Short Cuts

Daniel Soar

Publishers love moaning. The piles in Waterstones are too big, the number of titles stocked too small; advances are too high, supermarket prices too low; TV steals readers, except when it doesn’t (thank Richard and Judy). Nobody buys books. In fact, they do: the annual turnover of the British publishing industry is now £2.8 billion – a little more than fish or cheese and a little less than bread. That’s right, bread. The UK bread market is worth £2.9 billion. Nine million loaves are bought each day and the bakers never complain. For every ten loaves that are sold, so is one book: that’s 900,000 books a day flying off the shelves. As for the dread effect of Hollywood: in the UK people spend three times more money on books than they do on the cinema. It’s Disney we should be worried for. To those who argue that all this is as may be but the vast majority of these books are about small wizards staying up past their bedtime or the love affairs of ex-glamour models, one can only say: that’s true. Still, 115,000 different titles are published in Britain each year and – if you leave aside an as yet statistically insignificant dip in 2004-5 – the number has grown continuously and acceleratingly since 1947. Ten times as many titles are published now as were published then and – insanely – nearly as many as in North America, a market more than three times the size. Conglomerates are supposedly driving out small businesses but nonetheless there are 2275 book publishers in Britain. Things aren’t too bad.

Not everyone is raking it in, of course. Among those who aren’t – the publishing-from-the-kitchen-table brigade – is a company called Dedalus. In December, Arts Council England announced that it would be discontinuing Dedalus’s funding – which had been less than £25,000 a year – and cutting back support for at least two other small publishers, Arcadia and Anvil. Dedalus will now struggle to survive. The Arts Council had caused much anxiety shortly before this when it issued a warning that the government would probably divert some of its budget to the Olympics – the crazy consequence of our having a Department for Culture, Media and Sport – and that those it funded should expect to suffer cuts. In the event, and despite the Olympics, it was given more money, not less, to spend on regularly funded organisations; but it chose to make cuts anyway. At around the time it was sending letters giving notice of cuts to 191 of the 1135 organisations it funds, the Arts Council website proudly announced that new grants in December included ‘an award of £60,582 to the Clod Ensemble for Under Glass, a series of performance pieces within specially made glass cabinets or jars’. That may sound like a lot of money but the Clod Ensemble themselves justify the expense by explaining that ‘the glass containers … are specially commissioned pieces, made to measure for each performer.’ These are not, then, your regular factory-produced bell jars, which any old thespian can prance about in, but art objects in themselves and therefore worthy of public funding. ‘Under Glass,’ the Clod Ensemble say, ‘is an exploration of how we can live within our limits.’ It’s hard not to feel that this is meant as a message to those who now have to.

It’s unlikely, of course, that Dedalus is more deserving of funding than every one of the two and a quarter thousand British publishers that get by without any public money. It doesn’t seem to have much of a clue about how to persuade people actually to read its books. On the other hand, it does something very few others do: the majority of those books are translations. The Arts Council literature policy document from 2006 claims that ‘we want to increase the profile of international writing in this country by supporting those publishers committed to literature in translation.’ As of 2008, three of the four organisations on the Arts Council list that recognisably specialise in translation, Dedalus, Arcadia and the British Centre for Literary Translation, have had their funding cut or cancelled. The Arts Council’s backtracking here isn’t the biggest hypocrisy in the history of government-sponsored hypocrisy, but it is perplexing: translation is expensive, and tiny publishers are those least able to afford it. Dedalus says it pays translators an industry-recommended £80 per thousand words. At that rate, the 290,000 words of ‘beautifully crafted descriptions’ – as Michael Wood put it in his review in the LRB of 3 January – that make up Eça de Queirós’s ‘masterly’ The Maias would have cost Dedalus £23,000 to translate. If it paid for it itself, of course: grants are available to English-language publishers from foreign cultural organisations, and Dedalus avails itself of them. But in theory most of Dedalus’s annual funding could have gone on the translation of a single, necessary novel. Dedalus seems to need the money. Now that it no longer has it, there may be no more Eça de Queiróses. Georges Rodenbach – a brilliant hymnist of Bruges – will also disappear, and the novels of the wrongfully neglected Russian writer Yuri Buida, whom Dedalus also publish, will no longer be available in English at all, which means no more of ‘all the stations and sidings, the rails, the washers and bushes, the rifle-toting soldiers, the barbed wire, the ferocious man-eating dogs, the bridges, the steam-engines, the warehouses, the halt-or-I’ll-shoot’ that make up the post-Soviet dystopian landscape of his fabulous Zero Train.

Arts Council annual grants vary in size from £20,000 (to the LRB, among others) to £26 million (the Royal Opera House) and, relatively speaking, publishing hardly figures. Less than 2 per cent of the £300 million fund goes to the ‘literature sector’, and that may be as it should be: after all, publishers are more easily able to make money than, say, non-commercial art galleries. It would be nice if publishers were as honest about this sort of thing as bakers, who are pleasingly straight-talking and upbeat about the state of the industry, even when there are problems: ‘Overall growth for bakery snacks has been hindered by the declining sales of many fruited products including Belgian buns, currant buns, teacakes and hot cross buns. Conversely sectors such as brioche, iced buns and muffins are performing better than last year but are smaller in size.’ Much the same is true of publishing: it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other, and they do fine in the end. There is, however, one essential difference between a book by Eça de Queirós and a hot cross bun. If the bakers stop making the buns because no one is buying them then you can always bake your own. But it’s too much to expect customers to write post-Balzacian Portuguese masterpieces.