There was a bit of alarm in the book world recently when the Publishers Association in the UK announced a 7% decline in revenue from sales of fiction (physical formats) in 2018. There was a rise in sales of digital formats but not enough to offset fully the drop in sales of actual books. In contrast, non-fiction sales were up and are now worth almost £1bn! Audiobooks have also enjoyed big increases in the last couple of years.
Those of us who feel strongly about books may find this rather worrying and publishers have identified fiction as most vulnerable as there are now so many other things competing for a slice of our leisure time. In my household, I have three teenagers and whilst they do all read (some more than others!) it is undoubtedly Netflix that commands more of their attention. They will quite literally walk around with their earphones on watching their mobile phone screens! (As I wrote that I chuckled to myself, thinking about Anna Burns’s central character in Milkman who got such a hard time for “reading whilst walking around”!)
Don’t get me wrong, I do watch Netflix and am working my way through a couple of box sets at the moment. I seldom watch more than one episode per sitting, though; I know some people will watch several episodes back to back, and suddenly your evening is gone. ‘On demand’ television is great, but I do feel you have to have balance in life – I also have on-demand coffee and chocolate in my house but I wouldn’t dream of drinking three consecutive cups per evening! The reasons are obvious. And whilst Netflix, Amazon, computer games or social media are probably not going to make you really wired and stop you sleeping (though they might!) it is still important to be able to stop and switch off, to know that there are other things in life that deserve your attention and may be better for you.
Some might argue that it’s all just entertainment and it’s not doing us any harm, and, indeed, that there is high quality television out there. The Handmaid’s Tale, for example, has made an extraordinarily successful transition from novel to Netflix and this will no doubt drive an increase in sales of Margaret Atwood’s follow-up book The Testaments, due for publication this Autumn. However, it’s not the blockbusters, the big-name, already rich and famous authors who need our support, it’s all the other writers, striving to get their books noticed. My worry is that the links between on-demand television and online book retailers, and the time-pressed, mobile phone-dependent consumer will create a perfect storm where the choice of reading we have available is gradually narrowed and homogenised.
I am pleased to see non-fiction is thriving; there are some wonderful history, philosophy and political books out there. And I do believe the trends in children’s books are more encouraging, less linked as they are to television and film.
All I can say is we must keep reading widely, keep campaigning to ensure our libraries stay open and use our bookshops before we lose them, particularly independents. Oh, and go to a literary festival or an author talk.
Do you worry about the future of the novel?
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