In praise of great Scots writers

Awards help boost the literary industry north of the Border and enrich our cultural life, writes Jim Tough
The vast majority of Scottish writers earn below the minimum wage for their endeavours. Picture: GettyThe vast majority of Scottish writers earn below the minimum wage for their endeavours. Picture: Getty
The vast majority of Scottish writers earn below the minimum wage for their endeavours. Picture: Getty

A NEW report commissioned by Creative Scotland and recently published is a sobering read for anyone interested in the current health of Scotland’s writing and publishing industry.

Having consulted 475 of an estimated 2,600 professional writers in Scotland, the report found that the vast majority (81 per cent to be exact) earn less than the minimum wage from their writing.

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Our own recent research found Scottish writing has a broad appeal amongst Scottish book buyers.

Almost 70 per cent of Scottish adults purchase new books by Scottish writers. Almost one third buys at least one new book by a Scottish writer every six months.

However, Creative Scotland’s Literature and Publishing Sector Review highlights the real difficulties Scottish writers face in making a living from their work.

It also shows how modern technologies and the rapidly changing face of the modern book industry have taken their toll on Scottish publishing houses.

Within Scotland’s cultural life, these challenges are not confined to the written word. Across a range of art forms, many artists struggle and few are able to make a comfortable living from their talent.

During the last General Election campaign I was invited by the Scottish Artist’s Union to chair a political hustings event on arts, culture and in particular the working conditions of visual artists.

There was remarkable consensus across all political parties that our artists merit proper rates of pay. The reality remains less straightforward and the Union continues to campaign for proper financial recognition for artists who bring insight, inspiration and challenge to how we see the world.

So what can be done to ensure that more Scottish artists are able to devote their full energies to developing their talents rather than having to take on other work to make ends meet?

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One of the key recommendations of the Creative Scotland report is to set up a new body to promote Scottish writing and publishing internationally. Modelled on similar schemes in Ireland, Norway and Finland, this initiative could be hugely beneficial.

At home, the Saltire Society is doing what it can to support Scotland’s still valuable book industry. Two years ago, with support from Creative Scotland, we introduced a new award for the Saltire Scottish Publisher of the Year.

We also celebrate excellence in Scottish writing through the annual Saltire Literary Awards.

The awards have expanded again this year by dividing the Literary Book of the Year award into two separate categories for fiction and non-fiction.

In the lead-up to last year’s awards, we were able to demonstrate the hugely positive impact on book sales of being nominated for an award. Sales of those books featured in the 2012 shortlist rose by 25 per cent during the week after the shortlist was announced and by a further 32 per cent a week later. By four weeks after the shortlist announcement, collective sales of those books shortlisted had more than trebled.

With the awards having grown further in profile since 2012, there is every reason to expect that the sales boost in subsequent years will be even more significant.

Of broader relevance to the economic wellbeing of Scotland’s artistic community, the Saltire Society recently launched a new Trust with the aim of raising £5million by St Andrew’s Day 2016.

The stated objective of this new Trust is to help foster Scotland’s cultural talent. Improving the economic standing of Scottish artists across all art forms and giving them the space to pursue their artistic ambitions is a key part of that.

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Hence, one early goal of the Trust will be to create the Saltire Fellowships scheme. This programme would provide three years of reliable income to enable exceptional individuals in Scottish arts and culture to devote their full energies to their work.

Creative Scotland’s report is a timely reminder that we cannot take our cultural industries – or the individual talents which allow them to exist – for granted.

For those industries to continue to flourish, we must ensure that cultural talent is properly recognised and rewarded at home – and more effectively promoted abroad. That way, we can help ensure that Scottish artists across all art forms continue to make a valuable contribution to our cultural life and economy for many years to come.

• Jim Tough is Executive Director of the Saltire Society.