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.
The growth in ebook sales in genres such as crime and romance has not made up for the shortfall in literary fiction, prompting ACE to outline ways it intends to support affected authors.
“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.
The few literary works that have sold more than 1m copies include Atonement by Ian McEwan, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger and Life of Pi by Yann Martel. Last year’s bestselling literary novel was Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins, which sold 187,000 copies – roughly half the 360,000 copies of Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey, the bestseller of 2015.
The researchers looked at the 10,000 bestselling fiction titles over the last five years and found: “Outside of the top 1,000 authors (at most), printed book sales alone simply cannot provide a decent income. While this has long been suspected, the data shows unambiguously that it is the case. … What’s more, this is a generous assessment. After the retailer, distributor, publisher and agent have taken their cut, there won’t be a lot of money left from 3,000 sales of the 1,000th bestselling title. That we are returning to a position where only the best-off writers can support themselves should be a source of deep concern.”
The novelist Kit de Waal, whose 2016 debut My Name Is Leon was a bestseller, was one of many writers interviewed for the report. “A career in writing is really, really difficult,” said De Waal. “There is zero chance of taking two years out of life to concentrate on writing for many people. All the big questions for writers from my background are about writing in your spare time. If you have to take time to write, you are living on the poverty line. All the things that would feed you as a writer – lectures or writers’ groups – cost something. If you are truly broke, it’s too much.”
ACE said that “historically, there has been an assumption that literary fiction fell within the sphere of commercial publishing, and therefore required little in the way of direct intervention from the Arts Council”. It is now proposing to support more individual authors through its grants for the arts programme, to prioritise its funding of diverse organisations, particularly outside London, and to increase its support for independent literary fiction publishers – one of the few bright areas noted by the report, which pointed to “a flowering of new independent presses devoted to literary fiction”.
It is also intending to begin discussions with the government about the introduction of a tax relief for small publishers, and to support opportunities for reader development.
“There’s a belief that everyone can read, so everyone is a reader, but in reality, we’re on our phones all the time, on Twitter all the time,” said Crown. “We need to recognise there are other demands on people’s time, and we are saying that there is something so unique and important and necessary and fundamental about literary fiction in particular, that we need to focus on it and support it.”
However, literary novelist Will Self was not hopeful about the sector’s future. “Literary fiction is already being subsidised – think of all of the writers who are continuing to make a living now by teaching creative writing. They represent a change taking place in literature … It’s now more like quilting,” he said, describing books written on creative writing courses as “collective undertakings”.
“I think that creative writing programmes are a force for conformity and lack of experimentation,” said Self. He predicted that “as it becomes clear that the massive amounts of writers who are enrolling in these courses are going nowhere [serious fiction] will be a ‘conservatoire’ form, practised by young ladies and gentlemen, and followed by a select group … like classical music or easel painting.”
The print publishing industry was buoyed in 2015 when it was revealed that physical book sales had risen for the first time in four years. An increased appetite for cooking books and colouring books among consumers was credited for the shift, which continued in 2016 as ebook sales shrank 4% and print jumped 2%.