Let me begin with a very big and a very heartfelt thank you to the Edinburgh International Book Festival and the Bradford Literary Festival for organising this event. I am genuinely delighted to be here.
Getting to attend events like this, getting to meet and speak with so many people whose work is so close to my heart, is undoubtedly one of the perks of my job as First Minister. I’ve just had the opportunity to chair a roundtable of Scottish publishers to reflect on the successes in the sector but also some of the challenges it faces right now, and consider collectively what more we can do to make sure that in the future, here, the birthplace of the enlightenment, books and literature and reading remain an integral and vibrant, essential part of who we are as a country.
And that really matters to me. If you take a brief look at my Twitter feed you will see that reading books, discovering new authors is hugely important to me - one of the great passions of my life. Reading books, literature in particular, is fundamental to my life. It is essential to my wellbeing as a human being but it is also vital to the perspectives that I bring to bear in my work as First Minister. The perspectives of lives and experiences beyond my direct knowledge, and the empathy that comes with that, I think is core to the work of any leader, and in particular to any political leader.
So being here with all of you today – and with these distinguished panellists – is a huge honour.
I’m also delighted that we are discussing such an important topic. Because this is an important topic, it’s an important topic in its own right, it has been for some time. But I feel today, given the fractious nature and increased polarisation of the world we live in today – talking about how we have more voices heard, bringing together disparate and diverse perspectives, and deepening our mutual and collective understanding, is I think, more important than it’s ever been in my lifetime.
Earlier this week, as part of the Edinburgh Book Festival, I was lucky enough to interview Arundhati Roy. But for me, and for the assembled audience on Monday night, it was obviously a fascinating experience to hear one of the world’s great writers speak about her career, her writing, and the political situation in her home country of India.
A typically wonderful evening at the Book Festival. But as I looked around at that audience, I was reminded again as I so often am, of the incredible power of literature.
Every single person in that room was being held in the palm of Arundhati’s hand. Everybody was touched by her work – the themes of her writing. Her books have opened our minds – to new ideas, new stories and new perspectives. And as a result, and certainly as a result of that event, all of us were a little more aware – and had a little more understanding – of different lives, of different cultures – and of the world around us.
I think it is impossible to overstate the value of that – to all of us as individuals, but to the wellbeing of our societies as well. And it’s why – I believe – so strongly - that having a strong, diverse literary and publishing scene is essential, for any country. It’s also why I think the work that all of you do – is so hugely important.
All of you play an absolutely central role in finding and providing a platform for new literary talent. In doing so, you bring joy and enlightenment to countless people. And you help to make our society more interesting, more vibrant and more outward-looking.
I think that’s an extraordinary contribution to make. And it’s one which I as First Minister want to do all I can to support.
We try to support publishing and writing – through the Edinburgh International Book Festival, organisations like the Scottish Book Trust, and Publishing Scotland. I have established through Scotland’s schools – something called the First Minister’s Reading Challenge – all of that is intended to develop, maintain, sustain and grow a strong reading culture, across our society.
And it’s why I so warmly welcome the Northern Lights initiative – and the idea of greater collaboration between Scotland and the North of England – to provide in reality and in practical terms – that counter to the gravitational pull to the south that we have all experienced for so long.
And I particularly welcome your focus on greater diversity. For all its undoubted strengths, this is an area where we know publishing needs to do a lot better. It’s clear – from a range of evidence – that the industry is still not as diverse and inclusive as it should be and as it could be.
Research from the ROAR project in 2017 found that only around a third of the books published in Scotland, for example, were written by women.
We know that, across the industry, black and minority ethnic writers are significantly underrepresented. A couple of years ago, it was reported that fewer than 100 books by non-white British authors were published – over the whole of 2016.
There are also regional and geographic disparities. I don’t need to tell any of you that the industry does remain very much geared towards London and the South East.
Socio-economic inequalities are also evident. Researchers from the Universities of Edinburgh and Sheffield estimate that just 12% of people involved in publishing – including writers and translators – are from working class backgrounds.
That touches on an important point. It’s not just in the output of publishing – in the range of authors being published – that we see a lack of diversity. We also see it in the industry workforce – and particularly in senior positions.
And of course, publishing is not unique in that respect, all of this is interlinked. If we have a narrower range of voices influencing decisions, then inevitably it will have an impact on the kinds of writers and books which are published.
So these are issues which publishing needs to tackle. Doing so is - first and foremost - a matter of basic fairness and equality. But the economic case is also important. It is about the bottom line. In publishing as in any other walk of life, equality is good, for your competitiveness, for quality and for the profits that you will make. So we shouldn’t just see it in a warm, fuzzy sense, we should have a really hard headed focus on this as well.
Now, we’ve seen some encouraging signs – in recent years – that the industry is ready to act. The launch of the Publishing Association’s Inclusivity Plan a couple of years ago was a very positive development. We’ve also seen a number of firms taking steps to open up the profession – through things like paid internships and mentoring schemes and that was one issue that was raised at the roundtable I chaired earlier on.
Here in Scotland, there are some recent examples of publishers embracing diverse voices – and I think reaping the benefits of that. 404 Ink who I know are here today are a good example of that, BHP Comics in Glasgow another good example of that, Charco Press that are here today is well. All in terms of their output link to the diversity of voices in Scotland.
Alongside relatively new publishers, our more established publishers are taking this seriously. ‘Celestial Bodies’ of course written by Jokha Alharthi and published by Sandstone Press – is one of the year’s great literary success stories. It’s the first English translation of a novel by an Omani woman. And in May, it became the first book by an Arabic language writer to win the Man Booker International Prize.
These are examples I think of successes and of progress that we should celebrate but it should inspire us to do more. I think that all of that is a sign of the determination there is to tackle this. And I think to go back to the point that Nick made and that I refer to as well, it is part of what publishing needs to do, not just to be diverse for its own sake, but to contribute to the economic sustainability and success of the sector.
I want to end where I started, by reflecting on my interview with Arundhati Roy last week. In preparing for that interview I was reading through some of the press interviews she’s given over the past few years. And I was really struck by something that she said in a Guardian interview, she was talking about the way in which she is sometimes described. She said this:
“When people say this business of ‘she’s the voice of the voiceless’, it makes me crazy. I say, ‘There’s no voiceless, there’s only the deliberately silenced… or the purposely unheard.”
And one of the reasons why I admire the work of publishing so much is that – very often – you are the people who help to break that silence. By supporting new writers, you ensure that unheard voices are heard loudly, around the world. And I – and millions of other readers – benefit hugely from that.
So the challenge now is to build on these strengths, so that publishing better reflects the diversity of our society – and the world we live in.
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