If we want publishers to keep taking risks, we must protect our copyright laws

Government uncertainty over post-Brexit changes to copyright law threatens to make our industry less adventurous. Ultimately, it is readers who will lose out.


Risk-taking is at the heart of publishing; as a fan of horse racing, it’s one of the things I love most about it. Every author at one time represented a roll of the dice for an editor who saw something special in their work but couldn’t know for sure the rest of the world would agree.

This capacity to look beyond the safest bets, to take a punt on new voices and nurture those still finding theirs, is one aspect of publishing currently under threat due to an unintended consequence of the UK leaving the European Union. It’s a complex issue, but one which presents a clear risk for both established and aspiring authors: fewer voices and fewer stories on the shelves.

At the core of the problem is the question of copyright exhaustion, which sets the rules for when international editions can be resold into the UK. Prior to leaving the EU, Britain was part of an agreement which allowed the free flow of books around Europe, while crucially ensuring that when an author’s work was sold at lower price points around the globe, those same copies could not be resold into the domestic market. As things stand, the government has brought in temporary legislation to maintain elements of the pre-existing agreement, but hasn’t said what new law will replace it. One option is international copyright exhaustion which would remove these safeguards completely.

'A vibrant publishing industry plays an intrinsic role in the intellectual health of the country'

If this happens, the entire books ecosystem will suffer. Authors will find their ability to make fair royalties from their work severely undercut. Highstreet book shops – in particular, independents – will struggle to compete with global pricing. And all publishers, including Penguin, will be forced to become more risk-averse businesses. This means being less wide-ranging and ambitious with the writers we take chances on. And ultimately, it means readers having fewer books to discover, discuss and enjoy.

A bold and vibrant publishing industry doesn’t just support authors and booksellers, it plays an intrinsic role in the intellectual health of the country, helping the spread of ideas, enabling people to relate to one another, and – as this past year has shown – giving all of us a vital break, sometimes even an escape, from the outside world. It’s important we act now, not only to protect the readers and writers of today but those of the future.

That is why I am adding our support to the Save Our Books campaign. Led by the Publishers Association on behalf of authors, agents and publishers, its aim is to persuade the government into acting in the interest of everyone who values reading by ensuring these vital copyright laws stay in place. You can add your voice by visiting the Save Our Books website, writing to your local MP and spreading awareness on social media.

Tom Weldon, CEO of Penguin Random House UK

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