Is a state-owned publisher a good thing for writers?
How would a state-owned publisher function, is what interests me. And would it be a good thing for writers?
I was pondering this issue more after reading Don Paterson's attack on Creative Scotland (previously the Scottish Arts Council, in last week's Herald newspaper: http://www.heraldscotland.com/books-poetry/comment-debate/a-post-creative-scotland.2012091643). It's not a problem that's limited to Scotland, of course - the funding of the arts, and writers in particular - so although this article highlights specific issues it is a universal concern.
I thought I should set down my own history quickly here, so you can see where I'm coming from on this. From 1985-89 I did an undergraduate degree in English Lit, my fees paid by the state (I worked weekends in a supermarket, not receiving a grant). From 1989-94, I did my postgraduate degree on James Joyce and feminist theory, my fees paid by the Carnegie Trust, not by the state. I worked part-time in bookshops and stores, and had short periods of unemployment (where I was indeed 'subsidised', you might say, by the state). After my Phd, I worked part-time teaching at my university, part-time in Waterstones as a bookseller and part-time in a bar, King Tuts' Wah Wah Hut (my favourite job, I have to say!). I received housing benefit at the same time, as my income was still very low. Then I got a full-time job as a lecturer at St Andrews University.
That's pretty much my involvement with state aid in my career. Until 2008, that is, when I won a bursary from the Scottish Arts Council for £10,000 for my historical novel. At the end of 2011, I won a grant of £5500 from the new Creative Scotland for my book on literary muses. It had never really occurred to me before to ask the state for financial help in my chosen career. I don't know why it hadn't - maybe I thought I wasn't good enough. But both those awards saved me - at that point in 2008, freelancing work was really drying up for me, and at the end of 2011, my finances were in a dire state.
So I'm well-intentioned towards the state, because of my experiences with it. How do I feel about a state-sponsored publisher, though? It was one of the ideas I heard drifting about when Creative Scotland were asking for contributions from the public a couple of years ago when they made the change-over from the Scottish Arts Council. They wanted input from everybody, it seemed, in how to best address artists' needs. A state-owned publisher, of course, almost exists in education - University presses are owned by Universities, which are tax-payer funded (but also received private donations and investments too). These publishing houses are amongst the most respected in the country; we don't think less of them for being owned by the state.
Yet I suspect we would think less of a state-owned publisher that published fiction, say. The state has long published work of a cultural nationalist nature in many other countries (perhaps not the best example, but everyone thinks of Stalin when they hear the words 'state-owned publisher', so why not say so - this fascinating article is about the Soviet-Yiddish publishing of the 1920s, when part of Stalin's 'mission' in the beginning was to keep alive ethnic cultures: http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/bh/summary/v006/6.1shneer.html). Stuart Glover has written a very relevant piece here about the Australian government helping with their publishing industry: http://www.stuartglover.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/2007-PUBLISHING-AND-THE-STATE-SGs-version.pdf.
If we are happy enough as writers to take money from the state in the form of bursaries and grants, would we be as happy to be published by the state? How would such a relationship work? A state publisher would have to function like a privately-owned publisher, for a start, surely? Commissioning editors who said yes to the project, editors who could advise on writing, proof readers, marketing and sales people - like a University press, then, and all other publishers. But would they take on writers they gave grants to? Would publishing with the state be a condition of accepting a grant? And how would it be regarded in the wider world? Would the literary community see being state published as an easy option, or the option for those who have failed to be accepted by major-league publishers?
This question might well become bigger and more and more writers struggle to get published. Only the bigger publishers can offer sensible advances that actually keep the wolf from the door. If a state-owned publisher could offer a sizeable grant AND a decent advance, how many writers' careers might it save? Some of the present-day publishing conglomerations can feel as big and impersonal as governments, where writers never meet or see or communicate with their own publicists, anyway. Why not a state-owned publisher that's set up to publish the best (as it sees it - although I suspect that little phrase 'as it sees it' would hold most people back from such an idea -as though private publishers don't have agendas, too) of what its nation is producing?