Literature in the 21st Century: Understanding models of support for literary fiction

Literature Publishers and publishing United Kingdom

It’s easy to believe there was once a Golden Age for literary fiction, but the history of publishing tells us otherwise. It has rarely, if ever, been easy to support literary writing.

Our current environment presents unique challenges, but also some opportunities. Changing technology, an historic shift in the markets for cultural and entertainment goods, and rapidly evolving consumer preferences all mean the assumption that literary fiction is in a precarious place must be explored in depth. This report, which was commissioned and funded by Arts Council England and prepared by Canelo, looks at the position of literary fiction today. It seeks to find out how literary fiction is supported and what is happening to those models.

We have found:

• That print sales of literary fiction have fallen over the last decade, particularly after the recession. Today, despite some recent positive indicators, they remain significantly below where they stood in the mid-noughties

• There is only a small ‘long tail’ of novels that sell in sufficient quantities to support an author; all bar the top 1,000 writers (at a push) in the country sell too few books to make a career from sales alone

• The price of a literary fiction book has fallen in real terms over the last 15 years. Not only are book sales down by both volume, but, crucially, publishers are receiving less money for every copy sold

• While e-book sales have made up much of the fall in print sales elsewhere in the book market, this does not appear to be the case for literary fiction. Genre and commercial fiction predominate in e-book format

• Large prizes have become even more important to literary fiction

• Advances are very likely to have fallen for most writers

• Literary fiction is dominated by ‘insider networks’; breaking into these still proves tough for many

• Not-for-profit support for literary writing is unable to fill the gaps created by the above

This, then, is not an easy time for literary fiction. Nevertheless, there are a few bright spots:

• New independent publishers continue to emerge

• There is no conclusive evidence that publishers are reducing their marketing, even if this is a common feeling among writers

• Film rights, translation rights, audiobooks and new crowd-sourcing models are all on the rise as ways of supporting literary fiction

• The growth in creative writing courses offers teaching opportunities for writers, but also creates a more competitive landscape for authors.

At the start of our research we expected both good and bad news; to find that some of the pessimism that seems to surround the book world was unwarranted. To some extent this was true. As the above suggests, though, our research indicates this is emphatically not an easy time, and that models to support literary fiction are stretched thin, more than at any point in recent decades.

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