Craft & Culture Essays & Opinion

The stubborn death of the printed book: what the 2010s taught us about the literary industry

'Woke' literature, the unfulfilled promise of e-books, collapsing author incomes and the rise of crowdfunding - here's a (far from exhaustive) look back at what the 2010s taught us about the literary industry

The death of the printed book has been greatly exaggerated. This is, perhaps, the most important takeaway from any literary review of the last decade – one which began with concern that the internet, rise of the e-book and changing consumer habits might spell doom for our paper-bound literary tomes.

In 2010, those supposedly wise soothsayers at Fortune magazine pointed to a 1000% increase in e-books sales to declare that printed books were “definitely on the decline“. Yet by 2015 e-book sales were in a decline that would last the rest of the decade, as readers flocked back to physical, printed book, and also – intriguingly, particularly in the last couple of years – to audiobooks. Indeed, data suggests that, in the UK at leasts, audiobook sales will overtake sales of ebooks in 2020

Publishing houses that expanded their business models to create digital lists are now restructuring again to let go of the ‘dead wood’ (or should that be, dead data?) that e-books have become. Just think of Endeavour Press, which wound up its digital arm in 2018, or Unbound’s digital list, which is no longer accepting submissions.

Meanwhile, those companies that have focused on producing high-quality print books are on the rise. Just think of Henningham Family Press, No Alibis Press, Wundor Editions or CB Editions – publishers to whom the way a book looks, and how it is made, is just as important as the words inside the covers (though, to judge by the number of awards and accolades books by these companies have received, it’s clear high quality stories are still pretty central to their publishing decisions).

Meryl Halls, managing director of the Booksellers’ Association in the U.K., directly argues that printed books have survived the e-book scare thanks to publisher’s willingness to reimagine what physical books can offer readers. She said:

“I think the physical object is very appealing. Publishers are producing incredibly gorgeous books, so the cover designs are often gorgeous, they’re beautiful objects.”

Alongside the restrengthening of the physical book market, and recent boom in audiobooks, people are talking about books in a way they perhaps haven’t in years. There has been an explosion in literary podcasting, with some fantastic examples out there, from Literary Friction, through to Papertrail Podcast, and the recently launched Poking Books.

This is, of course, all part of the way we now engage with media – it’s not just enough to watch the most-talked about TV show and chat about it over the water cooler at work; now, keeping abreast of the myriad different changes taking place within the cultural landscape is a full-time job – and it means more and more of us are getting information and opinions about the literary scene from mediums such as podcasts and literary websites (like this one!)

But what else has been going on within the literary scene during this decade? And what’s inside these beautifully made books that have got us talking so much about them?

Well, this isn’t necessarily as easy a question to answer as you might at first think. There’s no clear genre that defines the 2010s – though certain things do stand out. There has been a rise in what you might call ‘feminist’ literature, perhaps propelled by the Me Too movement. Popular books like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train certainly put female characters front and centre in books where they had previously been absent, while stunning works of fiction like Sophie Mackintosh‘s The Water Cure deliver literary dystopian feminist fiction in the most brilliant of ways. Alongside this, books like The Power by Naomi Alderman have challenged readers to imagine a world in which the balance of power is finally removed from the clutches of the patriarchy (even if you sometimes have to literally pry it from the patriarchy’s cold dead fingers).

The decade may have also started off with the publication of and subsequent mass hysteria surrounding EL James’s Fifty Shades of Grey – with many commentators lamenting the fact that such a book would sell so many copies (for those interested, the marvellous Neil Gaiman has a pretty brilliant riposte to this, which you can read here). Yet, if there’s one other thing that the literary industry has shown us this decade, it’s that writers and readers are still willing – even demanding – that we continue to push the boundaries of what writing can offer. For evidence of this, look no further than the works of Will Eaves – from The Absent Therapist and The Inevitable Gift Shop through to the critically acclaimed Murmur – which experiment with structure, form, and content in such exciting and interesting ways. You can also add A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride and Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders to the list of literary masterpieces that the decade brought us if you’re ever tempted to believe the (rather silly) idea that readers just want the simple, same old mass-produced stories.

Of course, while the content of our books might be becoming more ‘woke’ and remains of a thrillingly high quality (provided you know where to look), there is still a dark shadow hanging over the literary industry.

Author’s incomes have been declining throughout the decade – collapsing to “near abject” levels. At the same time, the opportunities available to people hoping to make a career in the publishing or literary sector remain closed to people outside of certain financial brackets – with unpaid internships and low salaries still making mainstream publishing the reserve of those from a certain financial privilege. And this tends to reflect on the type of writing we are offered and the type of stories we are given – with working class voices, in particular, often marginalised or removed from the narratives we are offered.

Fortunately, there are those seeking to combat this state of affairs – with fantastic collections like Common People by Kit De Waal or The 32: An Anthology of working class Irish voices by Paul McVeigh, both looking to provide a platform to writers from working class backgrounds that they would otherwise have been denied.

And within this context, it appears as though one of the most significant trends of the decade has been the increasing rise of self-published books – rising by 38% and then 40% in 2017 and 2018, as Amazon becomes one of the biggest worldwide publishing houses through dint of this alone.

Some have decried the proliferation of self-published stories while others argue it’s a chance for people who would never have had their books published to sell their wares directly to their readers. It is either a catastrophe for literature or the democratisation of literature; depending on your standpoint.

Alongside this, the rise of crowdfunding as a means of supporting unique and creative projects has also been combined with traditional publishing by innovative publishing houses like Unbound to help whittle out some of the lower-quality titles that you sometimes encounter through self-publishing while also enabling printing presses to take risks on unknown authors with intriguing – but perhaps more unusual – literary ideas.

All in all, it leaves us with a decade so full of trends, plot-lines, new chapters, final sentences, and interwoven stories that it would make James Joyce scratch his head in puzzlement. As we move in to the roaring twenties (take two), the only thing that we can say with much certainty is that there will be more stories to read, discuss – and almost certainly some of the books we read will be full of bad sex in fiction.

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