The Word’s the Thing: Literature & Publishing – canaries in the cage of the creative economy

The words the thing : Literature and publishing – canaries in the cage of the creative economy

Published in Arts Professional, 1 October 2015

Will we ever understand how arts, culture and creative industries combine to such astonishing effect? This ‘diverse, complex and, at times, delicate ecosystem’, as described in the foreword to Scotland’s recently published Literature and Publishing Sector Review.   Drew Wylie Projects worked on the review, grappling with a sector where the traditional demarcations of art and industry now shift in the sands of massive changes to how we produce, distribute and engage with the written word.   It was no surprise that the review’s commissioner, Creative Scotland, saw this work as pathfinding for a wider strategy for the creative industries.

The integrating of Scottish arts and creative industries under one national body was a bold move, rightly attracting international attention even if early teething problems led to a string of bad press. A period of relative calm and hard graft across the sector has seen some real progress in areas like film and visual arts. The world around the sector has also not stood still. There is real traction behind creative place-making in cities like Dundee and more rural environments like Dumfries and Galloway. Creative ambition and an appetite for international partnership runs through the Scottish Government and its strategies. And of course established assets continue to deliver. Both the 2015 Edinburgh International Festival and Edinburgh International Book Festival have once again grown audience and impact.

But the arts and creative industries conundrum is a hard nut to crack. We just don’t know enough about the interdependencies of arts and the creative industries.   The Warwick Commission pointed to the importance of this interface and named it ‘ecosystem’, but our attempts to unpick it remain clumsy in relation to a sector that is constantly changing shape: content provider; artist; distributor; producer; and of course, innovator. We don’t even know how the different types of innovation in the cultural and creative industries work together, from recombination and re-use, to origination and invention. We just know we need them all.

There are symptoms of this misapprehension of the sector everywhere. Literature and publishing must sometimes appear as a daunting and writhing mass of creative micro-business to enterprise agencies. SMEs whose primary concerns are about the quality of their artistic output can be perceived as lacking ambition and relevance by agencies judged on their contribution to employment and wealth creation. Small publishers and literary organisations can, in turn, be intimidated by the administrative demands and risks of the many and various investment programmes for SMEs.

This does not, however, represent an incompatibility between the developmental needs of artists and creative industries. Grant funding to nurture writing excellence and its appreciation, and investment for the publishing and promotional platform that sustains it, are both needed for a healthy literary ‘ecosystem’. As yet, however, we lack a mechanism that fully combines the detailed sectorial knowledge of Creative Scotland, the business skills of Scottish Enterprise and the research skills of Scotland’s universities when it comes to specific investment plans and decisions. As a result there is a risk that key funding streams like ESIF (European Structural and Investment Funds), the new Creative Europe guarantee fund and the SME focused elements of Horizon2020 may pass by key creative sectors, including literature and publishing.

Scotland’s culture has always been outward looking and this is reflected in the languages of its writers, from Scots to Gaelic to Shetlandic. There is a real appetite in the sector to develop and deepen international links. Edinburgh International Book Festival is but one of a number of organisations increasing their international reach every year. But the relationship building required of this approach is beyond the means of smaller organisations who will need more encouragement and support to reap the rewards of international partnerships and market development. It has been encouraging to see key agencies like Publishing Scotland looking to deepen their role in this area following the review.

There are also spatial challenges and opportunities in Scotland itself. The combination of literary heritage, activity, and innovation in creative cities like Dundee, Stirling and Glasgow are a national cultural asset. Edinburgh was the first UNESCO City of Literature and this is currently providing a platform for the development of a literature quarter in the city that links a cluster of literary organisations on the Royal Mile, including the Scottish Storytelling Centre, The Writers Museum, the Scottish Poetry Library, the Scottish Book Trust, National Library of Scotland, and publishers like Canongate and Birlinn. Not only can this be one of the world’s leading literary destinations, it can also be a gateway to literary trails and events throughout the whole country.

While the current ‘cityfandom’ epidemic may have its roots in successful creative city initiatives, it also has some limitations for strategic thinking in a country where the urban and rural boundary is so indistinct, and meaningful urban units can be the size of a London neighbourhood watch. It has also led to a unique literary culture, with rapid growth of literary festivals and storytelling in Scotland supporting a marginally higher earnings profile for Scottish writers than the UK as a whole. However, public spending pressures and changes to the traditional role of the public library means that literature development is now something of a postcode lottery. New geo-demographically and culturally defined creative clusters and hubs may be one answer to ensure everyone in Scotland can access local, national and international literary developments. Established centres of excellence like Dundee’s libraries, Glasgow Women’s Library or Moniack Mhor, the rurally situated creative writing centre, can provide a backbone for this type of approach, and new initiatives like Rally & Broad will keep it fresh.

Literature and publishing are the canaries in the cage of Scotland’s cultural and creative industries. An internationally recognised literary heritage, closely aligned with national identity makes for widespread recognition of the importance of the Scotland’s writers and publishers. But this is no protection against fundamental global changes to the sector, particularly online retail and digital publishing. What is clear is that creative talent and innovation will secure the future, and for that to happen a lively and outward looking literature scene that reaches across the whole of the country is needed. This in turn means that both cultural and enterprise focused investors need to work together more effectively and to be more ambitious for literature and publishing.

You can read the full Scottish Literature and Publishing Sector Review at http://www.creativescotland.com/resources/our-publications/sector-reviews/literature-and-publishing-sector-review



Andrew is Director of Drew Wylie Projects: http://drewwylie.net