The Novel is Dead
The novel is dead. Or so people have been saying for decades. In the pre- and post-war heyday of the silver screen it was the movies that were going to kill the novel. Then it was TV that was set to finish both the novel and the film industry. What these predictions failed to take into account was that both these media rely on being supplied with a constant stream of original stories, and novels are a dependable source of these.
The novel is an almost perfect medium. It’s portable, accessible, flexible, not dependent on time, and does not require any other participants – although sharing through book groups and clubs can enhance the experience of reading. And it’s democratic. Many many more people can write a story than can paint a decent picture or compose a piece of music.
The novel is not dead, but some of the elements that have sustained it are dying. We are experiencing a revolution that in the long term may be as dramatic as the invention of print. The traditional publishing model requires a publisher to be confident of sales before taking on a book. Estimates vary and information is hard to collect, but it’s been suggested that, with the exception of the big name blockbusters, the typical sales for a new, traditionally published novel number fewer than 500 copies in the first year, less than half that in the second, and a mere trickle thereafter. First year sales of self-published fiction may be as low as 50 copies.* Figures and contracts vary and the price of print, like any other commodity, rises and falls, but generally a print run of 1000 will allow a publisher to break even only if three quarters of them sell. That means that many books lose money, and that makes publishers choosey. Very choosey. ‘It is very easy to acquire a book. Much harder to publish it successfully,’ says Jamie Byng of Canongate.
One outcome of this is the rise of the agent. By accepting only books that come through agents, publishers rely on somebody else to do the initial sifting and – they hope – pick out the winners. However, the agent too will only make money if they can place the book. They are in a position to pass on only a tiny handful of the manuscripts they receive, and that means there are an awful lot of disappointed authors. Almost in parallel with the growth in the role of the agent has been the expansion of self publishing. Of course, I’m not suggesting that it’s only authors who can’t get a deal with an agent or publisher who self publish. There are many reasons for taking this route, among them the greater control that self publishing brings, or the higher per unit return, or perhaps disenchantment with the whole agent/publisher rigmarole.
Back there I used the word ‘manuscript’. However, for most people the term is a misnomer. Literally the word means ‘written by hand.’ How many of us do that? Almost everyone I know writes on a computer, and in many cases that’s directly onto the computer, without any storyboards or notes first. In an earlier blog I talked about how easy the physical process of writing has become compared with what it was for authors in the past. My latest novel, The God Jar, is 99,000 words. That’s reasonably hefty, but alongside your average 19th century tome it’s a baby. Many 19th century novels were lengthy. Think, for example, of War and Peace: 587,000 words and there were, we are told, nine (yes, nine) drafts, all written out by hand! The fact that the mechanics of expressing ideas in writing is so much easier today than it was for Tolstoy and his contemporaries is one reason why many more people are doing it. Another is that there are simply more people around who are capable of writing. Higher education is more widespread. At college or university people become used to setting out their thoughts in essays and dissertations. Writing is something they’ve practiced and are competent at. My father was a clever man, but he was an electrician and had never been required to undertake an extended piece of writing. He certainly had plenty of ideas (he was a great reader) but would have found a 100,000 word novel beyond him. Today there are many more people for whom that’s not such a challenge. Please bear in mind, I’m talking quantity here, not necessarily quality.
The other aspect of writing that’s easier is getting one’s material out into the world. It was only six months from sending my novel Paradise Girl to Matador that it appeared on sale in our local bookshop, a period which included editing the text (not manuscript!), final tweaking, typesetting, cover, printing, preparation of eBook files, as well as all the bibliographic stuff such as allocation of an ISBN and issuing an AI sheet. Put this alongside the experience of my wife, who at the same time was working on a book on neuroscience** which took almost two years to progress through the systems of a traditional publisher – and that was without having to find an agent; it would have taken even longer if she’d had to do that first. And of course, anyone who opts for Amazon KDP rather than the route I took could get their book out even more quickly than I did.
Data is difficult to come by, but according to the Publishers’ Association there were about 160,000 books published in the UK in 2014. This refers to all books, fiction as well as non-fiction, and includes re-issues. It’s not clear how much of this is new fiction, but estimates range from 10,000 to 25,000 (or even more) – and that’s just in the UK! It’s also estimated that the average person reads from 1 – 5 books in a year (this excludes the wonderful book bloggers, who devour fiction like crazy and keep us all going; it’s ‘normal’ people). And while the number of novels appearing is increasing vastly, the number of readers is static; that makes them hard to find. So it’s easy to write (so long as you have something to say), easy to publish, but harder than ever to get read.
Does this sound a depressing picture for writers? I think not. I believe that instead of being a form in decline the novel is today more vigorous than ever. As Jenn Ashworth (A Kind of Intimacy) has said, ‘More books and more people talking about books is always excellent … you’re never going to get me to say that people reading and writing and publishing is a bad thing.’ I agree. The novel is in rude health, but times are changing. Those who can move with them and work in the new environment will flourish. Those who cannot will not.
** Featherstone, Sally; Making Sense of Neuroscience in the Early Years, Bloomsbury, London. 2017.