Future fiction

<p>The recent proposal that public libraries should <a href="http://www.thebookseller.com/news/42901-library-chief-do-libraries-need-... to offer fiction</a> (The Bookseller, 3rd August) is a bit of a shocker. It seems unlikely to succeed, but it is a reminder of how far libraries have already retreated from their role as arbiters of fiction publishing.</p>
<p>Twenty years ago it was libraries that provided the main route to market for new writers. If the package was right, even a d&eacute;but novel could garner orders of a thousand or so hardbacks, and proven veterans could expect sales of up to 10,000. The gatekeepers of the system were the fiction buyers of library suppliers based in Nottingham, Lytham St Annes and Glasgow, obligatory ports of call for sales directors and aspiring editors. The system worked because it was rigorously market-tested by the number of loans recorded for each title. Some of today's most successful fiction imprints&mdash;Headline, Century, Little, Brown, Heinemann&mdash;based their business models on keen attention to the demands of libraries.</p>
<p>Who are the arbiters now? In theory it is the chain booksellers, but in practice they have relinquished the role to focus on the battle for market share in which readers are force-fed a diet of heavily discounted brand names. In this battle, the winners and losers in the fiction stakes are determined not so much by the discretion of buyers or response of readers as by the collusion of powerful retailers selling shelf-space to the handful of powerful publishers who can afford it&mdash;or, more accurately, who cannot afford not to pay for it.</p>
<p>There are signs that this is about to change. The catalyst is the discovery, not before time, that the current system really doesn't work very well. The chains have been losing market share. The independents, after a long decline, are looking at modest gains. I suspect that a number of chain store managers stuck with the three-for-two mentality more because they felt forced to do so by competitive pressures than from personal conviction.</p>
<p>It is highly impropable that the library sector can or should recover its position as a nursery for new fiction. Libraries have been redefined by the arrival of the internet, and assumed a wider range of responsibilities. This column salutes, in passing, the achievement of <a href="http://www.thebookseller.com/news/43456-tim-coates-to-save-hillingdon-26... Coates in his overhaul of Hillingdon's libraries</a>, and hopes it has caught the attention of those who distribute the New Year's honours.</p>
<p>I also hope we can look forward to a brighter future for fiction, where new authors can build a career through the judgement and support of independent or independently minded booksellers.</p>