Futures in Publishing: The Changing Landscape of Contemporary Fiction

The Business: Futures in Publishing 2017

This post is the first instalment of Futures in Publishing, a five post series on the state of the publishing industry based on the University of Edinburgh’s “The Business” conference earlier this year. Read more about the series and the panellists here.

The Changing Landscape of Contemporary Fiction

“People are increasingly interested in the physicality of books.” Here are some of my favourite editions that I haven’t yet packed yet for my move on Thursday: J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (Harper Collins), Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things (Canongate), and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series (Everyman’s Library).

Creative industries like film-making, television, and music are constantly transforming to address trends and current events, and publishing is no different. So what does the business look like today? Well, unsurprisingly, it’s a mixed bag.

Publishing and bookselling giants like Penguin Random House and Amazon are still creating challenges for smaller, independent companies. Larger publishers have the money and marketing power to lure successful authors away from indie publishers, an issue which will be discussed in ‘Poaching Authors’, the third instalment of this series. Amazon brick-and-mortar stores are beginning to encroach further onto what has previously been the territory of independent bookstores.

Still, despite these internal shifts and challenges, publishing is the biggest creative industry in the UK – bigger than music, television, or film. We’re doing all right.

Jo Dingley, a Fiction Editor at Canongate Books and one of the conference’s panellists, broke down some of the most noteworthy current trends within this £4.8bn industry.

One such trend is the rising popularity of non-fiction (+9% year on year) and the corresponding fall in fiction sales (-7%). Dingley believes readers may be consuming less fiction because books are still the best source of in-depth academic or technical information, but tv shows, films, and social media provide other sources of human stories that can be just as compelling as a novel and an easier for a burned out, busy mind to consume. This desire for a less demanding form of ‘reading’ that allows for more multitasking may also account for the 29% increase in audiobook use this year.

While Dingley says our preferred genres and formats are shifting (as they always do), she is confident that this is not a downer for fiction publishing. If anything, she says, current fiction is becoming more and more “stunning” in both content and presentation.

“Stunning” mostly refers to the amount of thought publishers have been putting into the design and production of their paperback and hardcover editions of late. “People are increasingly interested in the physicality of books,” Dingley explains. Consumers are buying books not just for reading but for photographing, for cherishing as prized, almost sacred possessions, or for displaying as works of art. eBooks sales, in turn, are dropping, because while eReaders are still useful for frequent travellers and minimalists, in a new world of gloss and matte, eye-catching patterns and elegant fonts, varied textures, metallic foils and more…they’ve become “fundamentally unsexy”.

Screen Shot 2017-06-25 at 5.58.22 PM.png
The header for Paula Cocozza’s article in The Guardian, “How eBooks Lost Their Shine”The Guardian also published Alex Preston’s “How Real Books Have Trumped eBooks”. While I’m not sure the implication that eBooks are not ‘real books’ is a fair one, it’s a great article.

Competition to create gorgeous editions that will capture buyers’ attention is fierce, and Dingley thinks it’s brilliant. Readers are gravitating toward collectable, decorative books, and in rising to that competitive challenge, publishers are doing their best work.

And what changes would Dingley like to see in the future? Greater diversity, she says. Diverse representation in books, diverse authors, and diverse trade professionals.

In the UK, publishing is still a very white, middle-class industry, and it ought to be more inclusive. Penguin Random House’s Write Now program and Harper Collins’s BAME Scheme are examples of steps in the right direction. But as publishing is a business, sales have the final say.  When we talk about changes in the publishing industry, we’re really talking about changing readers. They’ll keep publishing what we keep buying and reading. We have to continue to read broadly and to support underrepresented authors. It’s a small but important opportunity to ‘be the change [we] want to see in the world’.

Coming Soon

  • July 07: Is YA Making Us Dumber?
  • July 14: Poaching Authors
  • July 21: Is Publishing Literary Fiction a Viable Business?
  • July 28: Top Tips for Entering the Publishing Industry



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