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No One Wants to Buy LitFic Anymore, So a UK Arts Council is Going to Waste Taxpayer Funds On It

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

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Darryl December 17, 2017 um 6:20 am

Unfortunately Australia suffers from similar rubbish. I haven’t read the report but to be quite honest I really doubt sales of literary fiction have dropped any more than have sales of other fiction, at least in print. The reason for this is that I doubt these types of books were ever viable. We have a self-entitled group of authors and their hangers-on who seem to live only off government grants. As far as I’m concerned we can stand to lose a few of these voices. We have gained so many voices who would have remained unheard but for the ebook/self-publishing revolution.

Nate Hoffelder December 17, 2017 um 7:52 am

So does Canada, but at least they have a good excuse – they want to protect Canadian culture from their giant neighbor to the south.

Rainbow_slake December 17, 2017 um 11:31 am

Wow, bitter.

Sir Marky December 17, 2017 um 8:03 am

It’s not taxpayers’s money. It’s only their money when it’s in their hands. After this it’s state money and they state can spend as it chooses.
Implying it’s taxpayer’s momey gives the belief to some they have a say in how it’s spent.
Stop following Daily Mail style language.

Will Entrekin December 18, 2017 um 8:31 am

It’s also got some implicit connotations about who pays into it, how it’s spent, and by and for whom. I think Splinter had a great write-up on it not too long ago.

I think there’s plenty of room for literary fiction, and I’d love to see more of it in the indie world. I know The Passive Voice had several posts that featured comments from indie authors who had given up their day jobs, which I think is awesome, but I also think that there are measures of success that have less to do with sales/rankings.

Xaver Basora December 17, 2017 um 9:25 am

Sir Marky

But ultimately it is taxpayer money and the govt can’t spend as it pleases. It does but eventually the taxpayers do have the ultimate say in elections. I’ve seen govts fall because of bad spending

Mackay Bell December 17, 2017 um 12:24 pm

Literary fiction was never popular. But it used to be the big publishers in New York were willing to take money from genre fiction (mostly romance) and use it to promote favored literary darlings so they could win awards and hang out at refined cocktail parties. Big newspapers and the old network talk shows would likewise waste space promoting it to suckers who would mostly buy the books and not read them. That whole system has pretty much fallen apart, not just because print is fading, newspapers are fading, and TV networks can’t put on shows that no one cares about, but mostly because it simply never made any economic sense. Adding to the problem for big publishers is that genre writers are self-publishing and keeping their money or demanding expense deals that allow a lot less money to be shifted to books that no one wants to read.

The Rodent December 17, 2017 um 1:16 pm

This: "scratching out their masterwork in a freezing garret"??? Oh, please. They’re more likely to be typing furiously while sitting in Starb**ks during the half hour between their part-time McJobs, or late at night when their 1.5 kids have finally crashed…

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