Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Gravy train or cultural necessity?

Well well -- this has caused a bit of a stir.  Author Julian Ruck (whom very few will have heard of) has launched a bitter attack on the Welsh publishing scene in the pages of the Western Mail.  Sour grapes or pearls of wisdom?  His E-publishing festival in Kidwelly was such a disaster that it had to be cancelled -- so maybe he has reason to feel sore.  But is he justified in having a go at the whole of the Welsh publishing scene?  I have to say that I sympathise with some of the points he is making -- and I have made similar points in some of my submissions to the Welsh Assembly on the Welsh publishing scene.  I was staggered by the figures he gave for the subsidies paid to Welsh publishers over the period 2008-2012.  Was all that money well spent?  I doubt it -- and without it, many books that should not have been published would not have been published.  In a fully "commercial" publishing world, as we have in England, hundreds of Welsh titles would have gone onto the slush pile or into the bin as being unpublishable, on the grounds that they had not a hope in hell of repaying the investment sunk into them.  Mythology has it that a book only has to sell 700 copies in Wales in order to be classified as a "best seller."  And I have long been concerned that those titles which receive the heaviest subsidies get the heaviest promotion, since it is incumbent upon everybody in the grant aid chain to justify the decisions which they have made, using public money.  Another myth has it that copies of the "big" Welsh titles are dumped in Welsh bookshops in larger quantities than are strictly justified, simply to show strong apparent initial sales -- and that returns are then not counted into the equation.  So, by some magic, the "big" titles all turn into bestsellers, although the number of people who actually buy them might be very small indeed.

But should Welsh publishing be asked to survive without any support from the Assembly?  That would probably be counterproductive, because publishing in Wales needs to be used as a part of the strategy for promoting Wales's unique cultural heritage and creating a strong brand image.  But could those millions of pounds be better targetted and better used?  Undoubtedly yes -- and in that I would agree with the maverick author who has been given such space in the Western Mail.


Author Julian Ruck attacks taxpayer-funding for Welsh writers

By Rachael Misstear
Jul 30 2012

A Welsh author has launched a bitter attack on taxpayer-funding for writers in Wales, calling for the money to be diverted to cash-strapped health and education budgets.

Julian Ruck said that subsidies for Welsh authors and publishing houses stifled quality as writers were not forced to hone their craft with readers in mind.

He said that since the 1950s there had not been “one single Welsh writer of any national or international note”.

In a speech due to be given to a literary festival, which was cancelled before he was due to speak, he revealed figures showing £4m of public money had been paid to authors and publishing houses through Literature Wales and the Welsh Books Council in the last four years.
He said: “The Welsh publishing industry is nothing more than a parasitical, elitist carbuncle on the hide of a struggling Welsh economy.

“Of course one will never obtain sales figures for the winning works.”

His speech was set for the closing of the Kidwell-e Festival – UK’s first literary event celebrating the e-book and its growing popularity.

Ruck, who privately funded the event, was scathing about the quality of writing that the grants subsidised.

He said: “Where are the giants of Welsh writing? Where are the Welsh Seamus Heaneys and James Joyces or for that matter the Jeffrey Archers and James Pattersons? Or even the odd bookish shade of grey?

“Did Lady Charlotte Guest or Dylan Thomas receive hand-outs from the tax-payer?

“Since the 1950’s there hasn’t been one single Welsh writer of any national or international note to hit the tarmac beyond the Severn Bridge.

“The hunger to create for an audience has been stifled, the warts and all of learning the trade have been burnt away, the cleansing of rejection and reality of commercial brutality is no more.”

Ruck, who has written three novels described on his website as thrillers or family saga novels, cited figures obtained through the Freedom of Information Act which showed that four Welsh publishing firms had been granted significant sums from the public purse over the last four years.

Seren Publishers received £557,078, Honno received £239,708, Y Lolfa received £687,507 and Gomer Press £1,409,493.

In total, over the same period from 2008 to 2012, grants to Welsh writers totalled £1,409, 493.

He said: “Not only are Welsh writers subsidised but so of course are their Welsh publishers. So you have a situation where firstly the writer receives a hand-out to write the book and then the publisher receives a hand-out to publish it. So, a double whammy for the tax-payer if you like.”

He added: “Cancer patients can’t get the drugs they need because they are too expensive.... Wheelchairs are in short supply, families can’t get the care they need for their elderly relatives and yet the Welsh Assembly feels it is morally right to dish out millions of pounds of your money for a few people to propagate a Welsh ‘literary’ agenda that few are interested in, whose books, magazines and pamphlets patently don’t pay their way and most importantly of all, contributes precisely nothing for the overall good of society.”

“It is time Welsh publishers and Welsh writers operated under normal commercial rules. The state simply can no longer afford to indulge you. There are far more important priorities to consider.

“And for all you Welsh writers out there, genuine talent will always prevail. Good writing will always be read and will always sell. If your work has these essential qualities then you don’t need the exhausted tax-payer to fund it – full stop.”

Literature Wales' chief executive Lleucu Siencyn issued a full statement in response to Mr Ruck, defending the organisation and naming Philip Pullman, RS Thomas, Ken Follett, Gillian Clarke and Owen Sheers as great writers Wales had produced and nurtured since the 1950s.

Elwyn Jones, chief executive Welsh Books Council said the body revises and monitors its schemes regularly to ensure that funding offers the best possible value for money.

“Literature and the arts are funded in countries throughout the world,” he said.

“In a market dominated by large English and American publishers, it is testament to the success of Welsh authors, publishers and funding bodies that in the past year titles published in Wales have been listed for the Man Booker Prize, the T. S. Eliot Award and the Costa Prize.

“They have also found commercial success, such as sports titles by Eddie Butler and Simon Easterby and popular autobiographies, including that of radio presenter, Chris Needs.

“We are confident that with relatively modest funds, our schemes support books that enrich Welsh culture, placing it on an international platform.”


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