Thursday, 30 November 2017

Writer's Bursaries in Wales -- what are the outcomes?

Antique pirate blunderbuss pistol.  With this, you are guaranteed to hit something when you pull the trigger, even with your eyes closed......

Writer's Bursaries in Wales -- what are the outcomes?

The writers’ bursary scheme operated by Literature Wales, with apparently widespread support, is a well established part of the Welsh literary scene. Published writers and new and emerging writers are eligible for awards, designed to enable them to concentrate on developing a specific work in progress across a twelve month period.  Both Welsh and English language projects are supported. For 2018, it appears that 20 writers will receive fixed bursary sums of £3k apiece, but in the past some of the recipients have been professors or well-paid senior academics with salaries in excess of £50,000 per year, and others have been already established and successful writers; this has led commentators like Julian Ruck to complain about a favoured few who enjoy a more or less continuous ride on a gravy train.   Others have also commented that there is a group of favoured writers who feature over and again in book prize shortlists, judging panels, literary tours, book fairs and festivals, and lists of cash grant recipients. There are complaints about revolving doors and an uncomfortably close relationship between certain university departments and the “literary establishment” based in Cardiff.  The employees of Literature Wales have acquired extraordinary powers of patronage, and can make or break literary careers.  The Welsh Academy, which existed to represent the interests of the Welsh writing community, has effectively been killed off.  That has happened under the noses of Arts Council Wales and the Welsh Government.  So is the literary scene in Wales shot through with corruption?  Or are revolving doors and incestuous relationships inevitable in a small country with a relatively small community of active writers?  Maybe the real problem is not cynical corruption but poor governance, inadequate “due diligence” testing, and slack financial controls.

The bursaries league table:

The bursaries list 2011 - 2017

Literature Wales reports that since 2004, it has awarded over £1.2 million in Writers’ Bursaries, supporting 259 writers, while generating 133 books.  That means that just half of the supported writers have gone on to complete and publish books, over a 13-year period.  The other half have produced, between them, a few articles. To give us some indication of value for money or cost-effectiveness, we need to see the audited sales figures to date, for each book published.

Before we come to that, we have to accept that there is great enthusiasm for the bursaries scheme among writers in Wales.  Last year there were 151 applications for funds, and but only 21 awards could be made.  The bursary panel was highly complimentary of the quality of the applications received. When we look at the comments of past bursary recipients, there is abundant and unabashed praise from those who feel that they have “bought time to write” or “time to dream”; from those who feel that they have been “valued” or “validated” as writers; or from those who have received help from the mentoring scheme.  That’s all great, and we cannot doubt that all those involved are expressing genuine sentiments.  After all, if there is money available, one would be foolish not to try and get hold of some of it.  And having got it, one does not bite the hand that feeds one!  Let's accept that the bursary scheme administered by LW probably does encourage people to write and does enhance creativity among aspiring writers.  Let’s also accept that the creative life of Wales is also enhanced in some way, and that a country in which a lot of people are writing creatively is a better place than a country in which people just read or watch the telly.  And as LW reminds us, every now and then a superstar comes through the ranks and gets a big publishing deal, and that makes everything worthwhile. The blunderbuss approach -- if your spread is wide enough, every now and then you will hit something.

But does this all indicate that Wales is a place which enjoys “a vibrant literary culture”?  Not necessarily.  It might actually be a literary culture that is virtually moribund, for if it depends upon public handouts in order to stay alive, that means it is incapable of surviving on its own in the harsh realities of the commercial world.  People who sit with begging bowls, expecting largesse, make things very uncomfortable for dispassionate observers -- and in their sycophancy and servility they demean themselves. And because the bursaries panel members “show faith in them” by giving them grants, they may actually develop completely unrealistic impressions of their own abilities.  Some of them apparently think that they are artists, when in fact they would be best described as apprentices beginning to learn a trade.

Let’s not forget that writers are the creators of products — the fruits of their labours are BOOKS, while artists produce paintings and potters make pots.  Writers need publishers if they are to survive -- they are the ones who get their books  into print and into the hands of the reading public.  But does the public actually want to read them or buy them?  This is a crunch question.

I don’t like the way that Julian Ruck attacks both the motives and the talents of named writers, and I have no intention of following his miserable example.  After all, I’m a writer myself, and I am not going to sit in judgment on my fellow writers.  I might express views on their books, as literary critics and avid readers have always done, but that is a different matter.  The only “outcome” that is measured by Literature Wales as a measure of the success — or otherwise — of the bursary programme is the number of books published by bursary recipients.  They don’t have to be big books, or expensive books, or good books — just books with authors, publishers and ISBNs which are more substantial than pamphlets or leaflets.  We know how many there are.  Thus far, as indicated above, 133 books have been published following the distribution of bursaries to 259 writers.  So half of the bursaries have led to books being published, and half have not. Is that an acceptable rate of return on investment?  Does that represent value for money for the taxpayer?  How many people have read these books?  Are the books wanted or needed by anybody other than the authors and their families?

Surprisingly (or is it?) nobody seems to have the answers to these questions.  I asked Literature Wales to provide me with the cumulative sales figures for each of the 133 books published, and obtained no response.  I asked them again, and they admitted that they didn’t keep any figures on book sales with respect to bursary recipients.  Neither does Arts Council Wales.  Neither does Welsh Books Council.  (This is in spite of all the books being counted as "arising from"  the bursary programme, which some of them clearly are not. The most successful ones, from the most talented authors, would probably have been published with or without grant aid.)  Rather cheekily, Lleucu Siencyn, the Chief Executive of LW, suggested that I could collect the book sales data myself, by sending 133 fees to Nielsen / Bookscan for their EPOS (electronic point of sale) information.  I explained to her that EPOS data are useless in Wales, since so few book retail outlets are linked into the relevant system.  She also suggested that the Welsh Books Council Distribution Depot in Abersytwyth might hold the data needed, and I had to explain to her that their figures are also unreliable since a large numbers of books sold in Wales do not pass through any wholesale warehouse.  The only reliable sales figures are those contained in the cumulative royalty statements kept by publishers and issued to their contracted authors.  I still await the figures for book sales…….. and I suspect that (apart from a few happy exceptions) they will make miserable reading.

It is still my conclusion, from an analysis of all the data I have been able to gather, that the 50% of bursary recipients who do write books are going to be deeply saddened when they realise that hardly anybody wants to buy them or read them. So are they winners or losers? The publishing of mediocre or bad books in Wales is very easy, because all of the larger Welsh publishers can publish with minimal commercial risk.  They can publish more or less what they want, and cover ALL of the publishing costs via publishing grant aid from the Welsh Books Council, meaning that it does not actually matter whether a title succeeds in the market place or not.  They do not even have to work hard on their marketing, and prefer to move on to the next project. That's a disservice both to writers and to the reading public.  Risk-free publishing or Publishing in Paradise, with titles coming off the production line whether or not the market actually wants them.  That’s another issue, worthy of another blog post, about which the taxpayer might have an opinion……..

Overall, when I look at the writer’s bursary scheme in Wales, I see a scheme run by well-meaning people who believe that they are encouraging creativity in the writing community, at relatively low cost to the taxpayer. They have a point.  However, the scheme's reputation is dragged down by the awards of multiple grants to favoured individuals (inviting accusations of favouritism within an establishment clique), by inadequate internal governance and external supervision, and by an apparent reluctance to accept that writing and publishing are commercial activities in a competitive market-place.  So I was not surprised the other day when I got a message from Catrin Collier (one of the most successful authors in Wales), who drew my attention to an old adage often repeated in commercial publishing houses: "When English writers write a book they look for a publisher - Welsh writers look for a bursary”.

What's to be done?  I have suggested to the Culture Minister on more than one occasion that he should insist on much tighter rules for the Bursary scheme.  Bursaries should become loans instead of grants. This is what I wrote in August:
"Please bring in a rule (enforcible by contract) stating that if a book sells fewer than 1,000 copies in its first two years, any grants and subsidies awarded to either writer or publisher must be paid back. That means REAL audited sales, involving real money, and excluding all returns............ This would encourage writers to think much more seriously about what they should spend their time on, and encourage publishers to be much more selective about what they publish.  With a bit of luck, we might get a move away from large-scale vanity publishing by a mutual admiration society into something which concentrates on what the market actually wants.  We might also get a recognition that publicity and marketing need to be taken much more seriously in Wales by a publishing industry which has been largely protected from this nasty thing called commercial risk."

In view of the fact that 50% of bursary recipients do not produce anything, I now suggest another rule stating that if a bursary recipient fails to publish a book within three years of receiving an award, then it must be repaid in full.  In other words, the bursary becomes a loan which may or may not be forgiven.  That may sound a bit harsh, but it would cut back dramatically on frivolous bursary applications, win respect from the taxpayer, and concentrate a few minds within the literary establishment. 

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