Is Literary Fiction in decline?

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?

Old Bookcase by Friedrich Frotzel, 1929

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]

via visual hunt

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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Filed under Books, Libraries, Reading, Reviews, Writing

10 Responses to Is Literary Fiction in decline?

  1. Marianne Coleman

    Hi Caroline
    Despite a few bright spots like the growth in self-publishing, I find that really depressing. What an amazing fall in the proportion of writers making a living through their writing in the short time between 2005 and 2013.

    • Caroline

      Hi Marianne. It’s not very good news is it? It feels so defeating, like the depletion of fish stocks, the ubiquitous use of plastics or climate change. People can see what is happening, but seem unable to take effective collective action.
      Let’s carry on buying books, including literary fiction, while we can.
      Caroline xx

  2. Eileen

    Readers can also give the gift of books – as described in your earlier blog and a topic I want to mention today. The best book I have read all year (the old ones are often the worst ones!) is Robert Macfarlane’s ‘The Gifts of Reading’. Thanks so much Caroline for this gift – a short but massively huge book in terms of its concept and generosity. It is packed with wisdom and delightful stories. What a gift to have that talent – but probably a life-long achievement. The book I co-wrote with Caroline – Retiring with Attitude – is the one I have given most often as presents and people say that is transformative, a term Macfarlane uses. I am off to buy his book (at the full price) Mountains of the Mind. Thank you and a happy new reading and writing year to you and all your readers.

    • Caroline

      Thanks for persevering with the comments Eileen. And for adding the idea of giving books. So pleased you enjoyed Macfarlane’s The Gifts of Reading. And I love the idea of RWA being transformative, even if it wasn’t literary fiction. Good writing should enable transformations to happen.
      And in turn I thank you for the anthology of City Lit writers that you gave me for Christmas. So much talent.
      More giving. More reading.
      C xx

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  4. Novels should not be written with profit in mind. This is contrary to the spirit of art. You might say, “What? Are we expected to write for free?” And I would say, “No. We are not expected to write at all. But if we do, it should not be for fame or money. It should be to affirm the value of our life in the face of an inevitable death. No more, no less.”
    So what about making a living? Should anyone expect taxpayer funding to support their “writing lifestyle”? I don’t think so. Especially when most taxpayers don’t read literary fiction – when it has become so prostituted by social Marxists to serve their ideological interests – “literature for driving social change” – that it alienates a large proportion of the reading community. Or else has become too cunning for its own good . . .
    If interest in self-published literary fiction is on the rise, as this article suggests, and traditionally published literary fiction is on the decline, then maybe the reason lies not only in the lower price of the former, but also in its greater diversity of ideas, rather than a diversity of skin color. Notwithstanding this, if an author truly wishes to communicate his world-view through literary fiction, financial reward should not be a consideration. The literary elite might think that “diversity” will somehow be lost if literary fiction falls out of the hands of currently-struggling writers (who also have students to teach), and into the hands of those of independent means who don’t have to work and so have time to write. But they should also take care not to summarily dismiss the possibility that non-academic writers of independent means who decide to self-publish (for whatever reason) their literary fiction, can contribute to our literary culture a richness which future generations will welcome. That idea in itself should assuage the fears of the purists.

    • Caroline

      Thanks for this thoughtful response. You seem to be a bit of a purist yourself, and to want the market to rule. I am not a believer in state sponsored writing, but of support to the arts, which cannot thrive in capitalist austerity. I do think that literature should exist for its own purposes, not Marxist necessarily, not commercial, but to do what literature does best: show us other worlds and possibilities.
      Writers need to live, and it is difficult if the market can’t support their work, or big publishing houses skew the market to money-spinners (e.g. by cutting the price of novels in supermarkets and on-line).
      Diversity, btw, includes the non-academic writers of independent means who you fear will be dismissed by a more inclusive publishing world.
      Please visit and comment on the blog again soon.

      • Hi, Caroline, and thanks for replying to my post. I do admit that I am a purist, but I reassure myself that however difficult things are, someone somewhere will still be writing good stories no matter what happens.

        By “social Marxism” I mean the now established forms of political correctness that have crept into most aspects of our society, including literature. There is a kind of censorship by the “gatekeepers” of anything slightly to the right of left wing (in its broadest sense), or anything “literary” written by a writer without an MA or PhD (ironically, the opposite of Marxism!) which I’m suggesting might be a contributing factor to the decline in print literary fiction and a rise in self-published fiction. If the publishing industry were to become more inclusive vis-à-vis “credentials” and political outlook, and assess texts on their aesthetic qualities, then I would certainly welcome this, but at the moment non academic independently funded writers are already dismissed (hence the negative light in which self-publishing is seen).

        I agree that writers need to live, and this is difficult in a market that is non supportive. But does that difficulty translate to a duty by the state to fund the arts? It might be a duty, in a now left-leaning (Trump excepted!) Western world. But one could also argue that if this principle were extended to all organizations which felt they deserved full funding then we would indeed be living in austerity: does it matter whether we live in a capitalist austerity or a socialist austerity? I don’t see a problem with someone working and writing “on the side”. Or working, saving and funding their own retirement to write. Would that necessarily mean poorer literary fiction? I’m not so sure . . .

        • Caroline

          Since neither the old ways of publishing, nor the new commercial world of a small number of very large publishing houses, I suspect we need a new model.My answer is not funding by the state, although opera would find it hard to exist in the UK without it.

          Have you a new model, beyond one that depends on people’s leisure?

          • Thanks, Caroline

            Literary fiction will never be a narrative form with widespread popularity, because it appeals preferentially to those of greater than average literacy and, in fact, (at least in Australia) literacy rates have been on the decline for some time now.

            A new model would be one where there is a publishing industry which, for literary fiction, is much smaller, taking its gatekeeper role more seriously. Instead of automatically publishing authors based on their academic credentials or ethnic diversity, the texts themselves would speak. (Roland Barthes, that fading “Dead White Male”, would agree, and be mortified – if he were alive today – that as soon as Reader Response Theory is taught at university, it is conveniently forgotten in the quest for “diversity”, gender “equality” and the reinforcement of the “author-as-literary-darling” cult.)

            What would result is the publication of a lesser number of higher quality literary novels by a much smaller publishing industry, so that readers would see more value in buying literary fiction and film-makers would see a more vibrant field for plucking their flowers, instead of relying on modernized remakes of classics such as “Picnic At Hanging Rock”. As it is, one can pay upwards of AUD $30 for a novel which disappoints, has received a largely negative critical reception, and has been published simply because its author has had a previous bestseller, but which in any other circumstance would be considered unpublishable.

            Would genuine diversity – diversity of thought, of ideas, of circumstance – suffer from a restriction of literary fiction by a downsized publishing industry? I believe that diversity would be facilitated by the fairer, merit-based access to publishing. This is what is sorely needed, because self-published fiction is generally not as good as traditionally published fiction (the novel I wrote being an outstanding exception!) and there is a morass of poor quality writing a reader has to trawl through to find anything decent.

            No company is intentionally going to downsize if it doesn’t have to. Publishers don’t care if the slack in literary fiction is taken up by genre fiction and non fiction. But I can see a time when market forces demand a much smaller population of active literary writers, a cohort who can live off their writing alone.

            A writer might hope to make a living purely from writing, but to expect to do so is to expect too much of the real world. One must make a choice – between making demands on society for the right to a (pure) writing lifestyle, and accepting, for the sake of the flourishing of the art itself (and only itself) that such a lifestyle might indeed be impossible. When one accepts that, then one’s whole mindset changes, and veers towards what my monograph “Why I Write” tries to say, at Goodreads:

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