Number 10 and the novelist

Neill Denny
Opinion - Publishing Thursday, 16th September 2021

A successful writer is today Culture Secretary. What are the implications for British publishing?

The appointment of Nadine Dorries to the Cabinet marks perhaps the first time a profilic novelist has had a seat at the top table of British politics. Although previous writers have graced the Cabinet Room - Churchill perhaps most prominently - they have tended to write serious non-fiction, or like Disraeli, dabbled unsuccessfully in fiction. What makes the elevation of Dorries so ununusual is not only is she a prolific and successful commercial author, she is also the minister in direct charge of the arts.

The BBC, libraries and the Arts Council fall under her remit, and although she is isn't actually running any of them, she has tremendous scope to change the framework in which they operate. It would certainly be remiss if senior figures in the book trade did not use this opportunity to have a quiet word with her about issues she might want to address.

Why, for example, does the Arts Council devote such a tiny proportion of its budget to supporting literature? Why does such a tiny percentage of the £1bn a year spent by libraries annually go on the purchase of books? Why does the BBC devote such a tiny proportion of its coverage to books and literature, when it is the only creative industry at which Britain remains a world leader? (Publicly funded broadcasters aside of course).

I was introduced to Dorries at the first Parliamentary Book Awards - organised by the PA and BA, so she is already familiar with these organisations - by Amanda Ridout, then at Head of Zeus, if my memory serves me correctly, where her editor was Rosie de Courcy, her agent Piers Blofeld. Rather unfortunately (and somewhat predictably), she failed to win her category, losing out to Melvyn Bragg.

A former nurse from a humble background, with the self-confidence to bunk off Parliament for three weeks to go on I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here, and writer of the kind of sagas and romances which will never trouble the judges of the Booker Prize, Dorries is perhaps the last person the book trade would ever have expected to become Culture Secretary.

My advice to the trade would be: hide your prejudices and make the most of it. The average Culture Secretary lasts little over a year in the job, so if you want to influence policy, get a move on.

In one of my former roles as Editor of Retail Week, a constant complaint from the sector (employing over three million people) was that they had no representative in Cabinet, falling between various ministerial stools. Today books has no such excuse.