Fear not, the novel is not history

This week the Telegraph newspaper laid a cloak of misery over the excellent UK book publishing results for 2016, concentrating of course on the negative element…(lordy, they talk of “the demise of fiction“).

In fact, the UK book industry delivered an amazingly healthy 7% increase in overall book sales (the best industry sales growth seen since 2007). Non-fiction grew by 9%. We also see the trend where e-books (Kindle books) have slowed in favour of a partial return to physical books. It’s becoming clear (in the USA too) that Kindles are liked by readers when reading books that will probably engross them once, as they read, but that they won’t return to again. And of course Kindles are so handy when travelling.

But the physical book makes sense when you might return to look at it again sometime in the future, a non-fiction subject or a literary novel say, and is, of course, the best choice for anything illustrated like cookery books etc. Plus the physical books we’ve read sit like old friends on our book shelves. Physical books matter to the publishing industry because they mean our author/publisher/agent “product” isn’t merely a file hidden within Amazon’s product. It gives the book a presence. Books give us bookshops and do something to curb the power of Amazon, the publishing Overlord. Note that Waterstones turned a small profit last year after years of losses.

The Telegraph points to the tough time being had by fiction (23% down in the past five years). That is a bad news trend; as an agent it can sometimes feel that there are as many aspirant writers of literary fiction as there are readers of new literary fiction. And yes that’s a phenomenon that everyone involved in writing needs to understand, especially authors. It’s a fact that potential readers, looking to be engrossed by storytelling, do have new choices (boxsets for me, gaming for others). And smartphones can end up owning our quiet times alone; where before a book made our best companion. But these trends don’t feel fatal at all. At an industry level they show we need the sales magic of a new writer to challenge JK Rowling’s massive historical revenue contribution to the industry (her new work, The Cursed Child is a play script and so, as far as the official statistics are concerned, is in a different category to fiction).

At a personal level, we can all see that children still love reading (and being read) books. Sales of children’s books grew by 16% in a single year; that hardly indicates that we should consign fiction to history.

Reading has long been a ‘minority interest’ when compared with the omnipresent behemoth of television. A big minority but, at a guess, less than 20% of the population have the constant pile of books-to-be-read on their bedside table that we readers nightly face. So those pundits in the 80% who don’t get the books thing are always jumping to write the ‘death of the book’ piece. Perhaps the prospect of an end to books makes them feel better about all the knowledge, insight and joy they sense they are missing.

Media commentators forecast that the Telegraph’s own ageing readership is consigning it to history. Maybe the paper wants to bring something good with it to read on the way down.

Ivan Mulcahy is a literary agent and co-founder at MMB Creative.

The Bookseller

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