A new report from the Arts Council England has confirmed what everyone already knew: people aren’t buying nearly as much literary fiction as before.
Don’t ask me why, but for some reason this is regarded as a tragedy, and the report claims that fewer authors than before are making a living from writing books.
This is of course bullshit; more authors are making a living from books, not fewer, it’s just that they are self-published authors writing genre fiction and are thus beneath the notice of the Arts Council England (ACE).
From The Guardian:
The image of the impoverished writer scratching out their masterwork in a freezing garret remains as true today as it was a century ago, according to a new report commissioned by Arts Council England (ACE), which revealed that collapsing sales, book prices and advances mean few can support themselves through writing alone.
The report found that print sales of literary fiction are significantly below where they stood in the mid-noughties and that the price of the average literary fiction book has fallen in real terms in the last 15 years.
“It would have been obviously unnecessary in the early 90s for the Arts Council to consider making an intervention in the literary sector, but a lot has changed since then – the internet, Amazon, the demise of the net book agreement – ongoing changes which have had a massive effect,” said ACE’s literature director Sarah Crown. “It’s a much more unforgiving ecosystem for authors of literary fiction today. We inevitably end up with a situation where the people best positioned to write literary fiction are those for whom making a living isn’t an imperative. That has an effect on the diversity of who is writing – we are losing voices, and we don’t want to be in that position.”
Carried out by digital publisher Canelo, the report analysed sales data from Nielsen BookScan and found that between 2007 and 2011, hardback fiction sales slumped by £10m. Paperback fiction had a more extreme dip, seeing declines almost every year after 2008. In 2011, paperback fiction sales were £162.6m; by 2012, they were £119.8m.
I’ve been skimming the report this weekend. It’s not a difficult read, but it is a frustrating one because it was so poorly conceived and executed.
The one detail the report got right was that print sales are down. Between readily available used books sold online, ebook sales, and launch of many new publishers (including self-publishers) the book market has fragmented. Publishers can’t count on as many sales as they used to.
But the report still includes a couple major flaws.
The first is that it almost entirely ignored ebook sales, so it missed half the market.
Edit: There is a ten-page analysis of “The Market” that ignores ebooks and international sales, and focuses only on print.
I can understand why they did this; the only comprehensive data source was Nielsen Bookscan, and that only covers print sales (Nielsen does also do consumer surveys in the UK, but ACE did not use that data for this report.) Furthermore, had the ACE included the other half of the market then they would have had to admit that a lot more authors were doing just fine self-publishing their own books.
But again, all those self-published authors are making a living from genre fiction, which is undeserving of the attention of the ACE.
Only literary fiction matters, and apparently only the UK matters to the ACE, which brings me to the other major shortcoming of this report.
This is 2017, and anyone with two brain cells to rub together knows that you have to look at the global book market, and not just any single national market.
If you’re not selling your ebooks in all markets then you are dooming yourself to failure, and any report that focuses on a single market has missed about three-quarters of the big picture.
Yes, traditional publishers are often unable to fully exploit the international market, but some can and that should have been taken into account.
As it is, this report is useless for any other purpose than to give the ACE a justification for wasting taxpayer funds on books no one wants to buy.
Which was its whole reason for existence in the first place.
image by markhilla