Crime writer Ann Cleeves has said the loss of the once-reliable library market is stopping publishers from taking risks on more adventurous writing, including debuts and short story collections, as well as from supporting midlist authors.
Giving the closing keynote at the National Library Conference, held in Harrogate on Friday (19th July) as part of the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, Cleeves called on her audience to be “disruptive, subversive”, in supporting the library service, saying: “We need libraries more than ever – when there is a danger fake news may triumph, we need places where truth is told; and when we are riven with disagreement we need places where we come together to discuss our differences reasonably; we also need a place to escape.”
But she said: “In the past, a generous book fund has allowed publishers to take a punt on a book; without a guaranteed library sale, editors and commissioners become more risk averse. I worry that it is starting to affect decisions publishers are making about commissioning.”
The author, creator of detective Vera Stanhope, told The Bookseller: “When I started [my writing career], libraries took hardbacks mostly, and they would take books that maybe bookshops wouldn’t take – so if you’d written something a bit quirky and different, publishers could take a punt on it. Libraries have to buy the big names by big-selling authors – they must have funds to buy something a bit more exciting – debuts or midlist. I was first published in 1986, I won the CWA Gold Dagger in 2006 – without libraries there’s no way I would be where I am now.”
CIPFA statistics show the spend on books by public libraries in England, Wales and Scotland fell from £84m in 1988 to £39m in 2018.
In her keynote, Cleeves also called for more links to be built between libraries and bookshops, saying: “Libraries shouldnt be seen as unsexy, unglamorous or boring; most library staff I know are hilarious, open-minded and up for anything! I’m delighted that the Crime Writers Association now has a Libraries Champion.” Literary festivals – “especially rather snooty literary festivals” – could also do more to support libraries, she said. “Holding fringe events, why not in libraries?”
Cleeves said she hoped the conference - a first for Harrogate - was the start of a deeper engagement between writers, publishers and libraries, saying: “Wouldn’t it be brilliant if we could do it every year?”
The conference saw speakers including authors Vaseem Khan, Stella Duffy and Sarah Hilary join PPC Librarian of the Year Mel Graaf, Orkney Library Twitter founder Stewart Bain, The Bookseller’s Benedicte Page and The Reading Agency’s Fraser Hutchinson, to share knowledge on how libraries can best engage with publishers, how to put your library on the map, and how to engage with your audience via social media.
The opening keynote was given by Arts Council England chief executive Darren Henley, who said Arts Council England was “keen to invest more money in more libraries around the country”. He described libraries as “enduring sources of inspiration and knowledge”, saying their social and economic potential was “huge”, while “Literacy is a power that can liberate all of us”. He also spoke of the number of books written in or about libraries, from the work of Karl Marx, to Philip Larkin, Sarfraz Manzoor, Sally Vickers and Ali Smith.