BLOG: Publishing and London

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Publishing and London.

The two seem inextricably linked.

The major publishing houses are all based in the city, along with significant numbers of independent publishers – moving outside of London there are smaller, independent presses, or academic publishers. If you want to get into publishing, then by sheer force of numbers, London is your best bet.

But why? London is a hell city. Everything is crowded, everything is more expensive, and it is approximately four degrees hotter than the Midlands on any given day. The fact that there is a special ‘London weighting’ in salaries to compensate for the fact that everything is more expensive is ridiculous – why not just make things cost the same as the rest of the country?

For historical reasons, it makes sense that London is the capital of publishing. The Stationer’s Guild was the first organisation of publishers and printers, formed in 1403, mainly as a guild of booksellers who copied and sold on manuscripts, writing materials and the like. Printers joined them in the 16th century, and by 1557 they had been given a charter and a livery. From there, the Publishing industry grew and developed into what we know today.

But sentimentality aside, is London the most practical place for the industry? I may be a little biased, but I don’t think it is any more. In the 16th century, it was the centre of the world, and probably one of the largest settlements in the country, where Queen and Culture existed. The country is a different beast now.

There is a joke – How do you make a small fortune in publishing? Start with a large one.

During my MA I was constantly told that Publishing is not an industry you get into for the money, you do it for the love. This was fine to me – in my current role I have neither money, nor love, so just having love was going to be a significant professional improvement. The book industry is notoriously unpredictable, and the big hitters happen almost as often as the big losses. There is no magic formula to make a bestseller, and it’s not possible to foresee a zeitgeist. No-one would have expected a book on stacking wood in the traditional Norwegian style to become a phenomenon, but it did.

So why, in an industry where margins are small and risk is high, would you want to base your company in a city where the overheads are so astronomical? Why, when it’s a career entered for love, is the majority of the industry to be found in a city where the cost of living is nearly unaffordable for people on the lowest pay levels?

It’s hard to establish exactly how much the cost of office rent is in London, however in May 2017, LinkedIn provided a summary of costs per square foot in different areas of London.  Depending on where you wish to base your offices, you could be paying up to £120 per square foot per year. Meanwhile, the Colliers office rents map suggests that in Birmingham, you can rent an office for £32.50 per square foot, or if you are happier with a cheaper building, £22.50; whilst in Manchester it tops out at £35 per square foot – and apparently in 2015 it had the highest office rents outside of London.

These figures are obviously not an equitable comparison, for example there is no information on the Colliers map as to where in Birmingham these offices are located, whilst the LinkedIn summary provided an area-by-area breakdown. However, in 2015, Savills predicted that rents would rise to £32 in 2016 for Birmingham office spaces, whilst the lowest rents in London by the LinkedIn information are in Stratford and Canary Wharf, starting at £40 per square foot. That is still £7.50 per square foot more expensive than the top price quoted for Birmingham. Fiscally, London doesn’t make sense for rents.

An alternative argument may be because London has excellent transport connections. This is true, but London is also currently being plagued with strikes on main commuter lines, and whilst it has many connections the size of the city is so huge that travelling even within its boundaries can be a mammoth task.

I live in Rugby, which is smack bang in the middle of the country, around 100 miles from London. I can get to Euston in 49 minutes if I get the right train, more usually between 50 minutes and 90 minutes. In comparison, I have a friend who lives in Blackheath – depending on which route she takes, it can take her anything from 38 minutes to 100 minutes, and she lives within London. It takes her the same amount of time to get across London as it takes me to get across nearly half the country – that doesn’t seem convenient.

In addition to this, despite the London weighting of salaries, this does not do much to change the fact that domestic property prices in London are even more ridiculous than those for offices. One site suggests that rent is 59.15% lower in Birmingham than in London. In fact, living costs overall are cheaper in Birmingham, and this is despite it being ranked the second most expensive city in the UK in 2014. If Publishing relocates to Birmingham, even on an average starting salary of £20,470 (Bookcareers, 2017) people starting out in the industry might even be able to afford to save for a house. Something which would be nearly impossible given the average cost of a property in London reaching nearly half a million.

Obviously these comparative costs will vary from city to city, and there are arguments for London – although for all the ones I have heard (transport, interaction of creative industries), these could be easily accomplished in other cities for a reduced overhead and perhaps a greater quality of life for people working in the industry – particularly those starting out.

Publishing is an industry which has often been accused of being inaccessible to people who can’t afford to, or just don’t, live in London, leading to a certain homogeny of input in the industry. Publishers are working to address this – for example Penguin Random House made headlines by removing the requirement for a degree.

But in reality, living and working in London is still beyond the reach of a lot of people – particularly if they want to start in an industry which is still heavy with unpaid internships, and which is still pushing for transparency for salaries within the industry. Even if publishers wanted to maintain a presence in London, it wouldn’t be beyond the bounds of reason to set up smaller, regional offices throughout the country. This would make it easier to engage with a wider cross-section of society, and bring more diverse voices and opinions to Publishing.

Be it Birmingham, or Manchester, or Leeds – there are cities which are more accessible for people who can’t get to London, and right now they aren’t being heard, simply because of the barrier of geography.

Tradition versus practicality, fiscal considerations, and a potential for a greater diversity. I think it’s worth considering the other options.

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