Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Sponsorship: Why We Sometimes Have to Turn it Down

When Alice Oswald withdrew from the T S Eliot prize this week she attracted attention to what I feel will be a growing dilemma in publishing. I believe that sponsorship is an important way to move forward for those in the arts who have lost their funding, or who are starting new ventures with little chance of funding. But when we accept sponsorship we need to be very careful about who we are prepared to take finance from.

For Oswald, the sponsorship of an investment company involved in hedge funds was unacceptable. Soon after she stepped down from her place on the shortlist she was joined by John Kinsella, who left for the same reason. Perhaps by the time you read this more of the poets will have stepped aside. The shortlist is getting ever shorter, and I wonder if any poets have ever withdrawn from the T S Eliot prize before – it has long been considered one of the most prestigious awards in the poetry world.

I feel that sponsorship can work and we do invite this kind of funding at Ward Wood Publishing. However, I’ve talked to my publishing partner Mike Fortune-Wood and we both understand that we can’t take funding from just anybody. We don’t have adverts for all and sundry on our website, but we do talk to sponsors we would be happy to have associated with our name, and with our authors’ names. Reputation is so important in publishing and writing: it takes a lifetime to build and a moment to lose.

The Americans I’ve been involved with for years because of my nonprofit writing projects have shown me how they manage by attracting sponsorship, and I know it can work for small and large projects in publishing and the arts in the UK. This doesn’t have to be a large investment from one big sponsor – often they accumulate the finance they need from a number of smaller investors, including individuals just chipping in a little. I often chip in myself if the project is a good one.

The larger the amount sponsored, the more rewards the sponsor gets – usually including the publicity of having their name displayed as a generous patron of the arts. Smaller investors get other incentives – from the good feeling associated with making an arts project possible, to having some free tickets, or even greater benefits. I think all of this works well and is a good way to go. There are even websites dedicated to helping you raise funding in this way. If you know of any, please do post the links in a comment.

I do always want to reserve the right to turn sponsors down if I don’t want to be associated with their type of activity, or if I feel they’re offering me money because they want an exchange of favours I’m not prepared to take part in. Sometimes you don’t know what the exchange of favours will be, and sometimes you just have to be aware that the investor is giving you the feeling that they will one day ask for something in return. This can also be the case when people offer voluntary assistance with the workload. I’ve sometimes learnt the hard way over the years and it’s vital to make it clear from the outset that there is no exchange of favours. Sometimes I have to avoid some offers of voluntary help, much as it’s needed.

The Poetry Book Society seems to have made an error of judgement by accepting this sponsorship. On their site they have a message saying how gratified they have been to receive it for the next three years, and they have stuck to the decision by saying other arts projects also receive funding from similar businesses.

But if two out of ten poets on the shortlist have left because of this, then it’s clear that authors want ethics to be taken into consideration when sponsorship is arranged. Citing other festivals, literary prizes and projects that accept similar funding only draws our attention to the fact that we should probably be looking more closely at them too.

It’s a pity this has happened after a year in which we jumped quickly to help the Poetry Book Society when they lost their Arts Council funding. It puts the other poets on the shortlist on the spot, and it puts publishers like me on the spot too. It makes us realise we have to question the sponsorship behind projects we’re involved with.

It also makes all of the shortlisted poets, and us, think about whether or not we can continue our association with this award. Should we put our poets forward for the seasonal selections at the Poetry Book Society, seeing as any chosen will be considered for the T S Eliot prize? With two walkouts this year so far, we would really need to check with poets to see if they want their books to be submitted. Perhaps we shouldn’t make this decision as publishers, but let individual authors decide what to do.

The discussion among poets on social networks has divided opinion, although there’s a strong reaction against having sponsorship from a business involved with hedge funds. Some say that the loss of Arts Council funding means the T S Eliot Prize is at risk of closure if poets turn their backs on it in this way. But the prize is supplied by the T S Eliot estate, and the funding is for managing the award. Surely an ethical investor could be found, or a number of sponsors each providing some of the finance needed.

I do feel at times like this that I’d like more transparency and to see exactly how much money is spent and how. I don’t see how else I can decide whether or not an important literary prize is at risk of closure. I find it very hard to believe that it is. Arts Council funding may have been lost, but Arts Council funding is a privilege rather than a right and projects should always plan ways to manage without it.

There are so many people who work in poetry for little or no income, or finance publishing companies and other ventures because they believe in the importance of this artistic form. It’s hard to convince the poetry world that accepting sponsorship from sources they feel to be unethical is necessary just because the sums need to add up. It depends how much money you decide you need in a budget for each project, and if ethical sources aren’t available to pay the amount you want this means that the budget and the working methods have to change.

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