Generally speaking, the words “UK government”, “Brexit”, and “copyright exhaustion” threaten only to send me into a deep, weary sleep. So, I will admit that it took a moment to grasp the mechanics of the situation. First to grasp them, and then to truly understand the devastating impact the proposed changes would have on our industry.
I will also admit that my instinctive reaction was one of personal, rather than strictly professional, panic. As an aspiring author currently going through the querying process with literary agents, I am well aware of the difficulties writers face in trying to get published. The idea that this daunting process might become even more difficult? My shoulders positively droop at the thought.
So, what are the copyright changes that are being discussed? And why would their repercussions be so severe, both for established authors and budding authors up and down the country?
In a nutshell, copyright enables authors to protect their work and – importantly – to profit from it. Another area in which authors are able to exert authority is distribution. As it currently stands, authors in the UK can control the distribution of their work in a particular “market”, as long as their rights have not been exhausted.
As part of the EU single market, an author’s rights are “exhausted” as soon as a single copy of their book is sold within the EU. I.e., once a customer has purchased their book, the author can no longer control who that customer might then sell the book onto within the same territory. Crucially, however, once a copy of the book has been sold outside of the EU, then it cannot be legally reimported back into the EU. This is called a “regional exhaustion regime” in which, essentially, an intangible copyright border encompasses the EU market.
Following the UK’s exit from the EU, this invisible line of defence now finds itself up for debate. In its place, the government is considering an “international exhaustion regime” instead.
What does this mean, exactly? Well, to start with, it means authors will lose the ability to limit global resale of their books, no matter where they are first sold. Why does this matter? It means the UK market will potentially be flooded with different editions of the same title, which could legally be sold back into the UK at a significantly discounted price. The detrimental impact this would have on UK authors cannot be understated.
In the first instance, authors typically earn a higher royalty from UK book sales in comparison to export sales. Therefore, if the UK market becomes saturated by export editions, then authors stand to make a much smaller profit. This would be especially devastating following a period of nearly eighteen-months in which many authors have seen their revenue dramatically diminished by the coronavirus pandemic. Where established brands and rich backlists may have flourished, emerging voices saw those pivotal in-person appearances – festivals, book fairs, signings, and school visits – vanish nearly overnight. As much a launchpad for new talent as a tool to supplement author income, the debut arena – so vital to the industry’s growth – has suffered more than most and can ill-afford another hammer blow.
It is widely accepted that writing – with several notable exceptions – is a modestly paid endeavour; a deeply personal (not to mention challenging) labour of love rather than a high-flying profession vaunted for its stability. For every author celebrating a six-figure advance, there is another burning the midnight oil after a twelve-hour shift once the children have been put to bed, working towards a humble royalty cheque. It should not be forgotten that, for the majority, the median annual earnings for full-time writers languishes below the minimum wage. Now, more than ever, it is vital that authors are properly renumerated for their hard work, as Philip Pullman and Kate Mosse recently stressed to the Guardian.
The adoption of an international copyright exhaustion scheme threatens not only to undermine author income, but the diversity of the UK’s publishing landscape as a whole. With the diminishment of profit, so to comes the danger that writing will become solely the preserve of the elite; those who can afford to continue regardless of what the government decides. “Britain’s cultural landscape will suffer hugely,” said Mosse. “It will become less diverse, less innovative, less inspiring.” She is right.
What does this mean for UK publishers? Loss of identity, for one thing. Books are costed and designed according to the territory they are being sold into. A cover that works for the UK market, for example, might not appeal to a US customer base. But if carte blanche is given for export editions to be sold back into the UK, then the “face” of UK publishing – as it were – becomes blank. Different covers could, arguably, be displayed side-by-side. Bookshelves will no longer be representative of their specific territory. Retail prices will no longer be representative of the country the books are sold in. There will be no individuality, no differentiation, no linguistic nuance. UK editions will jostle with export editions for precious space in an ever-crowded market.
The result? An erosion of domestic sales. As a consequence, publishers – and literary agents – will become increasingly risk averse amidst an avalanche of competition. They will take fewer chances on fewer authors, which means that burgeoning writers will stand even less of a chance of being published than they do now. (The horror – genuinely, the horror!) In an industry striving for diversity and inclusion, it would succeed only in providing less choice and fewer unique voices: the playing field will conversely become narrower still. Writers of colour, already striving for equal opportunities, will find their path to discovery ever more impeded. Yet, publishing simply cannot thrive if it is unable to invest in new names. In relying solely on tried and tested tropes, and in the absence of fresh perspectives, its lists will threaten only to render themselves obsolete.
In figures, the Publishers Association estimates that a change to copyright exhaustion laws would result in a potential loss of up to 25% (£1bn) of the UK industry’s revenue, which would undoubtedly impact job security for many. And bookshops? After an equally torrid eighteen-months, needless to say, an influx of cheap foreign editions would only serve to benefit online retail giants and would further damage the hard-hit UK high street. In short, it is a freefalling domino effect that should be avoided at all costs.
UK publishing is poised on a knife-edge. It is an industry that has survived a good many threats, but perhaps none so urgent as the one facing it now. As a nation, our publishing legacy has served us with distinction. Our authors have brought countless beloved stories to life, not just on the page but on the screen as well. It is an ecosystem that must be supported by robust copyright laws that ensure the profitability and success of authors and publishers, and serve to preserve the creative lifeblood on which the industry depends.
If you would like to support the Save Your Books campaign, we encourage you to raise awareness with the #SaveOurBooks hashtag, and by writing to your local MP. You can find more information on the campaign and all the latest developments here.