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New life for a dying trade

The book world is on its last legs. So how we can bring it back from the dead?


This article is taken from the May 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

How stands the world of light literature here in the spring of 2024? Well, you may not be surprised to learn that everything is very flat — sales are supposedly 20 per cent down on this time last year.

You can get into the Sunday Times paperback bestseller chart these days by selling a few thousand copies and ornament the hardback list by shifting a few hundred. The genre known as literary fiction is pretty much dead. Most of the money that does get spent on books is squandered on rubbish.

All the profession can offer now is a modest amount of abstract glamour

So what, you may wonder, would make the situation better? Here is a brief guide to the things we ought to encourage and — perhaps even more important — the things we desperately need to wave on their way.

What we need less of:

  • The Royal Society of Literature and the Society of Authors. Two fine old institutions laid low by internal schisms resulting from the abandonment of their traditional remit (standing up for their fellows’ and members’ interests) in favour of fashionable activism.
  • The nibbies, a.k.a. the National Book Awards, which come crammed with celebrity tat and offer valuable publicity for books that, in the majority of cases, neither need nor deserve it. What other animating principles could explain the appearance of Prince Harry’s Spare on this year’s shortlist?
  • The bookseller. Another fine old institution that used to be seriously interested in literature but long ago turned itself into an excitable marketing tool.
  • Creative writing courses. Too many of them, unleashing far too many graduates onto an already overcrowded market and, crucially, nurturing unreasonable expectations in their students.
  • Book prizes. Again, an overabundance. So many, in fact, as to dilute any satisfaction that an aspiring writer might have in gracing one of their rosters. You haven’t made the longlist for the Mrs Joyful Prize for novelists under the age of 40 living in the London Borough of Haringey, Hermione? Well, honey, what sort of writer are you?
  • Writers. See the preceding two entries. There are too many of us. It is as simple as that. And with incomes falling on all sides — according to a survey conducted by the University of Glasgow’s UK Copyright and Creative Economy Research Centre, the median salary has now dwindled to £7,000 — all this overburdened profession can offer its acolytes is a modest amount of abstract glamour.

What we need more of:

  • Independent bookshops. The book-world success story of recent years, and one of the few good things to emerge from Covid, which encouraged smart operators to develop even closer relationships with their customer base. Don’t go to Waterstones — try the smaller shop in the side street a quarter of a mile away.
  • Literary magazines. Nothing wrong with the Literary Review, the London Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement (although the latter can get horribly dull at times), but there should be twice as many of them.
  • Media books coverage. For BBC TV, “book” nearly always means “celebrity endorsement”. A really innovative literary programme would either get some book-world eminences into a studio sans the usual celebrity presenter, or follow the Channel Four Gogglebox template of having ordinary readers descant on the books they like or (alternatively) deplore.
  • Newspaper books pages. The few literary editors who remain in Fleet Street are fighting a losing battle against the philistines in suits who can’t see the point of arts coverage. Write to Tony Gallagher, the editor of The Times, and tell him that eight pages every Saturday is not enough. Similar letters could profitably be sent to the editors of Prospect and the New Statesman.
  • Libraries. According to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, its Secretary of State, Lucy Frazer, has a duty to “superintend and promote the improvement of council library services in England”. The libraries minister, on whom the main responsibility devolves, is Lord Parkinson.
    And how is he shaping up? The library system has been declining for decades. Anyone expecting an incoming Labour government to resuscitate it is seriously deluded.
  • Proper literary festivals, where actual writers are invited to appear rather than TV chefs who have had books written for them or actors talking about their careers. No point in going to Hay these days: you would be much better off at small-scale, volunteer-run events such as Aldeburgh, King’s Lynn and Frinton where they’re actively interested in literature.
  • Readers. Without whom none of the above amounts to a row of beans.

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