Do Books Still Have a Future?

Posted on June 29, 2020, 1:41 pm
12 mins

Diversity of Literature Requires Political Commitment across Policy Areas – in Every Country

By Nina George, President of the European Writers’ Council.

The consequences of the Covid-19 crisis and its countermeasures are assessed as having a serious impact on the entire book sector in Germany and Europe as well as on writers and translators. This is according to the results of an EWC survey covering 24 countries and 33 writers’ and translators’ associations. What can Europe, individual countries and each individual society do to preserve the variety, knowledge and value of books for future generations?

It’s a grave situation – for the book world and the entire world, its former structures, customs and, yes: everything it deems important. There’s no such thing as a “place to be” any more, locations where you need to be in order to see and be seen. Events where “you simply have to make an appearance” to develop networks and “to get to the top”, have now fallen by the wayside. This “to the top” is coming under scrutiny, too: What is “the top”? A place where predatory capitalism leaves damage in its wake? Where low-budget tourism operates to the detriment of nature and people? A society which prioritised growth and disruption, but is now compelled to focus on the new future values: conservation, sustainability, democracy, inclusion, climate protection and on investing in a future where coming generations will find it harder to make their way in life.

Encounters with People Bring Books to Life

If an book sector outsider were to step into a bookshop, the prospect of crisis would seem remote: books – surely they’ll be around forever? Surely, writers have the most secure job in today’s world: working from home and immersing themselves in a manuscript?

We need to dispel a romantic myth here: only a few full-time writers make a living from the sale of their work. Around 5-7 % of writers are best-selling names and another 10 % are midlisters. Most of our colleagues from the fiction market have multiple incomes from sources such as editing, teaching and courses, leading panels and events, lectures and readings, managing a book club or a writing circle. Further sources of income are scholarships, prizes and invitations to festivals both at home and abroad. Many writers and translators work as a literature scouts, reviewers, critics or project organisers.

For wordsmiths in Europe, it is seldom possible to build up savings for more than three, or even six months. This results from low and decreasing fees and royalties, and a negotiating position in the contract sector that continues to be weak. All fees are used to cover living costs. Only a small amount of operating expenses can be deducted from tax; hardly anyone can claim a home office as business expenses. Their brain is their business.

In many countries, that means they are ineligible for classic sources of emergency aid. What’s more, they usually fall through the net of the welfare system – there are only a few countries, for example, in which writers and translators make payments into pension funds (Germany) or receive regular government support (France).

Current and Anticipated Economic Losses

The crisis has affected writers due to cancelled events, and this will continue to be the case for the rest of 2020. Bookshops and the like are no longer able to cover the costs of readings on account of sanitary protection measures. On top of this, a collapse of the print sales market / sales drop means they are unable to build up reserves to pay for events, including fees and travel costs for writers: we are talking about a loss in sales of half a billion euros during the six weeks of lockdown in Germany alone! Translators, who curate, lead and organise events, hold lectures, lead workshops and give seminars, will also suffer, albeit to a lesser extent.

In Germany, for instance, we estimate that 30,000 readings in bookshops and literature houses will no longer take place, not to mention the several thousand lectures, panels, workshops and other events that would otherwise be held in libraries, schools or residence and artists’ houses. We can safely predict that there will be 50,000 cancelled events for 2020 going into 2021.

Four book sectors throughout Europe and non-EU countries have been hit particularly hard:

 Books for children and young adult, whose writers earn 50 to 80 % of their annual income from readings, writing courses, events to promote reading

 Genre authors (crime, high-end entertainment): these account for the majority of high-publicity adult readings in bookstores

 Non-fiction writers: conferences and specialist lectures, workshops and teaching courses have been cancelled; many a non-fiction writer “travels” with a book for two years, generating an annual income this way

 Poetry and theatre authors and translators: no festivals, no performances, no poetry slams, no presentations and cancelled summer seminar weeks.

The crisis will have a lasting impact on both authors and translators

 Sixty-four per cent anticipate losses owing to delays in publishing their titles and postponed payment of the next margins of their advances (if any) and royalties.

 Almost 40 % expect losses based on postponed contracts and the associated delay in advance payments.

 What’s more, many estimate the withdrawal of commitments to book or translation orders or renegotiation on less favourable terms.

 It is also conceivable that publishers will be less generous in contract negotiations and that (even) less author-friendly contracts and lower advance payments or royalties in 2021, will be justified on the basis of losses in 2020.

 Electronic payments and the marginally increased sale of e-books will not absorb losses, quite the contrary: streaming and subscription models have experienced much greater success during the crisis, though with a share of money for authors declining in the flat rate or e-lending models

 Translators will be struck by a second wave if publishers delay their programmes and thus downsize, leading to far fewer translation orders.

Is the Diversity and Freedom of the European Book World under Threat?

Scaled-down programmes, reduced advance payments and less courage for the risk of investing in new voices and topics will also limit the diversity of literature and threaten the already rather unstable and precarious income of writers and translators. We also believe that new voices, female voices as well as translations from less well-known languages will have to fight much harder to access the book market over the coming years.

On the whole, society is suffering from a loss of discourse, too. Books represent a starting point for debate, as is the case for the promotion of reading, knowledge transfer and embracing diversity. All this has been brought to a standstill. The sounding board of society has atrophied.

A Chance to Update the System: This Requires Political Commitment across Policy Areas – in Every Country

Will we experience an “after”? Or is living under the permanent threat of pandemic the “new normal”, and what does that mean for the infrastructure underpinning our former ways of life – including the book sector? The areas of conflict that have blighted us over recent years look familiar and are similar in most countries, although with varying degrees of severity – yet they have all resulted in the crisis hitting us harder than it should. It is about money, appreciation and added value, the loss of courage to create something other than marketable content, monopolies such as Amazon, tolerated breaches of law such as piracy, and once again, about contracts. Here at the EWC, we hope that a strong implementation of Chapter 3 of the DSM Directive, which provides for fair payment, transparent accounting, protection of the right of action by a representative body, as well as the duty of rights distributors to keep writers informed, will secure the rights of authors.

Knowledge and belief, facts and fiction, identity and reinvention: books tell us about all of these things in a way that is sustainable, formative and necessary. We must not understate how important a free, diverse book landscape is. In order to reinforce this value at the political level and to invest in it, the EWC has developed 37 measures that can be individually shaped for each country – this is precisely what the Netzwerk Autorenrechte (Network for Authors’ Rights) in Germany has done with a 12-part catalogue. These include funds for online events, for the promotion of reading, for school events, but also ideas for a comeback fund as well as “Jedem Kind ein Buch” (A Book for Every Child).

Here, in Germany, we view the situation with cautious optimism: to date, there has been no book sector-appropriate compensation for our losses whatsoever. Even the government’s Neustart Kultur package only provides a seven-figure sum to the book sector, which is to be invested in infrastructure, companies and indirect support.

We would like to see much stronger signals for the sources of the entire book value chain: writers and translators.

And that’s why I’d like to answer the question: “Do books still have a future?” as follows: Without books, would there be any future worth having?

English Translation: Philippa Carr.

Translation into Spanish: Carlos Fortea.

German original version: