A report by Arts Council England suggests literary fiction continues to struggle when pitched against more commercial writing.
In early 2016 the Arts Council commissioned digital publisher Canelo to undertake an extensive piece of research into every aspect of literary fiction’s well-being and sustainability, in order to set an independent benchmark for the sector.
Broadly, its findings support anecdotal evidence. While individual bright spots and success stories exist, the overall outlook is poor.
Sales, prices and advances are all down, meaning that the ability of authors to make a living through their writing has been substantially eroded. Perhaps as a result, diversity (in the form of the representation of BAME, working-class and non-metropolitan writers and publishers), long-recognised as an area of concern within the industry, is, if anything, declining.
Support for ‘midlist’ authors is diminishing, as publishers are forced to tighten their belts, and there is a widespread sense that mainstream publishers, conscious of their bottom lines, are choosing to take fewer risks when it comes to the less commercial end of the spectrum.
The advent of digital technology, meanwhile, has proven a double-edged sword: creating opportunities (new platforms; new publishing models; new mediums and methods of storytelling; new outlets for writers) on the one hand, while contributing to the challenges facing literary fiction (Amazon’s erosion of book prices and real-world shops; the competition for attention created by streaming services and handheld devices) on the other. 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.
Some blame was placed on writers themselves. Often literary authors deride commercial fiction, creating a rarefied market for their work and a sense that engaging with the bunfight of publicity is below them. A tendency to dismiss readers of commercial fiction has been equally unhelpful, putting them off trying anything new.