SCOTLAND’S publishing industry has warned it is at risk of collapse, leaving the nation’s world-famous literary scene teetering on the brink.

Trade body Publishing Scotland said more than four in ten of its members have experienced a drop in sales of between 70 and 90 per cent following the coronavirus lockdown.

Educational publishers have also reported a rise in piracy as more digital content goes online.

The Scottish Government said it does not “underestimate the devastating impact this pandemic has had on Scotland’s creative industries”. 

Publishing Scotland has 70 publisher members including big names such as HarperCollins and Canongate Books, which published Alasdair Gray’s Lanark and Yann Martel’s Booker Prize-winning Life of Pi.

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It said the impact of Covid-19 had been “severe and immediate”, adding: “The sector, already under pressure with high discounting of books, has been hit very hard with the immediate bookshop and library closures, and book festival and event cancellations. 

“Sales through heritage and visitor sites are severely depleted, if not entirely gone for the 2020 season, resulting in a catastrophic drop in income over the past few months and extending into the summer. 

“This has affected the entire publishing ecology of publishers, writers, illustrators, freelancers, bookshops, and other parts of the supply chain and infrastructure.”

It added: “The industry is now in danger of being severely damaged by the crisis, if not at risk of collapse, and its publishers, mainly working in small independent companies, and writers and illustrators, who depend on publishers, book sales and events for income, are at significant risk.”

Publishing Scotland made the comments in written evidence to Holyrood’s Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee, which is examining the impact of the Covid-19 crisis.

It said book sales depend on exposure, visibility, events, launches, showcases, and author visits to schools, and this is having a “drastic impact on income”. 

A survey of its members found 42 per cent of publishers have experienced a drop in sales of between 70 and 90% during lockdown.

A further 33% have experienced a drop of between 50 and 70%, while 5% have experienced an almost complete loss of sales of between 90 and 100%. 

Meanwhile, 75% of publishers are forecasting a drop in sales of, on average, 50% in the next 12 months.

The trade body said the most obvious impact will be on the writing community, while opportunities are drying up for freelance workers.

Elsewhere, it said: “Our educational publishers have reported, and are forecasting, a rise in piracy as more digital content goes online.” 

It said it is “very concerned about the impact on bookshops”, and raised fears literacy levels may be impacted due to schools being closed. 

It is “essential to find consensus (and agency coordination) on how best to support not just publishing but the culture ecology in Scotland in general,” it said.

The body suggested creating a digital development fund that will help publishers reach their core and new audiences, as well as a “safeguarding and rebuilding fund”.

It said: “If publishers are to survive beyond this immediate period, they will need support that will sustain them and their authors while they are incurring the very necessary upfront costs to get new books ready for the recovery.”

Elsewhere, Birlinn Ltd, the second largest trade publisher in Scotland after Canongate, predicted its turnover will drop by a third this year.

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 It told MSPs it faces a “permanently shrunken capacity to service and reach our markets”.

In written evidence to the committee, it added: “Our own analysis suggests that the real crunch will come next August or September when the failure to generate cash this summer will force a serious restriction in programme next.”

As well as calling for extra funding, it said the Scottish Government should set up an independent culture and heritage commission. 

The publisher also pointed out that both Visit Scotland and Historic Environment Scotland control a substantial number of retail outlets. 

It said: “The cultural commitment and the level of Scottish product in these outlets is minimal at the moment. This should be transformed.”

Research by The Bookseller magazine previously found almost 60% of the UK and Ireland’s small publishers feared they could be out of business by the autumn as a result of the coronavirus lockdown.

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said it is determined to do all it can to help the creative industries recover and pointed to existing financial support.

She said: “We do not underestimate the devastating impact this pandemic has had on Scotland’s creative industries. 

“We acted quickly to establish significant financial support - the Creative, Tourism and Hospitality Enterprises Hardship Fund and Creative Scotland’s Bridging Bursaries have directly supported those who work in the creative industries, particularly recognising the specific challenges faced by those working freelance. 

“The Pivotal Enterprise Resilience Fund, only available in Scotland, has also provided much needed support to businesses, including publishers, and we continue to assess what more can be done.

“The creative industries are a key part of Scotland’s cultural and creative life. We are determined to do all we can to help them recover so that they can continue to make a vibrant and rich contribution to Scotland and we are looking at all possible options to protect the sector as it navigates this crisis.”