Ch 2: Pondering public funding

Thoughts from the London Book Fair

Hello friends! I spent last week at the London Book Fair, being on the ground just long enough to be completely confused about what time zone I was for my whole trip and also once I got home. Travel woes aside, I met with some phenomenal people, learned a lot about what people are excited about, and what they’re worried about (mostly Brexit, in the immediate future.)

The conversation I kept having with independent publishers was so dramatically different than the one that I have with independent publishers in the US that I thought I’d spend some time on it. It centers on the role of public funding.

For those of you who aren’t intimately familiar, the UK, Canada, and Europe have pretty substantial amounts of public funding for literature. According to this report, Arts Council England dedicated 46 million pounds to literature between 2015-2018. For comparison’s sake, the US National Endowment for the Arts contributed $116.6 million to literature between 1966 and 2016. Attempting to compare apples to apples is a bit tough in this situation without doing a lot more digging, but if we convert the ACE grants to dollars even at the current exchange rate (which likely underplays the ACE grant levels) that represents around $61M, or ~$15M per year, compared with an average of around $2.3M per year in the US over the past 50 years. (That’s not strictly accurate, as NEA funding was a lot lower back in 1966, but it’s challenging to find figures for the annual literary spend. If you know of a source, please send it over!) Comparing per capita spending, Arts Council England is spending around 27 cents* per person in the country on literature, vs. … gosh, I’m hoping I did this math wrong. If not, we spend $0.0070 per person in the US on literature. AKA around 2/3 of one penny per person in the US.

So as you can see, the US has a basically negligible amount of public funding for literature, while England’s funding is pretty robust. And the impact this has on publishing, especially independent publishing, is really massive. In England, many independent publishers get up and running with public funds, or they can finance a special project, or even fund most of their press and hire staff with a 2-year grant. Some publishers do all three. And writers have access to these funds as well.

In the US, the vast majority of people who are running small publishing companies (magazines, etc) have day jobs. They cannot afford to publish books and pay themselves. People start publishing companies using Kickstarter or other types of crowdfunding, with family money, windfalls such as severance, or by funding books out of pocket via their day job. And unless they have a big hit, they can’t afford to do more than pay for the next book with the revenue generated from book sales. Building (or buying) a backlist is crucial to creating a level of stability for a publisher. Some estimates have put Big Five backlist sales at around fifty percent of their revenue. Even if it were only 30%, that’s still a predictable amount of money that you know you can expect to come in year in and year out, so you can focus on and invest in frontlist titles with confidence. But if you can only afford to publish a few books a year, it’s going to take a really long time to get to that level, and not every title will continue selling enough to really contribute to backlist sales.

A few years ago, Trump tried to cut the entire National Endowment for the Arts budget. Fortunately, that did not happen, and the budget has inched up a tiny bit per year to $155M in 2019. Trump’s proposed 2020 budget doesn’t specifically mention the NEA, so here’s hoping we’ll see at least a small rise for 2020.

The high water mark for NEA spending was 1992, when we spent almost $176M ($317M in 2019 dollars!) But the mid-nineties saw a brutal cut to funding, with the budget slashed almost 40% between 1995 and 1996. (Thanks, Bill…?)

I would love to see a significant movement to dramatically increase funding for the NEA, including a substantial increase to literature funding. Without this, we’ll see our most generative industries and most creative minds starved into oblivion.

There are cultural and economic arguments for this, as the arts have a strong positive economic impact. In 2015, arts and culture contributed $763.6 billion to the American economy, employing almost 5M Americans, and representing 4.2% of GDP. So money spent helping to establish and accelerate the growth of literary and artistic organizations can have a direct economic benefit as well as a cultural one.

I’ll be at the AWP conference next week, so if you’ll be there, please drop by the Kickstarter booth and say hi.

*My original email erroneously stated this was $11. Thanks to a kind reader who pointed out my error!