A manifesto for the future of writing and publishing in the North

Claire Malcolm
Opinion - Publishing Wednesday, 28th August 2019

Dominance of London is 'politically untenable and socially misguided' : New Writing North's chief executive Claire Malcolm presented ideas for transforming publishing in the North at the Northern Lights conference that ran last weekend at the Edinburgh International Book Festival

Last weekend writers, publishers, funders and supporters from the North of England and Scotland gathered in Edinburgh for the Northern Lights conference. This collaborative project from Edinburgh International Book Festival and Bradford Literature Festival was designed to bring together Northern and Scottish publishers to explore experiences, best practice and to ask whether the united forces of the North and Scotland could present an opportunity to rebalance the London-centric nature of publishing.

Research for the Booksellers Association, conducted by the Centre for Economic and Business Research in 2017, tells us that a total of 339 million books were bought in London and South East that year. In the same period, 309 million books were bought in the North of England and 124 million in Scotland. The book market in the North of England is therefore not to be underestimated. The book market of the North and Scotland outstrips London and the South East – an interesting perspective to consider.

In the North we may buy a great deal of books, but relatively we don't publish many from within the region. The largest commercial producers of books are not based here and our public funding bodies do not invest in the infrastructure of writing and publishing in the way that they invest in other art forms. There is a clear imbalance to address.

The idea, and reality, of London as the dominant cultural centre of our country and the unavoidable fact that the majority of cultural and creative businesses are located in the capital is beginning to feel both politically untenable and socially misguided.

Commercial publishing appears to be at a watershed moment where wide-ranging cultural and business concerns about representation and diversity are fuelling changes in business practices. We need systematic and collaborative change across sectors and to harness many different types of resources to ensure that England is a country where writers and publishers are born, develop and can establish businesses. I believe that talent is everywhere but know that opportunities are not.

Here is my five-point manifesto for a revitalised 'Northern Cultural Powerhouse of writing and publishing', or as I see it, a 'to do' list:

1. Develop the infrastructure that supports writing and publishing outside of the capital
New Writing North has a plan to create a new centre for writing and publishing with partners from across the public, private and education sectors in Newcastle. This new centre will create a hub for business innovation, skills development and civic engagement. It will structure new types of interaction between creativity and long-term sustainable economic growth. We need new models for investment and the money to make them work to enable long-term change. This could come from tax breaks, a new tax on publishing with the gains used for the regional development of bookshops, writers and organisations and/or from regional inward investment projects.

2. More effectively connect literature organisations to create more impact
Collectively, we need to get better at telling the story of literature in the North and connecting the micro organisations that make up its current structure in a strategic way. The broader picture for literature in the North encompasses publishers, libraries, festivals, independent bookshops and organisations working with young people. We need to build on existing networks and alliances to engender better opportunities and to strengthen our core work.

3. More and better books
There is an opportunity for publishers to create books that better reflect the true diversity of the lived experiences of people in this country. There is nothing like reading in your own voice and seeing yourself in books when you are a young reader to uphold and strengthen your feelings of self worth and inclusion. We also urgently need writing that puts forth the story of the North and that proposes a future narrative for the region in the way that Scottish publishers have done so successfully and which has enabled them to contribute to the urgent issues and debates of our time. We need writing to provoke and support cultural change in the North and writing that changes perceptions of the North internally and externally.

4. Change the workforce of writing and publishing
Writing and publishing in the North should be led by a wide variety of people from different walks of life. New generations should be enabled to identify routes into a changing trade that recognises the contribution that they can make, and they need the cultural confidence and capital to do so. I'm currently exploring how regional organisations can work with larger commercial groups to open up opportunities and collaborations and how we can create an environment that empowers publishing start-ups and their growth.

5. Everyone is a potential reader or writer
We know that literature can transform the lives of individuals, so let us now be committed to utilising it to support our communities. Let's build powerful networks and readerships in the North that will help to educate our citizens and support the development of new ideas for the future.

The Northern Lights conference has highlighted the fact that the North has some catching up to do with Scotland when it comes to the number of publishers supported, the networked infrastructure for an art form and the political buy-in. But if we can invest and channel new ideas and join our Scottish colleagues in creating a 'new' style 'Big North' alliance, the centre of literary gravity in this country could begin to move North. It’s clear from the mood and energy in the room for the two days of the conference that the status quo is no longer an option.

Pictured: Newcastle city centre

Rebalancing the books - Claire Malcolm reports from the Northern Lights conference