Is the novel really ‘absolutely doomed’?

Scott Pack, editor-at-large at Eye & Lighting Books, was once the head buyer for Waterstones. Taking issue with Will Self's assertion that the novel is dead, he argues that the reason sales of literary fiction are falling may be more complicated than writers themselves assume

[This blog first appeared as a long thread on Twitter.]

A few thoughts on Will Self’s assertion that ‘the novel is absolutely doomed’.

Full disclosure: I am particularly interested all all things Self-related at the moment because we launch this book next week.

(Be warned, this is going to be a very long thread so feel free to mute me.)

First things first, what did Self actually say? The full interview with Alex Clark is here.

The bit that everyone is shouting about is this:

Now, of course, whether you agree with him or not, and it seems pretty much everyone in my timeline does not, will depend on your frame of reference. 

Will Self writes literary fiction. Elsewhere in the interview he refers to ‘serious literary novelists’ so I think we can assume he sees himself in that bracket and we can imagine roughly who he'd include in it.

Well, since the 1990s, ‘serious literary novelists’ will almost certainly have seen a dramatic reduction in book sales. But there is a reason for this that isn't often discussed.

Historically, bookshops often bought more copies of books than they needed and were pretty rubbish at returning unsold stock. As a result, for years, decades even, sales of books, especially literary fiction, were artificially inflated.

When I was at Waterstones we looked in great detail at what shops were buying and what they were selling. We found that, especially with literary fiction, they were buying way more than they needed and, crucially, not sending back the unsold stock.

This was why, in almost every shop, you could find hardback copies of a book on sale alongside the paperback that had been published six, nine or even 12 months later.

It is also why, in the early 2000s, we had to go to publishers and ask them to take back hundreds of thousands of pounds of stock as we were basically full and couldn't replenish or improve our range.

(In case you don't know, publishers sell books to most retailers on a sale-or-return basis, with the shops allowed to send unsold stock back during a window that is open for three to 18 months after they ordered it.)

My point is that a literary fiction hardback in the 1990s may have ‘sold’ 10,000 copies to bookshops and had, say, 1,000 returned. So it looked like it had sold 9,000. In reality, it may have only sold 2,000–3,000, or lots less, with thousands of unsold copies sitting in bookshops.

Indeed, at Waterstones we had examples of hardbacks where 1,000+ copies were ordered by shops, the book was reviewed positively in every newspaper, and we sold fewer than 100 copies. It happened a lot.

Nowadays, Waterstones and others don’t order anywhere near as many copies initially. And shops are a lot better at returning stock while they have the ability to do so. So ’sales’ seem to have plummeted when, in reality, the true drop may not be as dramatic.

Add to that the fact that, in the 1990s, we had several nationwide specialist high street book chains, many of which sold literary fiction in hardback. Now we only really have one.

With all due respect to the excellent Blackwell's and Foyles who are great but aren't in high streets up and down the land.

We also have to consider the reduction in the coverage of books on TV and in print media, the wider access to all genres of books (so literary fiction is not as prominent as it once was in shops), and changes in how we read…

And, to be fair to the chap, he has been saying the same thing for years. Here he is, also in the Guardian, in 2014, telling us that the novel is dead.

And just last year, I think, he gave a talk in which he said that film is dead, during which he pointed out that literary fiction is dead too. So he is nothing if not consistent.

But, of course, as well as being right from one point of view, he is also totally wrong – as we all are in this day and age when we express an opinion on anything.

He claims that ‘it’s impossible to think of a novel that’s been a water-cooler moment in England, or in Britain, since Trainspotting, probably’, which most of us on Twitter see as nonsense.

Probably because Twitter is the new water cooler, for us, and we see intense, vibrant, controversial and inspiring discussions about books on here all the time. And, yes, often about works by ‘serious literary novelists’.

Take A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. A book that sparked fierce debate around the virtual water cooler for months. A novel that many found heartbreaking, transforming and of vital importance. Others, like me, thought it was embarrassingly bad.

Heck, I lost loads of followers because I was so vocal about my views, and Picador haven't sent me a book since, but surely that is a great example of a water cooler moment about a novel. And you will be able to name many more.

And if you expand the discussion to include genres outside of literary fiction, as I think we always should, then there are loads more examples: The Girl on the Train, Yuval Noah Harari's books, Me Before You, The Miniaturist, [insert your own here].

So, of course the novel is not dead. But, at the same time, the literary novel is not bouncing around like Tigger either.

Anyway, if you'll forgive the plug. Self & I by Matthew De Abaitua is a fascinating, and often very funny, insight into those early 90s years with Will Self and it captures, quite wonderfully, those last days of literary fiction before the digital age kicked in.

We are launching the book next week at Broadway Books in Hackney if you are around and want to come along. I am pretty sure Will won’t be there.

As an aside, I was most intrigued by this part of the interview:

If a ‘serious literary novelist’ reads mainly digitally then that presumably means he isn’t buying literary novels from bookshops which, in turn, could be seen as contributing to the demise of the genre.

But don’t get me started on how ebooks are marginalised, or actually more or less ignored, by our reviews pages. The argument is usually ‘because our readers prefer hardbacks’ which I am sure is the case for some, or many, readers, but by no means all.

I’ll shut up now. Someone please tell the people who have muted me that they can switch me back on again.

Published on
March 18, 2018