Public Agency for the Book

I had intended to write this editorial about something else entirely: a commentary on a problem we began exploring in the previous issue of Dialogi, i.e. the current status of Slovene as a language of communication in scientific research and academic instruction at Slovenian universities. In the course of this we found ourselves face to face with a much wider problem than just concern about the full functionality of our Slovene language: the global problem of the relationship between national languages and English in science and academia. Since in the next issue of Dialogi we are expecting responses to our questions from Janez Potocnik, the European Commissioner for Science and Research, and since we will be exploring this problem further, there will no doubt be many opportunities to comment on what is happening at the interface between the national and the global. So in the meantime I would like to devote this space to a topic which is currently being publicly debated and generating a lot of interest: the draft of the Law on the Public Agency for the Book of the Republic of Slovenia.

Efforts to create a fund for books go way back. In recent years we saw new legislation in the field of culture, and during this period a team at the Ministry of Culture constructed a fairly comprehensive system of financing for book publishing; the establishment of a Public Agency appears as a logical organizational follow-up to all that has been done to date. Indeed the draft of this relatively brief law appears to be a sensible and transparent act supported by expert opinion which will serve to more efficiently organize and combine the currently rather uncoordinated governmental policies in this area. But this very merging of the kinds of support that to date have been scattered and based on highly varying criteria raises some questions, given the sparse provisions of the draft law and the clearly inadequate regulation acts (the text mentions only the acts on the establishment and the regulation on procedures for selecting programmes and projects). If we look at the tasks of the agency and the four expert commissions that are specified in the text of the draft law, authors, publishers, and others can expect support for the production of books and magazines in the fields of literature and science, for literary events and the development of reading culture, and for the international promotion of Slovenian literature and scientific journalism. If we compare these fields with the system of support for books from the Ministry of Culture as it is currently developed and summarized in the draft of the law, and with the system of the Slovenian Research Agency, we find that certain areas are either excluded or eliminated from the operations of the future agency. Does this mean that in future the Slovenian state will no longer support cultural and humanities journals which are not (purely) literary or scientific in nature? If so, then journals such as Dialogi, Nova revija, and Sodobnost will lose support, while Literatura and of course scientific journals will retain it. This is also true for children’s and teen magazines with cultural and popular science content. Based on the draft description of the areas covered, only Kekec as a children’s literary magazine will be able to count on support, while the children’s magazine Ciciban, the popular science magazine Gea, the natural history magazine Proteus, and the educational mathematics, physics, astronomy, and computing magazine Presek will not. Even under the current system, original popular science books for children and young people have been overlooked in general. Data on the production of books in Slovenia over the years have shown that juvenile fiction (82 per cent) predominates over educational nonfiction (18 per cent), and among the latter, three-fourths are translations from other languages. The publishing of original popular science is extremely challenging: it requires the best writers and high-quality graphics (illustrations and photographs), which in turn means very expensive and noncommercial production of a relatively small number of copies. For this reason the market is dominated by cheap, instant, and rapidly translated foreign (especially English-language) popular science encyclopedic editions from which our children can learn, for example, all about the Anglo-Saxons but nothing about the Slavs, all about English painters but nothing about Slovenian ones, and so on. Support for this area is crucial if the state wishes to cultivate a positive attitude towards culture, cultural heritage, history, and various arts, and stimulate an interest in science, since otherwise all that will remain in the field of popular science will be school textbooks. Similarly, we could ask where in the system is support for those books which are not strictly scientific but which are usually defined as specialized? And since the aim of establishing the agency is also to overcome the currently scattered support for books among different governmental bodies, we might also ask where the support has gone for books which present, assert, and develop the Slovene language, an area to which (insufficient) funds are allocated by the former Office and now Sector for the Slovene Language at the Ministry of Culture.

An essential novelty of the law is that the systems of co-financing of books and journals of the Ministry of Culture and the Slovenian Research Agency will be joined under one roof in the future agency. Academic publications in the humanities are now being co-financed by both, but under essentially different criteria. Whereas the system of the Ministry of Culture has in recent years been improved and stabilized, the application process to the Slovenian Research Agency for the co-financing of academic monographs is in constant flux due to the vagaries of politics, and depending on whom and what the support for scientific editions is meant to serve. It is more or less evident that research organizations have priority over publishing houses (there are restrictions for publishing houses which are organized as enterprises, there is no co-financing for authors’ fees for original work, and there is no minimum number of copies determined). Also evident are efforts towards the bureaucratic regulation of the field. These are areas which need to be defined at the level of principle, since in practice there is a fundamental difference between scientific work which is published in order to benefit the wider public, and that which more or less serves only to rack up points for an individual scholar or research organization.

The Public Agency for the Book is now to take on the functions of both organizations. If their merging under one roof is to be anything more than of a formal and technical nature, then the conditions of support to all areas must begin to converge. The elaboration of the draft law states that the Ministries of Culture and Science will still determine their policies and the amount of state-supported funding independently, and the Agency for the Book will be the executor and coordinator of these policies. In that case the establishment of the Agency is simply a formal reorganization, which in and of itself is not controversial, but it does mean that the essence of the problem will remain outside the purview of the proposed law.

Published 21 May 2007
Original in Slovenian
First published by Dialogi 3-4/2007 (Slovenian version)

Contributed by Dialogi © Emica Antoncic / Dialogi / Eurozine

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