From purchasing books to teaching literacy, Scottish Book Trust CEO Marc Lambert is ready for the debate
When Marc Lambert took charge of the Scottish Book Trust in 2002, it had two staff and an annual budget of £200,000. Ten years on, Scotland’s lead organisation in promoting literacy, spreading a love of reading, and supporting the next generation of writing talent is recruiting to bring its workforce up to 34, has a turnover of £4m, and is set to begin a programme of intervention in some of Scotland’s most deprived communities. Change, therefore, is not something that fazes Lambert.
All the better because literature – the way it is produced, accessed and consumed – is in a state of flux. “Publishing models are changing and will have to change dramatically to meet these new challenges,” he says, highlighting the struggle now facing the literary sector. “The writer can now cut out the agent, the publisher, the retailer, and go directly to the market, which is a good thing, but it also involves serious challenges for the writer in terms of getting attention for what they’re doing and getting to market successfully.” Many of the challenges Lambert refers to are posed by the development of new technologies.
“What [the internet] dramatises is copyright.
If something’s available online, then someone’s going to nick it. It’s just inevitable,” Lambert says. “Publishers themselves are responding very slowly, and I think very ineptly to these challenges, and they’re grappling with one central issue, which is as soon as you put something online, someone can nick it.
Publishing houses in the future may well be made up of a publisher, a commissioning editor, a typesetter and 14 lawyers.” Lambert knows all too well the struggles facing the literature industry, having begun his career at Waterstones – the high street book retailer whose fortunes have changed as often as it has changed hands. He does not share the response of his colleagues and peers, however. Waterstones’ founder, Tim Waterstone, told The Guardian at the beginning of April that online retailer Amazon was “rude, contemptuous, arrogant and subversive” in its business dealings. One former Scottish party leader making a campaign call at a well-known Scottish publishing house was moved to call it an “evil company” in response to an executive’s complaints.
In contrast, Lambert – while expressing some dismay at recent allegations over Amazon’s tax affairs – says he is “sanguine” about the impact of technology on how literature is produced and consumed, and professes an admiration of the company’s “lean” business model and “sophisticated” online operation. “It’s nice to go browse in book shops, but who browses book shops? Middle-class people – maximum 30 per cent of the population, and actually, Waterstones has run a very poor operation over the last ten years.” For Lambert, the benefit of the digital revolution does have some caveats, however; children should still have “a book in their hands” rather than an e-reader, in order to develop fine motor skills, and so that parents can share fully in the experience of reading to their child. But Lambert sees the Scottish Book Trust assisting both readers and writers navigate the changes in literature, rather than pushing back against an unstoppable tide.
“There’s really no difference in a sense between Gutenberg inventing portable type and Apple inventing the platform for an ibook, or Kindle, or Sony reader – it’s just another revolution.” The elements within the industry expressing alarm are “confusing the medium with the message. The medium is relatively unimportant; the message is important. People should be worrying about what they’re reading, not what they’re reading it on.” It’s the question of whether Scotland is reading that is at the forefront of Lambert’s concerns.
Scotland’s ranking in international studies of reading engagement are sufficient to avoid government embarrassment, but not good enough in his view. “If you look at the latest PISA (Programme for International Student Achievement) results from 2009, we’re not doing that well in terms of education. We’re about at the OECD average level. Is that good enough? I don’t think it is.” The implementation of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) offers a key opportunity to reinvigorate Scotland’s approach to literacy. “We’re not doing well enough, and one of the recognitions of that fact on a national level is the new curriculum that’s been brought in. Why would we bring in a new curriculum if we felt the old one was adequate?” Lambert says it is a “shame” that CfE is being instituted when budgets are under pressure, but says that this shouldn’t be seen as a reason to rein in reform. “If you look at the Finnish system, which is the top OECD educational system, that too was pushed through during the 1980s at a time when the Finnish economy was in trouble. One of the distinguishing factors of the success of all of that in Finland is that it wasn’t implemented by diktat, it was implemented in a partnership with teachers.
Somehow we in Scotland have got to get to a stage where government, governmental bodies, local authorities and individual teachers are all pulling in the same direction – and that’s going to take time.
“The basic problem is that we’re trying to teach children to read and write at far too early an age.
What’s happening is we’re teaching children to read, but we’re not making them readers; and again, the PISA research bears that out: only 26 per cent of 15 year olds in Scottish schools say they read for pleasure. The rest, that’s 74 per cent, either think that reading is a waste of time, or do it only when they have to.” That is a “huge failure” of the education system, Lambert adds, returning to the example of Finland, where children only begin learning to read and write at age 7.” It’s a system that fails those who arrive at school furthest from literacy – children who have few or no books at home and whose parents may struggle with poor literacy themselves. This year, the Scottish Book Trust is being funded by the Scottish Government to launch a programme of ‘assertive outreach’ in deprived communities across Scotland, reaching all 32 local authority areas over the next four years. The scheme will aim to get local parents to bring their children to sessions of the SBT’s already-successful Book Bug infants programme, involving local authority services and third sector organisations to turn the gatherings into a point of contact to identify a family’s needs across a range of services.
With 70 per cent of the Scottish prison population classed as functionally illiterate, it’s a problem whose impacts and solutions have a wider remit than that of the SBT alone. “If you’re really going to solve the problem, then it comes down to jobs. If you look at the east end of Glasgow, where we’re presently planning a major intervention, at least 61 per cent of all the households are without employment. It’s a disaster.” The push to share the benefits of literacy equally across Scotland takes on historical significance in the surroundings of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, where the Scottish Book Trust is based. Sitting in the cafe at the Scottish Storytelling Centre, a stone’s throw away from the meeting house that bears his name, Lambert credits Scotland’s literary heritage to John Knox, and the parish-based education system that he instigated.
“I think the foundation of it is the fact that Scotland was one of the first countries in the world to introduce mass literacy, and so Scotland had a relatively early start on literacy and literature. Actually, that’s probably one of the main foundations of the Scottish Enlightenment; a literary culture can only emerge when there are readers. You’re not going to get the great writers if you don’t have great readers and a mass readership.
“The second distinguishing factor is that Scotland since 1707 has not been an independent nation. In that political/cultural vacuum, somebody has to fill it. Somebody has to act as a historical memory. You can see that throughout; you can see that in MacDiarmid, you can see that in Burns, and you can see it in James Robertson.” Yet with Scottish identity seemingly at its highest ebb for generations, and with the burgeoning referendum campaign promising greater than ever domestic debate and international awareness of what it means to be Scottish, Lambert sees the confidence of Scotland’s writers expressed differently – quietly, and with a certain diffidence towards national identity.
“I think that many Scottish writers today don’t necessarily want to be identified as a Scottish writer. We live in a globalised world with globalised communication platforms; many Scottish writers are obviously proud to be Scottish, but they kind of just want to write books and gain readers. In some ways, some Scottish writers think that being defined as a Scottish writer is now a limiting thing.” But surely the purpose of political devolution was to give Scots greater freedom? “It’s precisely because we have devolution that this has happened, because people think, ‘whatever happens, we’re wresting power back’.”