ACNI slammed for 'fundamental misunderstanding' following cuts

ACNI slammed for 'fundamental misunderstanding' following cuts

Publishing Ireland has slammed the Arts Council Northern Ireland (ACNI) for “fundamentally misunderstanding” how publishers operate following with withdrawal of funding for Blackstaff Press.

The Bookseller reported last week that Northern Irish indie Blackstaff Press had had its funding slashed from £82,200 to 0 for next year practically overnight when the ACNI released its funding decisions last week, which becomes effective tomorrow (1st April). 

Now the Publishing Ireland board, which has Blackstaff Press managing editor Patsy Horton as its president and is made up of leading Irish trade figures such as Michael O’Brien of The O’Brien Press and Brian Curtin of Gill & Macmillan, has released a statement saying that ANCI made the decision because it wants to fund literature on a title-by-title basis, which it said was "dangerous" and made "no sense."

However, while confirming an option to fund the publisher on a title-by-title basis had been mooted, an ACNI spokesperson refuted the suggestion it had influence over the choice of specific titles presses could publish, saying the allegation was “unfounded” and unsubstantiated. 

The Irish Publishers Association said: “The Board of Publishing Ireland is dismayed at the savage cut by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland of its grant to Blackstaff Press. This is historically one of the most distinguished publishing houses in the island, bravely founded at the height of the Troubles of the 1970s. Despite a 44-year relationship with the ACNI, this 100% cut came out of the blue, without notice, and without any chance of moderating what everyone will understand is a devastating decision.”

It added: “Our concern is at the effect the council’s approach to Irish book publishing is likely to have on the sector and on the wider writing community. Instead of granting Blackstaff Press regular or core funding the council has made a decision to fund literature publications on a title-by-title basis.”

The group went onto say that as yet, ACNI has given no details of how the scheme would work. “However, if it is similar to the title-by-title scheme of the Arts Council in the Republic of Ireland, while it may be appropriate for new publishers without a track record or in the case of one-off titles, it shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how successful book publishers operate.” The body went on to say that support for established publishers should be for core, ongoing activities--list-building, nurturing authors, marketing and exporting so that companies can plan properly, on a medium- to long-term basis. "Supporting writing development but not book publishing makes no sense,” PI said. 

Publishing Ireland added that it was “unacceptable” that funding bodies should have "such influence" on the choice of specific titles to publish – “that is the publishers' role and the publishers' prerogative,” it said. “It is not up to nominees of the Arts Council to sit in judgement on titles. The danger is that publishers, and writers, will try to second guess what will appeal to the funders rather than making their own independent creative and commercial decisions.”

However, a spokesperson for the ACNI said that after its budget had been cut by 11.2% it “simply doesn’t have enough money to support all the organisations and programmes of activity which we would otherwise like to fund and so have had to make a series of very difficult strategic decisions.”

“Blackstaff Press has done a lot of excellent work over the years but unfortunately we no longer have the money available to continue to support them in the way we have done previously,” the spokesperson said. “We agree with the statement made that it is the publisher’s role and prerogative to decide which titles to publish and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland in no way interferes with this process.”

The spokesperson continued: “We refute the charge made by the Board of Publishing Ireland that the Arts Council  has ‘influence on the choice of specific titles to publish’. This is an unfounded allegation which has not been substantiated and the Arts Council can categorically state that it has never interfered with the selection of titles presented by any publisher.”

The organization said it had funded Blackstaff Press for more than 20 years and had given it £512,000 in the last five. “To date, no request from Blackstaff for a review of their application has been received by the Arts Council, despite a recent face-to-face meeting with representatives, so we are surprised at the comments contained in the published press release today,” the spokesperson added. “We are confident that the new funding model offered to Blackstaff could be used by the organisation, on a title by title basis in a constructive way, should they choose to take up the offer.”

Blackstaff Press was one of six groups that found out last week it would not receive any grants from ACNI after the body had its funding cut by 11.2% by the Northern Ireland government’s 2015-16 budget, which equates to £1.38m less than the previous year. The publisher, which has received funding from the Arts Council every year for the last 44, said last week it was “devastated” by the outcome and was “still absorbing the shock of this decision and cannot yet say with confidence how it will impact on our publishing and outreach programmes.”

Blackstaff Press's managing editor Horton said that a publisher's work was more than about publishing a single title. “To think that an independent publisher's work is limited to producing 10-12 titles a year or whatever it may be is simply not true. We work to create an environment where the writing community can flourish and in which there are opportunities for writers to get feedback on their work. We work in partnership with libraries, schools and other groups and we do much more outside producing one single title." 

Horton confirmed she had had a "constructive" meeting with ANCI last night (30th March) and was hopeful about working with the body in other ways outside the core funding model. "There will be further conversations with ACNI," she said. "Until then it is business as usual."