In America and Britain, fiction is said to be in decline. PW recently called attention to the 16% (or $830 million) decline in the sales of adult fiction reported by the Association of American Publishers during the 2013–2017 period. In Britain, the Publishers Association reports a slightly larger drop over a similar period. These are figures you’d associate with a product in long-term decline: landlines in a mobile age, horses in the age of Ford.
Of course, there’s a problem with the data here: Where are the self-publishers? Where are Amazon’s own imprints? But more broadly, and speaking as a novelist, I can’t help feeling that these AAP numbers simply don’t reflect what’s happening with readers. (And, as an author with extensive experience with both self-publishing and traditional publishing, I’m able to speak from both sides of the curtain.)
The fact is that nothing at all in my interactions with readers makes me feel like I’m selling horses to car owners. Indeed, if my email inbox is anything to go by, I’m selling horses to people who really, really like horses. The appetite for good, absorbing, well-written fiction feels to me as intense now as it ever did.
Nor do most of those “fiction in decline” theories make sense to me. For sure, Netflix has upended the business model of traditional TV companies over the past few years, but a cop show is still a cop show. Who cares about business models? There may, admittedly, be a generational shift in play, but a generational shift would play out over 20 years, not five.
For me, there are other factors at work—and the common thread is that corporate publishing is asked to simultaneously ride two trains running on ever-diverging tracks.
The first issue is that the bricks-and-mortar industry is simply not as supportive of old-school brand building as it once was. Its long-serving captain, Barnes & Noble, is too enfeebled; the independents are too scattered; the supermarkets just don’t care. Huge standalone bestseller successes are still possible, but building a brand has never been harder.
Amazon is the exact opposite. It doesn’t, in a way, know what to do with standalone books by debut authors or authors whose previous sales were relatively modest. Without sales data, Amazon doesn’t know how to market a book, so its tools work much better with series fiction and authors who work hard to instill series loyalty.
Then there’s pricing. Competent indie authors will price the first books of their series at pretty much nothing: either “permafree” or a giveaway 99¢. But no sane indie author would price that first book at $11.99. Why make it hard for readers to get into a series? The first book is merely bait; the rest of the series is where the money lies.
That logic has driven plenty of indie careers, including mine, but its hopelessness as a strategy for print books is obvious. And how do you sell full-priced print if you’re offering the same thing at next to nothing in e-form?
Next there’s marketing. The bricks-and-mortar world loves media splash, whether that’s Fifty Shades or Go Set a Watchman. Those things will drive online sales, too, but online-only authors work hard with mailing lists and online ads and deploy those tools in the context of a supportive series pricing structure. An industry focusing on traditional publicity—and pricing for print—can’t use those other tools as intensively or as successfully.
Last, there’s Kindle Unlimited. Data Guy (a man who analyzes Amazon data) estimates KU to be as big, roughly, as all non-Amazon e-tailers combined. Like an increasing number of indies today, I’ve got all my books, bar the first in the series, exclusive to Amazon. The Kindle Unlimited page reads give me a full third of my writing income (the vast majority of which comes from e-books)—and for many indies, it’s well over half. How can a traditional publisher fight that? What beats free? (And sure, quality is always good, but my own work has been kindly reviewed in numerous publications, including this one. The traditional industry no longer has a lock on quality.)
There’s a dark message in this, but also a bright one. The dark one is that the publishing industry has its work cut out—but that’s hardly news. The bright one is that readers still read and fiction still compels. The art form we love is migrating, perhaps, but not mutating in any deep way.
Fiction in decline? Not from my point of view. Fiction’s doing just fine.
Harry Bingham is the author of the Fiona Griffiths series and runs Jericho Writers, an online writers club.