industry that tends not to take a formal political stance, but strives to thrive within whatever democratically elected environment it is presented with.
And so we get to the point where a European elephant sits in the room. We all interact with Europe constantly in the course of our professional daily lives—whether in terms of trading partners, tax jurisdictions, employment law, even writers’ inspiration. But we’re uneasy about talking about “Europe”. How is it that The Bookseller appears more concerned about it than we ourselves do? Don’t we care about the implications for territorial licences - whether upholding existing ones or drafting new ones - and access to markets? And will online selling mirror the same arrangements or have its own parameters?
I’ll put my personal cards on the table: I’m for “remain”, triggered by a combination of head and heart arguments. But the “leavers” are no less governed by both head and heart. How do we embrace the elephant, make that connection between head and heart and talk about a challenge both fascinating and terrifying? We might all learn something—and we need to have the conversation before it’s too late.
Gordon Wise is president of the Association of Authors’ Agents and a senior agent at Curtis Brown