Literary fiction under threat, ACE report concludes

Literary fiction under threat, ACE report concludes

Arts Council England has pledged to engage with more bookshops, fund more writers and lobby the government to provide tax relief to independent publishers following a report finding that “the general trend for literary fiction is a negative one”.

The work undertaken by digital publisher Canelo over the course of 2016-17, found that sales, prices and advances for literary fiction are all down and the ability of authors to make a living through their writing has been “substantially eroded”.

Diversity in terms of the representation of black, Asian, minority ethnic (BAME), working class and non-metropolitan writers and publishers “is, if anything, declining” perhaps as a result of authors being unable to make a living from the trade, it said. 

Entitled 'Literature in the 21st Century: Understanding Models of Support for Literary Fiction', the report also found that support for midlist authors was “diminishing” as publishers were forced to tighten their belts. There was a widespread sense that mainstream publishers were taking fewer risks on books out of concern for their "bottom lines".

The advent of digital technology meanwhile has been a “double-edged sword” for the book world – on one hand creating opportunities in terms of new outlets for writers and new publishing models, but on the other increasing competition for the sector through streaming services and handheld devices, with e-commerce giant Amazon contributing to the erosion of book prices and decline of brick and mortar bookshops.

“Although there have been tentative signs of recovery – strong print sales in the week leading up to Christmas 2016, for example, and Waterstones’ recent return to profit – the structural issues remain unchanged,” the research found.

It concluded: “While individual bright spots and success stories certainly exist, the general trend for literary fiction is a negative one.”

To attempt to arrest the squeeze on literary fiction, ACE has unveiled a range of measures. 

Most stark among them is pledging to open discussions with government about the introduction of a tax relief for small publishers.

“Where corporate publishers are less able to take risks on new authors, or support midlist authors over the course of their careers, a number of independent publishers have stepped up, acting in many cases as talent development agencies for authors at the more literary and experimental end of the scale,” the document said. “They are now a critical part of the UK’s literary infrastructure; all the more so because they tend to be based outside of London and therefore provide a conduit for local, traditionally under-represented voices.”

ACE has also pledged to provide more funding for individual authors after the research showed that where in 2005 40% of authors survived solely from the earnings they made through their writing, just eight years later, in 2013, only 11.6% were able to do the same and the median earnings of professional writers has fallen “well below” the minimum wage.

“The impact of this situation on the range of people who can afford to write – and thus the diversity of stories that are being told – is profound,” ACE said.

The arts body also wants to stimulate more diversity in the industry in order to support the literary fiction genre. It has already allocated an additional £38m a year funding for the National Portfolio for 2018-22, prioritising investment in diverse-led and –focused organisations, especially outside London, but will now on work with funded organisations on ensuring that individuals from areas of low engagement, BAME backgrounds or economically deprived backgrounds, and those with disabilities, are made aware of the opportunities for personal support.

More funding support will also be provided for those in the sector to “seize opportunities” presented by new technologies. ACE said that “digital publishing is a new and growing field in which low overheads allow for nimbleness and creativity”, citing crowdfunding publisher Unbound as an example. To that end, ACE’s 2018 strategic funds, currently in development, will seek to support literature organisations in the development of new business models that take advantage of digital technologies.

As well as supporting the trade to produce more literary fiction, ACE also wants to encourage more readers engage with it and will therefore work more closely with libraries, literacy charities such as BookTrust and the Reading Agency and with independent bookshops.

“As with fiction publishers, the Arts Council has had little engagement with independent bookshops to date,” the report said. “…We have tended to treat standalone bookshops as purely commercial entities. However, it is clear that many of these bookshops are not simply commercial businesses. They function as curators, reviewers and event spaces, and play a key role in communities’ cultural lives, particularly in smaller towns and rural areas, developing an appetite for reading."

It added: "We also know that many are under significant threat. The Arts Council will therefore undertake further advocacy work will local and national government to support independent bookshops and maintain their important development and support role for readers and communities.”

Sarah Crown, director of literature of Arts Council England, told The Bookseller she believes literary fiction is “something that we need to defend”. 

“Research shows that reading literary fiction has neurological benefits, it transports you across the world and promotes your ability to empathise,” she said. “Also considering our place on the international stage, it is so important. We are seen across the world as the home of great literature.”

The solution does not just lie with one element of the industry but was a “collective responsibility”, Crown said.

Of all the issues highlighted in the report, she wants publishers to consider the issue of diversity the most “because the problem seems to be getting worse”.

She said: “If we are only getting the stories from a narrow bit of society because they are better placed to write [because they can afford to] then that makes me worry.  There are great writers from everywhere and the idea that people can’t make a living [from writing] because of where they are from is distressing.”

Lucy Luck, literary agent at C+W, who contributed views to the report, has said she was "not shocked” by the findings and welcomed ACE’s recommendations.

“ACE should be supporting writers, I 100% endorse their new aims,” she said. “When I first started in the industry in 1997, there was a big difference in the sales of literary fiction especially as there was a massive library market. You could guarantee sales of 3,000-4000 copies. But print runs dropped significantly with the decline of the library market. The NBA has also made a massive difference to sales and royalties…Looking at any literary enterprise now i.e. literary novel, short story collection, poems – there’s no guaranteed pound sign attached to it and advances are capped at a realistic level as it’s very difficult for publishers to justify buying them, as even if they’re brilliant and have potential. They’re likely to only sell 3,000 copies unless they break through or are chosen for promotions such as the Richard and Judy book club (with W H Smith).”

She added: “It’s a very tough market and it’s important for ACE to offer support. I would like to know how ACE will make its choices on who to support and how the submissions will work.”