At the launch of the ‘Bookselling for Ireland’ Manifesto in July 2016, the Irish book industry called on the Irish Government to re-evaluate controversial plans for a new national library tender for books. The Manifesto highlighted the potentially serious economic and cultural damage to indigenous suppliers if the contract was awarded outside Ireland.
Despite this opposition, the tender process went ahead in September last year, and the contracts were announced on 16th December 2016. The news has been greeted with dismay by Irish cultural, literary and books bodies. Of the €6 million annual contract on offer, 60% has been awarded to suppliers based outside Ireland. Over the four years of the contract, €14 million will be going outside of the country, posing a very real threat to both Irish jobs and communities. This development, coupled with the fact that the national tender for academic libraries last year also went to a supplier outside of Ireland, means that a total of €28 million has been removed from the book industry here in Ireland.
Irish booksellers and library suppliers offer unique local industry knowledge, and have been instrumental in supporting Irish publishers and authors by ensuring Irish content is available in Irish libraries. Ireland’s inaugural Laureate na nÓg, author Siobhán Parkinson, focused on the importance of libraries during her Laureateship. On the topic of the library tenders, Parkinson said: ‘We have just spent the last year as a nation celebrating and contemplating the revolution that was the first step towards Irish independence. A nation that aspires to develop independent thinking in its children needs (among other educational and cultural goods) a public library system that can provide our children with books written by Irish authors, published in Ireland (as well as elsewhere), mediated by specialist Irish librarians — and supplied by specialist Irish library suppliers who have expertise in Irish requirements and can source and recommend the titles that Irish readers and especially Irish children want and need to read. Irish library procurement policies need to prioritise these requirements. If library supply contracts are outsourced to corporate entities outside Ireland (and soon to be outside the EU), the cultural consequences will be enormous and irretrievable.’
The current Laureate na nÓg, author and illustrator PJ Lynch said: ‘I am hugely disappointed to hear that a large proportion of the supply of library books in Ireland will be sourced outside of the country. I have worked with our libraries and their book suppliers and have found that the relationship they have with each other, and their shared passion for the reading interests and needs of our children are of the highest order. It is essential that relationship be maintained, not just to protect Irish jobs and businesses, but to preserve and enhance our children’s love of books that speak to them and that relate to their own lives and culture.’
The Government controls 100% of the market and its procurement policy will decide how the market will develop. Given the importance placed on supporting SMEs, it is disappointing to see a national tender process harming small businesses and putting them at a disadvantage, or out of business.
There is a way forward. Under the European Directive, the Irish Government is free to implement a ‘Cultural Exemption’ whereby such tender processes would be subject to cultural sensitivities. This would have the effect of making the chances of Irish library suppliers winning contracts much greater. This is a legal option open to our legislators, and one which is followed in Scotland. The Irish book trade urges the Irish Government to pursue this Cultural Exemption. It would not lock out suppliers from overseas, but it would provide smaller Irish firms with some security for the future.
If the dedicated Irish library supply companies that have lost business in this tender are forced to close, it is likely that no local entrants will ever be able to compete for tenders in the future because of the minimum turnover requirements. In these circumstances Irish companies must win in every tender competition to sustain their business, and the large multinationals only need to win once for Irish suppliers to not have the business.