Is literary fiction in decline? And if so, is the decline terminal? In the market place, where literary fiction meets commercialism, literary fiction is coming off very badly, at least in England. Don’t take my word for it. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence, and now The Arts Council has published a research report it commissioned called Literature in the Twenty-first Century: understanding models of support for literary fiction. Notice, in the subtitle, the emphasis on action to support literary fiction. The Arts Council has developed a series of supportive actions. The situation is largely bad with a few bright spots.
The state of literary fiction is a sad reflection on our cultural situation. It also means the unique social value of literary fiction is lost: increasing empathy levels in readers. The same social gain is not found in popular genre fiction. (See Claire Armitstead, link below).
Literary Fiction vs Commercialism: What’s the problem?
In the long-term the following have all contributed to the depressed sales of literary fiction: the end of the Net Book Agreement, the arrival of the internet, on-line book-selling, proliferation of competing media, the attack on libraries. Since the bankers’ crash of 2008 literary fiction sales have not recovered. Authors receive less income. This is what the Arts Council report found:
That print sales of literary fiction have fallen over the last decade, particularly after the recession. Today, despite some recent positive indicators, they remain significantly below where they stood in the mid-noughties
There is only a small ‘long tail’ of novels that sell in sufficient quantities to support an author; all bar the top 1,000 writers (at a push) in the country sell too few books to make a career from sales alone
The price of a literary fiction book has fallen in real terms over the last 15 years. Not only are book sales down by both volume, but, crucially, publishers are receiving less money for every copy sold
While ebook sales have made up much of the fall in print sales elsewhere in the book market, this does not appear to be the case for literary fiction. Genre and commercial fiction predominate in ebook format
Large prizes have become even more important to literary fiction
Advances are very likely to have fallen for most writers
Literary fiction is dominated by ‘insider networks’; breaking into these still proves tough for many
Not-for-profit support for literary writing is unable to fill the gaps created by the above [from the Executive Summary, my emphasis]
What are the outcomes for literary fiction?
Fewer authors are able to make a living from their writing. (40% made their living from writing in 2005, but by 2013 it was down to 11.6%.) Only the top 1000 books are commercially strong, the rest see low sales and low prices.
Diversity in literary fiction has not improved.
Publishers have increased their reliance on film tie-ins and books series (proven sellers), the ‘continuity imperative’ identified by Claire Armitstead (see link below).
Self-publishing is an area of growth and, according to the report, is ‘increasingly upending the entire publishing industry.’ (p49) But self-publishing (especially electronically) means books are priced lower than ‘real’ books and as a consequence writers earn less. Moreover attitudes to self-publishing are largely hostile, including for the main ways in which literary fiction receives endorsement and sales: through broadsheet reviews and literary prizes and festivals.
The reader finds more homogeneity and less experimental fiction promoted by the dominant publishers. Their profits have increased, by the way, but this has not been passed on to authors.
Any other hopeful signs?
The report noted some positive aspects
This, then, is not an easy time for literary fiction. Nevertheless, there are a few bright spots:
- New independent publishers continue to emerge
- There is no conclusive evidence that publishers are reducing their marketing, even if this is a common feeling among writers
- Film rights, translation rights, audiobooks and new crowd-sourcing models are all on the rise as ways of supporting literary fiction
- The growth in creative writing courses offers teaching opportunities for writers, but also creates a more competitive landscape for authors
… As the above suggests, though, our research indicates this is emphatically not an easy time, and that models to support literary fiction are stretched thin, more than at any point in recent decades. [Executive Summary]
And what can readers do?
Buy more books. Preferably at full price.
Buy and read more adventurously.
Support Indie Publishers: subscribe, promote, buy their books, remind others about this vibrant and growing sector.
Encourage initiatives to support BAME writers, as diversity in literary fiction is not improving. This means buying books by BAME writers, and supporting events and other promotions, such as prizes, workshops and so forth.
Support libraries. Support libraries. Read more books.
You can find the full text of the report and the Arts Council’s response on the Arts Council Website.
A New Chapter must begin for Literary Fiction by Claire Armitstead in the Guardian 15.12.17.
I wrote about the premature announcement of the death of real (print) books in a post in August. Here’s the link.
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