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Book Publishing Trade

Volume 437: debated on Friday 9 May 1947

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Mr. Snow.]


I am very glad to be able to divert the minds of hon. Members from the subject of the destruction of life and culture, to the subject of the construction of life and culture in this country. In raising this question of the state of the book publishing trade, I should declare a very slight personal interest that I have in the matter, which is that I myself have for some years past edited a book periodical for a well-known publishing firm, and I also have an interest in an excellent pamphlet which I can recommend to hon. Members called "Keep Left."

There is on the Order Paper a Motion signed by some 70 Members asking that the Government should recognise the principle that the book publishing trade is an essential industry deserving of a greater and more adequate measure of priority:

[That this House urges the Government to accept the principle that book publishing is an essential industry deserving of a greater and more appropriate measure of priority in view of its importance to the culture of the country, and to the export trade, and of the necessity of maintaining and increasing the provision of text books for schools and universities.]

The presence of that Motion on the Paper reflects a general disquiet as to the state of the book publishing trade and as to the Government's lack of interest in that trade. On 24th April, in answer to a number of questions, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade could not even say how much coal was devoted to the paper mills for the production of paper for book publishing. Nor could he say, with any precision, what the effect would be on the book publishing trade of the coal crisis last February. Nor did he seem to think there was any particular need for the book publishing trade to have any measure of priority.

The position in the book publishing trade at the moment is that publishers get a four-monthly quota of paper, three times a year, based on the consumption of paper in the year 1938–39 which, to begin with, is a very bad year on which to base a quota because of the effect of the Munich crisis and other matters on the book publishing trade at that time. During the war that quota sometimes became as low as 37½ per cent. of the 1938 figure, although last autumn, after the war ended, it got up to as high as 80 per cent, of the 1938 figure, plus 10 per cent. extra for the export trade. It now stands at 70 per cent plus 10 per cent. for the export trade. But that ration was not honoured in the December to March period because of the coal crisis, and, as a general rule, publishers only received about 50 per cent. of their paper ration for that period. Some did better than others, although one educational publisher got only one ton out of his 40 ton ration for that period. That 50 per cent. loss in the quota for the December to March period will not be made up by the Government, according to the present arrangements, although the position has improved somewhat since then, and there will only be a 10 per cent. loss of the quota for the period ending in June. The effect of the coal crisis on the book publishing trade has been quite calamitous, on an industry which is already in very serious difficulty, but I want to emphasise that this coal crisis is only a phase in the deteriorating state of the publishing industry generally.

It may seem to many people that with cuts imposed on industry all round, the Board of Trade is being very generous in allocating such a high quota as 70 per cent. on the pre-war use of paper for book publishing, even if they cannot always honour it. But the amount of coal and paper consumed in book publishing is out of all proportion to its value. In 1938 the book trade only used 63,000 tons of paper, involving the use of abut 100,000 tons of coal, or a little less. The amount of paper used in 1946 was only 54,000 tons, involving the use of about 85,000 tons of coal. At the outside, only 2½ per cent. of all the paper produced goes to book publishers, against 327,000 tons a year for newspapers, and, incidentally, 71,000 tons a year for His Majesty's Stationery Office which contrives to use more paper than all the book publishers put together.

But the book trade—while one has great sympathy for newspapers and periodicals—is up against entirely different problems. In the first place, it would not really matter if almost every issue of every newspaper or periodical, ever produced were burnt today, because they have no permanent or lasting value; whereas the book trade is the whole time trying to reprint books already printed, which newspapers and periodicals do not have to do. During the war at least 20 million books were destroyed in this country, through the blitz and other means. At the moment libraries are quite unable to replace ordinary standard works. The point about libraries is a particularly important one. There was a letter from the librarian at Luton in "The Times" the other day, which I have no doubt the Parliamentary Secretary has read, which says that the issue of books yearly from their library has gone up from 300,000 to 1,000,000, which is indicative of the increased turnover the public libraries now have.

All reserve stocks of paper for books have been completely used up. This applies particularly to schools. Publishers used to keep a four years' stock of books when they first printed a school textbook; now they cannot do so, and all the reserve stocks have run out. Only this morning the B.B.C. said, in their eight o'clock news, that there was a shortage of 1,000,000 textbooks at least for schools in London—and that is London alone. Most of the classics are completely unobtainable. An assistant master at Marlborough College wrote to "The Times" the other day, saying he could not even get 16 copies of Keats' poems, which again indicates the lack of standard books. Publishers cannot possibly, with their present paper quota, begin to make up the present deficiency of books for schools or colleges. or of recognised classics, and at the same time continue publishing as a live industry. Even if they devoted the whole of their paper ration to reprinting books, they simply could not do the job, because the task has got completely out of hand and there are far too many to be reprinted.

There is also a greatly increased demand from the public for reading matter, which has grown up during the war. That demand, which is a healthy one, ought to be fostered and not curtailed, but publishers are completely hamstrung in regard to taking risks and embarking on new ventures. One of the most serious features of the situation is that the culture of the country is being stifled, because publishers cannot publish the works of new authors. Because new authors cannot get their books published at all they give the task up. Nobody can measure how many new first-class works have been lost through the present paper cut. It can never be measured, because it will never cone to light. There is no doubt that many writers are giving the thing up because they cannot get their books published.

Another aspect which I hope will make some appeal to the Parliamentary Secretary, because it is of a more material nature, is that of the export trade. The least important aspect of the export trade in books is the amount of money it brings in although in 1946 it brought in over £5 million for books sold abroad, as against £3 million before the war. Until the recent cuts the trade was well on the way to getting somewhere in the neighbourhood of three times its prewar export trade. The financial aspect, however, is as I say the least important aspect. More important is the prestige value of British books abroad, and the consequential trade which the fact of British books being available abroad brings in.

For many years Britain has definitely led the world in the field of ideas and writing. The British way of life has been put across by that means better than any other. It is impossible to measure the effect on British exports of the fact that British books have been so widely read. After the war came the greatest possibility of all time of selling new books abroad, but the publishers cannot take advantage of it because they have an inferior article, compared with that of the American publishers, whose exports are increasing. British books for exports because of production conditions have to be exactly the same quality as those for sale at home, and are produced on an economy standard. We cannot adequately supply Europe or even our own Dominions at the moment with books—any type of books. But there is one type of book we particularly cannot supply abroad, and that is the technical book, and the sale of technical books abroad is being captured by America. It is well known that the sale of British technical books abroad is followed by the sale of British machinery and equipment described in the technical books. People who read about machinery described in a technical book go to the country from which the book came to buy the machinery.

Altogether, the position is so bad that American publishers are buying the copyright of British books to export them abroad, because we cannot export those books ourselves. The American export trade in books is expanding rapidly. Before the war they had an export trade of only about £1,500,000 a year, and it has already risen to £4,500,000; and if things continue at this rate they will soon overtake our exports. And this is the one sphere where we can really beat the Americans; and books are the one sort of thing we can be certain of selling to America, thereby getting dollars, providing we can go on producing books. So even on the material side, and because it uses an infinitesimal portion of the paper and raw materials required at home for other purposes, the export trade in books produces far more for us than anything else we can export. But I am afraid the Government do not share this view, because with the serious shortage of paper in the book trade, we find that the paper salvage drive is being neglected, and that 61,000 tons of paper were exported last year. I know that includes coated paper but the Government could look at the quantity being exported to see if it cannot be reduced because it is much better to export paper which has been printed on.

In particular, we find that the Paper Controller of the Board of Trade on 16th April wrote a letter to all paper merchants giving them instructions about priorities, and not once throughout the whole of this letter were books mentioned as deserving of any priority whatsoever—except obliquely, in connection with His Majesty's Stationery Office, and in one sentence, which begins:
"There may be other usages for which paper may be supplied."
Indeed, there may be. Culture should be the first concern of any Government, but particularly of a Labour Government. I know that there are difficulties, and that there are many uses for paper, and very important uses, but I cannot believe that there can be many more important uses for paper than books, and I am going to suggest that the Government should rapidly overhaul their whole attitude to this trade. Incidentally, when some ancillary commodity is wanted, such as glue wanted by the bookbinders with which to bind books, I suggest they should have some measure of priority instead of obliging them to hold everything up for many months because they cannot get glue. They want only a small quantity. When chemicals are wanted for their trade they also should he able to get them. They are only small quantities. Moreover, when there is an increase of paper I suggest that publishers should get a small additional amount of cloth to go with it. I think that if the Government would reshape their attitude they would find it would not cost much in men and materials, coal or paper, and the return would be enormous.

I am going to suggest that instead of treating the book publishing trade like other commercial interests, and giving the trade a flat percentage basis on its 1938 supplies, they should say, "You have so much leeway to make up in the book publishing trade, that we are going to increase your percentage to 50 per cent. above the 1938 level." I suggest to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary that he should increase the quota available to the book publishing trade 50 per cent. above the 1938 level, so as to enable the trade to replace the books lost during the war and to get on with their job properly. That would take only some 95,000 tons, or slightly more than is used by the Stationery Office, and only about 140,000 tons of coal in a whole year. I know that the hon. Gentleman will say "Where is the paper coming from?" It can come from a number of other sources. It could come from North Africa, for instance. I know that the French have put a very punishing tax on exports from that area, but, if efforts were made to get this tax removed, more paper would be available.

There is one particular point which I must make. The Parliamentary Secretary, on 24th April, said that there were other uses for paper, such as wrapping food and so on. That is true, but I am not sure if he understands that, whereas paper that might be used for books can be used for wrapping food, we cannot use paper for wrapping food in order to make books with it. We might allow more of the imports of esparto for book publishing, and, if we got more salvage paper, we could make more paper available to book publishers. If the Government will do this, and also see to it that all the incidentals to go with an increased ration of paper are incorporated in the new arrangements, they will do themselves great credit in revitalising British culture at home and abroad. It is no good spending £6 million a year on information services abroad if we have no books with which to back them up.

I know that some books which are trash are being produced. But the paper comes out of a pirate ration, or from paper which would otherwise be used for other purposes, and I think that, if the ration of paper were increased, that sort of rubbish would tend to disappear, although some publishers would, no doubt, continue to publish books like "Forever Amber." But British publishers, as a whole, have a high sense of responsibility, and would certainly honour their obligations under an increased ration and make proper use of it. I think that probably 20 to 25 per cent. of the increased ration might be used for export. We should remember that, during the war, and at a time of crisis, the Purchase Tax was not put on books. I suggest that, at the present time, the importance of books should again be recognised.

4.19 p.m.

I am sorry to have to rise so soon, and to deprive other hon. Members of the opportunity of speaking, but I hope it will be recognised that I have only 11 minutes left in which to reply to a 19-minute speech, and I think I should do my best to deal with the case that has been made.

May I assure my hon. Friends and the House that there is no feeling on the part of the Government that books are not an important part of the life of this country. On the contrary, I entirely share the views of those hon. Members who are disturbed about the present situation in regard to the publication of books, but I would ask them to have regard to our difficulties. It is not just a question of a shortage of fuel. There are other shortages, with which I hope to deal. There is, for instance, in the printing and bookbinding trades, a shortage of labour to something like 20 per cent. of prewar strength. There is the question of replacement and overhaul of machinery which has suffered from seven years' depreciation and lack of replacement, as well as the fact that, during the war, something like 5,000 printing machines were lost by war damage. We are doing our best to secure supplies to replace this machinery, not only by manufacturing machines formerly made in this country, but by importing from other countries machines made abroad and prototypes of machines previously made abroad but which we hope to be able to make in this country.

In this industry, as in many others, we are up against the fact that replacements of machinery will take anything from 18 months to two and a half years because of the inability of the engineering industry to meet the very great demand. Our greatest problem is bookbinding machinery which we are arranging to import from the United States of America. We are prepared to spend dollars in bringing bookbinding machinery into this country from abroad. In fact, in some respects, we are giving to this particular industry more than it was given in prewar years. For instance, the figure for bookbinding cloth is at present something like 150 tons above the prewar figure. That does not indicate that the Government are unaware of the necessity for doing something about this industry. It may not be enough and, in view of the destruction during the war years and the lack of replacement, I am inclined to think that it is not enough, but we are doing all we can.

There are other shortages, of course, such as glue, printer's ink and other things which come into this. We have always given special consideration to the needs of publishers. We allocate to them on the basis of their prewar consumption and, despite all the difficulties, their allocation has been increased during the last two years from 42½ per cent. to 80 per cent.

I will deal with that point later. In addition to the 80 per cent.—which is an increase of 37½ per cent. over what they were getting two years ago—we are now giving them an additional allocation of 10 per cent. for export purposes which, in the case of most publishers, means that they are now receiving a quota of something like 90 per cent. of their pre-war consumption. If we think of some other industries that is not at all bad, and in the paper converting industries it is outstanding.

I have very little time, and I hope my hon. Friend will allow me to continue. We have recently had a fuel crisis which affected the production of paper and caused it to fall short of estimated requirements in every paper using industry. I suppose it is particularly true of the book publishing trade where it is necessary to plan ahead the production which it is intended to undertake We have recently discussed this matter with the publishers' association and it was agreed that they would reduce their basis quota of 80 per cent. to 70 per cent. of prewar consumption, retaining the special allocation of 10 per cent. for export encouragement. We undertook that in so far as any publisher was unable to obtain his 70 per cent. figure in any one period we would licence the shortfall in a subsequent period, and we estimate that the shortfall will be of the order of 10 per cent.

It may be useful here to consider the level of paper production in March, when the basic coal allocation stood at 33⅓ per cent., which was a very low allocation and probably one of the lowest. Owing partly to fuel reserves, which were largely used up during the March-April period, partly to economies which were found possible, and partly to supplementary allocations from the regional fuel committees, the types of paper which are of interest to book publishers have been fairly well maintained. The total production of printings and writings in February amounted to 71 per cent. of the November rate, and in March the figure had increased to 75 per cent. It is unlikely that there will have been any further decrease in production in April since the basis of the coal allocation from mid-April onwards was increased from 33⅓ per cent. to 50 per cent. It is not true to say, as has been said in this House, that paper production receives the lowest priority of all.

So far as the publishers are concerned, the type of paper in which they are particularly interested is esparto paper which in February was 83 per cent. of November, and in March 86 per cent.; mechanical printings were 93 per cent. and 84 per cent., respectively, and wood free papers 90 per cent. and 99 per cent. From June onwards, in place of 50 per cent. of the basic quantity of coal, plus such supplementaries as were obtained from the regional fuel allocation committees, the mills, in common with other industries, will receive an allocation equal to their full consumption in the summer of 1946.

I agree that they will probably find that this is not sufficient, but it is very much above what they have been receiving. Paper supplies should, therefore, shortly reach the level which we anticipated prior to the time when the full effects of the coal shortage were known. In these circumstances, we hope that the overall level of production of books will be well maintained, especially in view of the economy in book production which has been effected. We appreciate those economies. We are very anxious, despite what the hon. Member said about the falling off in the waste paper collection campaign, to step up the collection of waste paper. It may not make a great contribution to the supply of paper for book production, as that type of paper cannot be made from waste paper, but in so far as the collection of waste paper and its conversion into cheaper kinds of paper will assist, its collection is most important, and I hope that any hon. Member who can assist in that direction will do so. It should not be assumed that the necessity for collecting waste paper is any less today than it has been at any time since the beginning of the war. Today it is probably more important.

Whatever we do about paper and pulp, there is a limit to the number of books which can be produced, and that is the limit imposed by the labour and plant available. Therefore, we have to take steps to deal with an inevitable shortage of paper and try to distribute that paper in the most economical fashion, and in the way best suited to the interests of the country. We have been in consultation with the Minister of Education and the publishers to decide how best to deploy our existing resources. We have now made arrangements under which book publishers will receive a basic allocation of 60 per cent. of prewar. In addition to which they will be allowed 20 per cent., provided they devote the same proportion as before of their 60 per cent. quota to educational or export books, and give an undertaking that they will use the additional 20 per cent, either for the purpose of increased production of educational books for use in schools, colleges and universities and for home study, or for increasing their export targets. Bibles, prayer books and hymn books will be included as educational books for this purpose.

If in the future the amount of paper available for book publishing is increased we hope to maintain these arrangements with proportionate increases in the 60 per cent. and 20 per cent. figures. The arrangements already made for publishers to receive from the special reserve of paper extra allocations for the production of essential books which they are unable to print from their own quota will continue. There is a reserve at the moment of 1,500 tons and we have now decided to divert from that reserve 1,000 tons for the production of educational textbooks. I would not like to hold out hope of any radical improvement in the situation, but I hope that hon. Members will recognise that we are doing our best in consultation with publishers and the Minister of Education. I recognise, as much as anyone, the need for educational textbooks.

What about diverting paper from other uses to the book publishers' trade?

It being Half-past Four o'Clock, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.