Week 5/20 – week ending 31 January

Amazon to receive £3.2m tax rebate after business rates appeal

Amazon is set to receive a multi-million pound tax rebate following a legal row over business rates at its Rugeley warehouse in Staffordshire.

The online retailer will receive a refund of around £3.2m as a result of changes to the rateable value of the warehouse and premises owned by Amazon at Gazeley Park, according to Cannock Chase Council.

The warehouse was built in 2009 with a rateable value of £3.18 million and subsequent revaluations in 2010 and 2017 have maintained the Valuation Agency Office assessment at this figure. But appeals made by Amazon, arguing the mezzanine floors do not count as floor areas, have succeeded in reducing the valuation to £2.5m, with the refund backdated to the site opening in August 2011.

Exact details of the refund are still awaited but Cannock Chase Council says it is set to lose £1.2 million as a result of the changes to the largest rateable value site in the district, “severely depleting” its resources for its 2020/2021 budget.

The council plans to write to the government to address the issue, saying the business rates system is “clearly flawed”.

Deputy leader of the council and portfolio holder for town centre regeneration Gordon Alcott said the reduction in Amazon’s business rates is a “major blow” to the council.

He added: “The financial impact is of great concern to the council, however. I feel particularly sorry for our town centres and retail traders where there doesn’t appear to be a level playing field between the business overheads paid by these so-called bricks and mortar businesses against those paid by online traders. Although the government is offering business rate relief to some retail providers, it is only a sticking plaster and does not solve the fundamental problem.

“Amazon describes itself as providing fulfilment centres supplying goods direct to the customer and clearly the business rates system does not reflect this treating such sites as basic warehouses, which means that Amazon is paying substantially less than retail warehouses, and a fraction of the cost per square metre of high street shops.”

A spokesman for Amazon said: “Business rates are part of Amazon’s broader £18 billion investment in the UK since 2010, which includes creating 2,000 jobs last year, taking our total workforce to 29,500. This investment helped contribute to a total tax contribution of £793m during 2018–£220m in direct taxes and £573m in indirect taxes.”

The Booksellers Association (BA) has long called for an overhaul of business rates, which has seen growth outgrow inflation and become a huge financial burden for small shops.

BA managing director Meryl Halls said the refund is a “deeply concerning development for the local community, local businesses, and high street retailers, and is yet another example of the many ways in which our current business rates system urgently needs addressing”.

She added: “That global conglomerates like Amazon are in a position to be able to hold local councils to ransom over tax is a situation that cannot be allowed to continue.”

‘Imagination and careful research needed’; trade responds to American Dirt controversy

Agents and editors have defended empathy and imagination in fiction but have also said authors should be “respectful” to other cultures and do careful research, as the trade continues to wrestle with the need for more diverse storytelling in fiction following the controversy around American Dirt (US: Flatiron; UK: Headline).

Debate has raged over who has the right to tell certain stories after the novel–written by American Jeanine Cummins, and based on the plight of Mexican immigrants–was chosen for Oprah Winfrey’s influential book club last week in the US, where it went in a multi-way auction for a seven-figure author advance.

A host of writers from diverse backgrounds, including Mexican American and Latinx writers, wrote a letter to Winfrey to argue the book “should not be honoured as your book-club pick”. On the heels of scathing critiques, including from Myriam Gurba and Parul Sehgal, arguing there is stereotyping and inaccuracy in Cummins’ depictions of Mexico, and from David Bowles about what it says about the industry, the letter acknowledged “the right [of authors] to write outside of our own experiences” but that it was “the writer’s duty to imagine well, responsibly, and with complexity”. In a video on Instagram, Winfrey this week said it is “clear that we need to have a different kind of conversation about American Dirt” and shared plans to host a broader conversation that would stream on Apple + TV for paid subscribers in March.

Following a backlash, US publisher Flatiron has now cancelled the author’s book tour in the States following what it said were “specific threats to booksellers and the author.”

In response to the questions the furore has raised, including over when and if it is unethical appropriation for authors to write outside of their cultural experience, Caroline Michel, c.e.o. of PFD, railed against constraints being placed on authors’ creativity, calling it “a terrible thing to try and cage the imagination of a writer”.

“Given the current climate, it was heartening to hear Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speak last year at Hay Cartagena both making the point that it is the job of a writer to imagine a world, to write about that world and those characters whoever they are, wherever they are, it’s what fiction is. Otherwise, are we saying Flaubert should not have written Madam Bovary, or Tolstoy, Anna Karenina,” said Michel.

“I feel more annoyed when writers are pigeonholed for who they are: a female writer, a feminist writer, an Irish writer. A writer is a writer. I think it is a terrible thing to try and cage the imagination of a writer, to create boundaries around their creativity, to decide what a fiction writer can or cannot imagine and tell a story about.”

Agent Clare Alexander also defended the right of authors to use their imaginations, but on the condition there is “careful research” when it comes to representing other cultures, and she took issue with some of the tone-deaf publicity in the US for American Dirt. Notably, photos on Twitter surfaced in which barbed wire was used for decorative purposes at a dinner hosted by Flatiron at BookExpo in May 2019. Alexander also raised concerns around self-censorship and “who remains unheard”.

“While I will always defend empathy and imagination in fiction, authors who write stories about cultures that are not their own need to be respectful of those cultures and to undertake careful research and to write with consummate skill,” said Alexander.

“Publishers also need to be properly thoughtful about the way that they promote books–barbed wire centre pieces at a book launch demonstrate a devastating lack of insight into what is and is not acceptable.

“As a result of this debate, publishers are already self-censoring in ways that are often simply a knee-jerk reaction, and not just in fiction. There are untold stories that need to be explored, but I am as concerned about who remains unheard as about who has the right to tell them.”

Juliet Mabey, publisher at Oneworld, likewise emphasised the importance of authors doing their homework properly when it comes to research, but said she thought there were two important issues at play, also including the need for more fiction in translation.

“On the one hand, there is no question that the world needs more diverse stories from around the world, written not just in English but also in indigenous languages that can be translated, as fiction is one of the best ways to open a window onto other cultures and viewpoints, to allow readers to walk in another’s shoes, and this is a key focus for Oneworld’s fiction list,” she said.

“On the other hand, to what extent can fiction writers delve into areas beyond their direct experience with authenticity and sensitivity, whether it is exploring a culture beyond their own, or a class or even gender? The key issue for me, as an editor, is that such novels are well researched, and written with sensitivity, but I would greatly prefer them to be written by someone who has roots in that culture or marginalised community, since bringing a marginalised voice to market is a very special achievement.”

After Headline faced down the criticism with its statement it was “extremely proud” to be publishing the book, Viking publisher Katy Loftus said it was clear editors must “be prepared to stand by our decisions” in a way that was previously unprecedented.

“I’d say publishers in the UK–fiction and non-fiction–are very aware of the issue of cultural appropriation. It’s the big question of our age; who gets to tell stories and to whom. It’s something we are constantly thinking about at Viking. I think that as much as we’d all like there to be an easy ‘right’ answer there simply isn’t one; that’s why the debate continues. And having the debate is good, we have to be open to that,” said Loftus. “From an editor’s perspective, we and our authors need to be prepared to stand by our decisions in a way that was never before necessary. But that doesn’t frighten me. That makes me feel excited. Readers are engaging with our books and using them to discuss wider cultural issues.”

Cummins was scheduled to go on a 40-city national tour in the US after the book published on 21st January. However, as a number of appearances at bookshops in the US were cancelled in the last week (including at Left Bank Books in St Louis, which said it was unsure it could provide “a safe, respectful, and meaningful conversation”), Flatiron Books made a statement confirming it has now cancelled the remainder of the author tour after “specific threats to booksellers and the author” had been made. In the same letter it acknowledged the backlash had exposed “deep inadequacies” in how it addresses issues of representation.

In the UK Headline launched an extensive marketing and publicity campaign for the book, as part of which the author was featured in conversation on the Guardian books podcast. A spokesperson said: “We are proud to publish American Dirt, a work of fiction that shines light on the humanitarian crisis on the Mexican border through the prism of a mother son relationship. We respect and acknowledge the fact that it has sparked debate about the legitimacy of who gets to tell which stories and the right to freedom of speech for everyone.”

OUP makes coronavirus resources free to all

Oxford University Press is making content related to the coronavirus free to access to the media and the public at large, “in an effort to help inform and educate all who are responding to and covering this global health emergency.”

The World Health Organisation officially declared the new outbreak originating in Wuhan, China, a global health emergency yesterday (30th January), and the BBC this morning announced two confirmed cases in the UK.

OUP has pulled pertinent content from multiple sources, including books, journals, and other reference materials, for a page on its website; additional resources will be added as they become available, the publisher said.

The move follows a similar announcement from Elsevier earlier this week.