Books are not big macs or baked beans – every new book is a unique educational tool and potentially life-changing. But each title also represents an array of commercial risks, and a huge investment of expertise and labour from writers, agents and publishing teams. That’s why a post-Brexit shift towards “international exhaustion”, in which copyright rules are weakened, would fatally undermine an exceptional system that plays a vital role in life the global book trade.
Like many agents, I represent a whole range of writers, from veteran top ten bestsellers to debut authors and those finishing that “difficult second novel”. What they have in common is immense hard work and no easy route to a sustained writing career – some holding down more than one job to make a living before their breakthrough.
“Don’t give up the day job,” agents advise when signing new writers – with acclaimed authors like Monique Roffey, Bernardine Evaristo and Val McDermid writing multiple books before major turning points in their careers. As a poet, I’ve experienced the long and twisty road to publication too and know how crucial the UK’s intellectual property system is to the health of the industry and the wellbeing of writers.
Authors already find their incomes under huge pressure, exacerbated by the pandemic. A 2019 study showed annual incomes for professional authors averaged only £10,500. Reading surged in lockdown, but while some larger publishers reported good profits in 2020, many sales were for classic out-of-copyright titles, while big-brand authors took the lions’ share of the rest. Multitudes of exceptional writers go under-rewarded. But the range and quality of work on offer from publishers of all sizes make British publishing a treasure trove – ripe for ransacking if an ill-judged change exposes the industry to greater risk.
Britain is the world’s biggest exporter of books: 58 per cent of publishing income is from export. The Publishers Association estimates that international exhaustion would lose the industry around £2.2bn a year, with a loss to authors of £506m. Authors would suffer a double hit through their already-lower export royalty, with cheaper-format export copies boomeranging back to the UK to replace local sales. American supermarket editions could also flood in to undercut quality home editions.
And authors, who keep the whole industry going, will be hit hardest, with the Association of Authors’ Agents warning that they could lose more than 65 per cent of their income.
Copyright exhaustion will be a winner-takes-all boost to internet marketplaces, with little or no UK tax revenue in return, and further devastation for high street and independent booksellers. Pricewise, UK consumers already have access to low-priced audio and e-books, with highly discounted printed books widely available.
Cue administrative chaos, closed doors and job losses, and more writers not being published at all. Fewer resources and greater caution, lower quality and less diversity – a cultural “flattening” effect. We’d be abandoning the endeavour of many generations of creative writers and surrendering control to international competitors.
A plurality of voices we desperately need to amplify would be drowned out. Ultimately, fewer books, by fewer authors, with diminished quality and choice for readers would be the price we pay for adopting the international copyright exhaustion framework.
Instead of stripping back literary treasure, the government must listen closely to creators, keep the excellent copyright system we already have and fund libraries more so we can nurture the readers and writers of the future.
Isobel Dixon is head of books at Blake Friedmann Literary Agency and president of the Association of Authors’ Agents