We couldn’t tackle the good, the bad and the ugly of the publishing world without really looking at the B word: Brexit. We were joined by an incredible panel to dive behind the headlines – Alby Grainger of indie comic shop Little Shop of Heroes; Derek Kenney of Printer Bell & Bain; Gráinne Clear of indie children’s publisher in Dublin, Little Island Books; Janet Archer, CEO of Creative Scotland and Timothy Wright of Edinburgh University Press – and explore the reality of June 2016’s vote.
So, the vote happened. What next?
“We need to remain steady and informed to negotiate for the creative sector.”
For Alby and Little Shop of Heroes, “the impact was instant and dramatic.” 90% of their products are US-sourced, the pound took a dip. They’re a high volume business supplied by a monopoly (Diamond Comic Distributors). When they decide something, there’s little to be done. Their costs went up 26% within three days, and there’s only a finite amount you can pass onto customers. They also had to let go of the only member of staff that’s not part of their family, though he was as good as part of the family, and that’s how severe impact became. “Apart from the politics, it was an instantaneous, virtually catastrophic” scenario for indies to contend with.
Creative Scotland put out a survey to get a snapshot of the immediate impact, which they’ll probably rerun to see how that’s changed in the months since. There are a lot of issues that people were concerned about – travel, free movement, co-productions, the devaluation of the pound, the digital single market, funding – there was a lot of anxiety around job security. “We need to remain steady and informed to negotiate for the creative sector,” Janet explains. “There’s a lot of work behind the scenes.” Everyone is trying to remain calm and be informed.
“We don’t export that many books to Europe,” explains Derek, but they have found many bigger publishers looking for a stable UK-based printed given the fluctuation of the pound. In line with the theme of the day, he considers the issue threefold. The good: it’s an opportunity to create sustainable businesses and level playing fields. The export opportunities are also good. Bad: they’ve got uncertainty for two years, and the divisiveness can lead to mistrust and protectionism. Ugly: it goes beyond the industry – racism, extremism and untruths. “We’ve got to extinguish that.”
“There’s been significant issues in academia,” says Timothy. There’s issue for the Universities but for the publishers, there’s much opportunity. It’s export-led – 65% of the business in fact. “Major academic publishers are largely seeing a boost,” he says. The downsides are that a significant number of their staff are from Europe and there’s an uncertainty as to their futures in the UK. As for Brexit? “It’s going to happen – get on with it. See opportunities, challenge negativity.”
Gráinne has a slightly different perspective, being an Irish publisher. Their books are priced in pounds for multiple reasons, so they took the same hit in currency when it was transferred back into Euros. “Uncertainty is the biggest issue,” she explains. “Will there be taxes? Customs?” Books going to Irish libraries have to come from the UK – they get sent there, then sent back. There are lots of different levels of effect. Northern Ireland has a different effect – will there be a hard border between where they’re made and stored and sold? “There’s a knock-on impact, a cross-impact.”
“The inevitable will happen so stay true to yourself.”
Between Brexit and potential IndyRef2, there’s a lot of confusion and potential problems arising. Gráinne notes that loads of big publishers have been looking at moving their HQ to Dublin, if they haven’t already (Lonely Planet). It’s interesting as a contingency plan, given so many corporations already have bases there. On one hand it can make the industry boom, on the other, they still don’t know what the side effects will be.
“The issue we’re not discussing is that none of us have got any idea the potential benefits,” notes Alby. “None. Zero. We have to make long term plans by essentially putting our finger in the air and seeing which way the wind is blowing currently.”
Britain has a unique perspective in the EU, he continues. Mainland Europe see it as a social union, where as the UK see it as economic. The social aspirations are more important to mainland Europe, and we need to address that. “It’s folly to assume we can force the EU to make economics the fore,” he says. That social aspect seems alien to the government here. “The UK can’t get over that.”
Janet agrees. “Culture keeps that social collective curiosity. How can we get it to a place where we’re a bit more comfortable with difference? We need to respect different views to get to a better place to understand that. Give platformS to new voices. It’s incumbent on all of us to find a solution.”
A big theme of conferences, says Gráinne, is diversity. It’s a buzzword. Following the result we should not rein that in, but “push more, find new voices.” We’re a people business, adds Timothy. We go to fairs, speak, do deals, and across the board it comes back to uncertainty. No one’s certain what they’re working with. Small to medium enterprises are doing okay, but larger ones have more issues to deal with. Derek believes that for the publishing industry, it’s driven by good writing on the rise. That’s the most important thing for everyone, and it’s definitely out there.
So Brexit is happening. How do we keep positive? Understand and talk to people. Know what we’re doing is important. Boost other voices. Keep doing what you’re doing. Debate strongly, make sure the UK publishing world remains world class. Fight for it! Encourage debate. Challenge what you don’t agree with. Surround yourself with positive people. The inevitable will happen so stay true to yourself.