A few years ago, it seemed that the favourite conversation topic of the literary world was the decline of the printed book. There was no shortage of those who were willing to proclaim the death of the book, insisting that the prevalence of online information and transference of texts to an online format would render the format obsolete. Sociologist Frank Furedi wrote about the ‘Gutenburg parenthesis’ in his 2015 book Power of Reading – the concept that ‘books’, as a literary form, had a limited lifespan, and that the rise of the internet is driving us back to an oral culture. With the increasing ease of the ability to promote one’s own views online, it would seem that books had had their day.
Nonetheless, according to statistics released by the Publishers Association, books sales actually rose the year Furedi suggested that the printed book was declining. Moreover, the number of digital copies sold decreased for the first time in history. The self-publishing industry has also boomed over the past few years. The bibliographic information company Bowker has stated that ISBN registrations leapt with a 21% increase from 2014 to 2015, and publishing continues to be a fast-growing industry. The fastest grower in the publishing field is audiobooks, and the industry has been valued at around $2.8bn in 2015. To most readers, this huge increase in the production of literary material should be a cause for celebration – if we are publishing more books, surely we are publishing a wider variety of books for readers to enjoy. The ability of writers to self-publish should, in theory, mean that readers should be exposed to a wider range of books than ever before.
But it’s possible to argue that this rise in publishing – if anything – has made the industry more streamlined, and less diverse. You just have to look at the shelves of high street booksellers to appreciate the cookie-cutter approach which retailers have taken to publishing in recent years. The same sort of celebrity (auto)biographies, young adult fiction, and thriller novels all dominate the shelves. In part, this is the fault of an increasingly narrow market, which results from enormous competition between publishers. The abundance of eCommercial retailers – such as the enormous amazon.com – has resulted in the availability of a huge number of easily available and inexpensive books. The domination of the audiobook publishing field by behemoths, such as Audible, results in a further monopolisation of the content which is released, leading to less diversity despite the increase in releases. The ever-increasing demands of consumerism in the internet age results in the proliferation of published works. A 2014 report from the International Publishers’ Association revealed that the UK was the country that published the highest number of books per capita by a significant margin. In response, literary agent Jonny Geller, at leading publishing firm Curtis Brown said to the Guardian at the time that this was “either a sign of cultural vitality or publishing suicide”.
This is not to say we aren’t publishing anything new, important or interesting. Last year saw the releases of Samantha Rooney’s debut novel Conversations with Friends, Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, and Man Booker prize-winner Lincoln in the Bardo. There are clearly good and original books being written all the time, but in a competitive market, it’s a struggle for unknown authors to get published. In order to keep pushing for diverse content, it is clearly important for book-lovers to support new authors, as well as indie publishers more likely to be approached by an up-and-coming writer. Making use of independent bookstores, which are likely to stock lesser-known authors, is crucial in supporting the underground publishing market not dominated by corporate giants. The only type of publishing death in the UK will be self-inflicted by the reader.