Publishers differ on a Scotland 'Yes' vote

Publishers differ on a Scotland 'Yes' vote

Book trade figures north of the border have vastly different views on the implications of a "Yes" vote in the forthcoming referendum for Scotland's book trade, from fears that the industry will be deeply damaged by the imposition of VAT on books to a belief that publishing will see "a huge fillip" from renewed interest in the country's culture.

Last night's TV debate between pro-independence First Minister Alex Salmond and Better Together campaign leader Alastair Darling has been widely interpreted as a win for Salmond.

Hugh Andrew, m.d. of Edinburgh-based independent Birlinn, told The Bookseller he was convinced the EU would take a hard line on VAT negotiations, leading to the imposition of the levy on books in Scotland. "The UK was an early member of the EU and got good terms – the EU is aware of it and will want to contract. There's no precedent for a member state splitting, so it will be done on politics – I am sure the EU will say, 'You can come in, but you are going to have to pay for it.' France, Italy and Spain all have secessionist movements – they want to make it clear that they are going to have to pay."

Andrew said he believed VAT would be not simply an issue for bookshops, but also for book distributors, and predicted leakage of sales to the UK in both physical and online retailing. "There will be leakage across the Anglo-Scottish border – it's essentially breaking the single English-language market," he said. "There are two big centres, Edinburgh and Newcastle, close to the border – it's easy for people to pop over in a car. With Amazon, it's easy to do cross-border sales, for a friend [in the UK] to send you the book as a gift – the leakage would be enormous." Andrew predicted that the change could threaten the survival of some Scotland-focused businesses.

Many in the industry are unwilling to voice their views openly for fear of alienating colleagues and customers. Another senior Scotland book trade insider, who preferred not to be identified, said the introduction of VAT was currently "a what if on top of a what if", since it depended on both a "Yes" vote and the conditions of EU membership. However he said that if VAT did end up being introduced, it would damage domestic Scottish publishing by adding a layer of cost, as well as affecting books coming up from England for sale north of the border. It would also cause significant headaches in administration, he argued.  

However Adrian Searle, m.d. of Glasgow-based Freight Books, said he believed the current administration when they said they didn't see a problem over VAT. "Independence will reconnect Scotland with democracy," he said. "If we want zero per cent VAT it is down to us to get it. I've met the [Scottish] culture secretary several times – I've never met the UK culture secretary. Our proximity to power will be that much greater." He dismissed concerns about cross-border sales leakage, saying: "Frankly, I don't think 5% [extra on VAT] will make any difference."
On the contrary, he argued: "I think should Scotland vote 'Yes' on the 18th [18th September, referendum date], within two to five years there will be renewed interest in Scotland as an independent cultural entity, which will be a huge fillip to the publishing industry."

Gavin MacDougall, director of Edinburgh-based Luath Press, prefaced his comments by saying: "As a publisher, in all our political books we have a sentence saying Luath is not aligned to any political party. My personal vote is not anyone's business." He went on: "There are all sorts of unknowns, whether 'Yes' or 'No'. In Scotland over the last two years there has been a clear increase in public political engagement – you hear it in supermarket aisles, in pubs, in cafes and in the media too. Scotland has changed as a result – whatever happens after 18th September it won't be the same."

"Cross-border leakage and people buying in Newcastle would be a bit of an issue to say the least but I think the chances of VAT being applied in Scotland is fairly negligible – it would be part of the many conversations that would take place." He added: "If it's a 'Yes' vote, undoubtedly a lot of things could be addressed as far as Scottish literature, writing and publishing are concerned that depend on independence to be dealt with – issues like procurement, library buying and an appropriate range of books that reflect Scottish culture."

Both Searle and MacDougall said that ultimately independence had bigger questions than that of VAT. "I am voting for my children and my children's children. I am not voting over 5% on books," said Searle. MacDougall asked: "Is it more desirable to get rid of Trident or not have VAT on books?"

Meanwhile Floris Books publisher Katy Lockwood-Holmes commented: "At Floris Books, like many Scottish publishers, we work hard at being truly international publishers, with a lot of emphasis on rights and export. So whichever way the vote goes, I'm sure Scottish publishing will continue to grow and thrive."