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Should publishing be publicly funded?

14 January 2008

The current controversy surrounding cuts in grants to regularly-funded organisations by Arts Council England has raised the interesting question of whether publishing should be publicly funded. If it is, which is the case in the UK and many other European countries, how do you decide what deserves funding and what doesn't? The American model presents a stark contrast, providing very little public funding for literature, and that mostly at state rather than federal level. But Americans have a strong tradition of philanthropy to the arts, and individual donors provide most of the funding for literature.

The situation is complicated in the UK by the fact that large amounts of public funding have recently been diverted from the arts to support the 2012 London Olympic Games, although there will be a cultural Olympiad, hopefully featuring literature, to accompany them. In the recent spending round it was widely expected that the Arts Council would have its own funding cut, so when in the end it received an uplift, the funding body had already worked out where to cut what it gave to its regularly-funded organisations. It decided to wield the knife in any case on the grounds that a general review was overdue.

The problem for literature funding is that, unlike most of the arts, the funded sector sits alongside a large and relatively flourishing commercial sector. So the question arises, what should be funded and what can stand on its own feet? Most publishing of 'literary' novels takes place as part of publishers' commercial activity. The literati may complain, but literary fiction is fairly well-received in the UK and a number of prominent prizes, most notably the Booker, help to focus readers' attention on the books.

Publishing is a relatively cheap operation to fund. It does not need buildings - theatres, concert halls or art galleries - unlike the rest of the arts, and also does not require large salary bills, unlike orchestras for instance, in order to make an impact. Its relationship to the commercial sector means funders assume that literature doesn't need support in the same way.

So what do the UK Arts Councils actually fund? It's mostly poetry, with some support for literary translations. There certainly is an argument for saying that poetry badly needs the help. With the honourable exceptions of Faber, with its long tradition of poetry, and the small poetry lists at Jonathan Cape and Picador, big publishers do not support poetry. So, if the funding was taken away, there's little doubt that many fewer poets would get their work into print.

But poetry is managing to hold its own. It has been featured on the flagship BBC Today programme every day this week in the shape of the T S Eliot Prize contenders and many people enjoy it. Its practitioners scramble to make any kind of living and mostly fund themselves by teaching creative writing. Poets don't expect to live off writing poetry, but (like all writers) they certainly want it to be published.

The other genre which is state-funded is literary translation and this is mostly what has just been cut, affecting the publishers Dedalus and Arcadia. Dedalus is threatening to sue the Arts Council o the grounds that it has not followed its own procedures for withdrawal of funding, and is also trying to make this into a class action suit.

Translation has high costs and a relatively small market in general. But literary translation has never been more popular in the UK and is always going to be a minority interest amongst readers. So does it deserve to be funded, more than science fiction for instance? Is it inherently more worthwhile?

This debate will run and run. For now, the answer to these conundrums seems to be that funded publishers owe it to their funders, as the recipients of public investment, to make as good a job of their publishing as they can. In particular they need to reach as many readers as possible, and - for their authors' sake as well - to make a decent fist of selling the books they publish.