Arts Council England is broadening its literature work, which has previously concentrated on areas such as poetry and translated literature, into a new emphasis on literary fiction, chief executive Darren Henley told the Publishers' Licensing Society (PLS) annual open meeting yesterday (6th July).
In a keynote address, Henley said ACE research to be published "soon" would show the difficulties faced by literary fiction at a time of structural change to the market, following the demise of the Net Book Agreement, the advent of handheld devices and the proliferation of competing media, saying that mainstream publishers were taking fewer risks with their midlist than before, and claiming that diversity in BAME and working-class representation was "diminishing in some cases". Despite positive factors, such as Waterstones returning to profit, "structural problems remain", Henley said.
Historically literary fiction has been considered a commercial sector which didn't need investment, but the ACE now has "concerns that something significant is occurring," Henley told his audience.
As well as increased support for indie publishers in the latest National Portfolio funding round, which saw uplifts in funding to And Other Stories, Comma Press and Peepal Tree Press, and new funding for Nine Arches Press, Henley said "we are also thinking how to support individual diverse voices in literary fiction" and "agencies that can help them get their work into the hands of the right people."
"Sarah Crown [ACE's director of literature] is leading on this and we continue to have conversations with publishers large and small. We're in listening mode and I'd encourage people to connect with Sarah," he told the PLS.
Henley added: "It's impossible to overestimate the importance of literature to this country. The richness and brilliance of our literary tradition is unparalleled and in the next four years we are going to look at how to make it more sustainable, robust, diverse and forward-looking."
The ACE chief heavily stressed the importance of diversity in literature, singling out Bradford Literary Festival as "fantastic" in "really making a festival that looks and feels like Bradford", with writers and speakers that reflect the make-up of the city today. "There are groups of people in countries who feel they are outside the mainstream, reading gives people a chance to come within the mainstream," he said. He said that lack of social mobility in our nation is a concern, and that literature and literacy are a fundamental way we can connect with young people and help them to fulfil their potential.
With seven library authorities receiving National Portfolio funding in the latest funding round, and investment put into the Society of Chief Librarians, Henley described libraries as "amazing physical cultural spaces we can reinvent in the digital world", saying ACE sees them "as these amazing cultural hubs", but he emphasised that "statutory funding sits with the local authority and we know how challenging that has been".
Also at the open meeting, held in London's Gray's Inn, PLS chief operating officer Tom West officially launched PLS Permissions, a service desiged to make it much more efficient to manage permissions to re-use extracts from publications. PLS was named Innovator of the Year last month at the Stationers' Innovation Excellence Awards in recognition of the potential of the project.