Yesterday we looked at various pontifications about change -- change in the book world, and change as determined by the advent of the internet and all things digital.
We discovered, not surprisingly, that some people in the book world are deeply afraid of digital, and that some people think it's going to create a wonderful new environment in which everything will be lovely, and all writers will earn £100,000 a year (or the equivalent) for very little work.
If I have one self-criticism of this blog, it is that I spend too much time linking to other people's thoughts and not enough time thinking for myself. So here I am going to offer a few speculations about possible developments in the field of fiction. In doing so, I may thereby expose, even to myself, the poverty of my own ideas, and thus precipitate an immediate and permanent return to linking. But who knows.
Anyone who has read this blog regularly, over the last couple of years, will find here some ideas which have been floated before: but perhaps they may be somewhat refined, and in any case I think they are worth repeating. The argument will be based largely, but not entirely on UK experience; but the world is flat these days, and getting flatter by the minute.
I have already argued, particularly in my discussion of the value of a novel compared with that of false teeth, that a novel is not a big deal. And I repeat that assertion now.A novel, as we all know, is essentially a story. It is the extended version of an anecdote, told over the camp fire, or in the gentleman's club, or the women's institute. Its purpose is to create emotion in the listener/reader.
For all practical purposes, the novel came into existence 250 years ago. At first confined to the educated classes, the novel gradually became more popular with the advent of compulsory education, towards the end of the nineteenth century. In the early twentieth century the novel continued to grow in readership, and superficially it appears to be a common choice of entertainment today.
However, as the decades passed, the novel faced ever-increasing competition. In the nineteenth century there were theatres; then, in the twentieth century, there were films; radio; television (a real killer blow, potentially); and now every sort and kind of iPod, DVD, CD, video on demand, computer games, interactive this and that, and a dozen other media.
The novel still has things going for it. It's easily portable (usually); you can dip into it at odd moments; it's cheap (especially if you buy secondhand). And from the entertainment consumer's point of view, therefore, it has much to recommend it.
On the other hand, there are plenty of consumers for whom the novel is not attractive. It is intimidating: all those pages of solid prose. It requires of the reader intelligence, concentration, a large vocabulary, and a wide frame of reference. There are plenty of entertainment media today which call for none of these; and many of them are free. So the novel's future may not be as rosy as its past.
When we look at the novel from the author's point of view, we see that, over the past 200 years or so, it has been possible, at least in principle, for a novelist to make a living from the craft. But in practice this has been possible for only a small proportion of those who write novels. The rest have made little or nothing, in financial terms. Often they have not even achieved publication.
I do not subscribe to the view that those novelists who have 'succeeded' -- succeeded in getting published, and in achieving fame and fortune -- have been the 'best' novelists in terms of any reasonable set of criteria. This point has been dealt with at some length in my (free) ebook, On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile, and I won't go into it again here. Let's just say that chance plays a large part.
The position today
So -- where do we stand today?
The position is that novels are sold and read reasonably widely, but in commercial and industrial terms the book market is a small one. It is demonstrably difficult for publishers to make fiction pay, and even harder for novelists to make a steady income. As was originally said about writing for the theatre: You can make a killing, but you can't make a living. To make a killing in publishing/writing, you have to be in the right place, at the right time, with the right book. And it may be a one-hit wonder.
Suppose the internet had never come along in the 1990s -- what would have been the prospects for the novel and for novelists then?
All the signs are that publishers would have had an increasingly difficult time, and writers a worse one.
More and more novels are being published, especially in the UK, but the retail trade is interested in only a tiny handful of them. These are pushed upon the book-reading public by every means at the trade's disposal, and the rest are soon forgotten.
Of course the reading public is by no means stupid, and not every book that is hyped sells in large numbers. Only recently Robert McCrum lamented the tale of Londonstani, a novel for which, he says, Fourth Estate paid £300,000. 'Alas,' says McCrum, 'everything about its short life has been a disaster.... Londonstani is already being airbrushed from history.' And the damn thing was only published in May; in the US it isn't even due out until 22 June.
So the pattern is clear, and has been remarked upon here, and elsewhere, many times. A novelist has to show promise of hitting the big time, first time out, to stand any chance of serious publication. You need a big-time agent (preferably Geller) to interest an editor; you need a huge advance to persuade the publisher to make meaningful efforts to sell your book; and if your book fails your career is effectively over.
One of the great mysteries of life is where the publishers think these first-time smash hits are going to come from. True, once in a while you get a Susanna Clarke, who emerges fully formed; but most even halfway normal writers need four or five books to develop their talents fully.
Fortunately for the orthodox book trade, as presently constituted, the internet does exist. I say that because, for all the frightening threat that it represents, the internet also offers a means whereby young, or new, writers can develop their skills, gain some exposure, find readers, and develop a fan base. Hence it provides a training ground for the publishers' great hopes of the future.
Publishers have done nothing whatever to encourage this training ground; rather the reverse. They have done nothing to deserve it; but there it is, none the less. A gift from whatever gods may be.
It is already perfectly possible for new writers to offer their books to internet users, for minimal cost (to the author), in any one of a dozen different formats, from free PDF to print-on-demand hardbacks in collector's editions, signed by the author. Whereas once you might have been published by a mainstream publisher and described as 'promising' by the Northamptonshire Echo, now you can publish your early and promising books yourself, until, with the third, or fifth, or tenth, you succeed in interesting an agent and a major publisher and go on from there.
It's worth noticing, in passing, that if you have a burning ambition to write a series of novels about something really obscure and of definitely minority interest, such as life in a Bedouin caravan in the fifteenth century, or some bizarre sexual peccadillo, then the internet and its search engines mean that the 15, or 150, or 1,500 people in the world who are actually interested in your own peculiar area of enthusiasm, can find your book and buy it.
However, it is an established fact, and one which I personally find somewhat distressing, that even those who do write books which are clearly going to be of minority interest are almost invariably consumed by wild ambition. No matter how limited their abilities, no matter how obscure their subject matter, most of them are convinced that they have a number-one bestseller on their hands. If only those deadbeat agents and publishers...
We are still dealing, at this point, with the impact of the internet, and digital technology, on the traditional book trade today. And having considered the situation for publishers we now need to think about retailers.
Last week we considered, even here on this blog, the possibility that the big book chains would kill off all the small independent booksellers -- and the precise reverse of that scenario: that the indies would be the only survivors. My own view, based on the digital-photography model, is that the high-street fiction-retailing scene is going to be transformed pretty damn quick.
Fiction, at least as we now know it, is pure text. It doesn't need pictures. Hence it can perfectly well be produced on a print-on-demand machine. I predict it will be. Let's say within ten years. What I envisage is that even books published by the big-time firms will be sold to the public through small high-street boutiques, or over a counter in a supermarket, just as digital photos are today. The chains may well continue to exist, particularly for non-fiction, and they may choose to go on selling fiction, but they won't be needed.
Publishers will not use traditional printing methods (for novels). They will not have warehouses full of books; they will not transport them round the country in huge vans. They will generate publicity as now, but they will supply their retail outlets, big and small, with a digital file. The customers will place their order -- over the phone or over the internet -- and then they will call and collect the book when convenient; or have it sent, of course.
The pattern of success -- with big sales and big fame going to just a few books -- will be the same as now. And such 'success' will come easiest to those who are the beneficiaries of the big firms' marketing budgets. But it will also be possible for books put out by small publishers to take off via the internet, in just the same way that unknown bands can launch a new song, without benefit of a big recording company.
In statistical terms, therefore, we shall still have sales of novels forming a Zipf curve, but the long tail will be increasingly important to everyone: publishers and readers and writers alike.
You can see evidence of this already. Compare, for instance, three science-fiction novels such as Robert Charles Wilson's Spin, John Sundman's Acts of the Apostles, and Geoff Ryman's Air. One of these three novels is self-published; the other two are published by major firms and have won, or been shortlisted for, major prizes.
What is there to distinguish these three books, one from another? Essentially, nothing. They are all three highly competent, fully professional pieces of work. Two of them I enjoyed very much, the other I didn't fancy. If you have a keen eye, you might guess which is the self-published book just from the look of the thing, but from the content alone you would have no chance.
How does it happen that two of these books sold to big firms and one didn't? Pure chance. Or circumstance; or randomness. See my Rats essay for details.
Today the two books published by major firms will have sold more copies than the self-published one. But not many more, I suspect, because John Sundman has shifted quite a few on his own behalf, and the two professionally published books were, in any case, part of the long tail themselves.
As the digital world expands, I expect this levelling of the playing field to become more pronounced. The sales curve will never approach a 'normal' distribution, but in the long tail it will become much harder to distinguish between the books from big firms and those from various companies, such as Lulu.com, which service the small or the self-publisher. Readers won't care who publishes a book. They don't now! And in the future, if they find something that turns them on, they will send an enthusiastic email to their friends, who will order it from their favourite supplier. No matter who published it.
The longer term
So far so good then. The immediate digital future seems to offer some hope for novelists, and even for big publishers of fiction -- if only the latter can stop living in the past, and cure themselves of the delusion that literary fiction is somehow 'better' than any other kind. For one thing, the print-on-demand model eliminates the nonsense of returns.
In the longer term -- say the next fifty or one hundred years -- I am less hopeful about the novel. In the sense that I think it is a medium in trouble.
Once upon a time, and not so very long ago at that, the poet was king. Byron was the movie star of his day. Swinburne was a household name. But poetry faded away. It didn't die (although various practitioners did their very best to kill it), but it was overtaken by everything else.
Poetry still exists. It's still written -- quite a lot of it. And it's still read -- mostly by people who think they are, or want to become, poets themselves. But it generates no income and brings no worldly fame. This, I suspect, is what may happen to the novel.
As a matter of fact it has already happened to the novel, to some extent. Various commentators have pointed out that, somewhere around the middle of the twentieth century, or slightly before, the world of fiction divided.
As soon as Eng Lit started to be taught in universities, those who made their living by teaching it decided, consciously or unconsciously, that you couldn't expect people to take the subject seriously if it was fun. So they made sure that it wasn't fun. They began to big up -- as the current phrase has it -- books of the most amazing tedium. The novel was split into two major divisions. There was 'serious literature' on the one hand, and popular, commercial fiction on the other.
By and large that's the way it is today. 'Serious literature' is occasionally hyped up, via the Booker and other devices, into a major source of income for publisher and writer, but for the most part it is a minority interest. Popular fiction is what pays the rent.
I suspect that, in decades to come, popular fiction will also continue to lose ground to the other media. The novel will then become, in time, the equivalent of poetry, black and white darkroom photography, the building of model steam engines, and flower arranging. In other words, it will be a minority interest. An interest which arouses deep passion in the hearts of a hard core of enthusiasts, but not one which really shifts the balance of power in the world. Not one which enables more than a handful of people to earn a living, in any capacity.
After perhaps three hundred years of life, the novel will quietly fade into obscurity. It will still be there, just as radio drama is still there, but no one will take any notice. And that really isn't terribly surprising.
What is surprising, when you think about it, is that anyone should ever have imagined that it could be otherwise. The novel was only able to flourish through absence of competition, not because of any great virtue of its own. And when you think about the interactive, virtual-reality entertainments which might soon be on offer, the novel's chances seem slim.
Writing a novel is, even now, a very bizarre enterprise. Why on earth should anyone ever bother to spend a couple of years slogging away at writing one?
The answer, at present, is for fame and fortune: the writer in search of identity. But even today, the statistical likelihood of achieving fame and fortune through writing a novel is so slim that you have to be more or less deranged to imagine that these (in any case questionable) blessings will fall upon you.
One thing is perhaps certain. Even if the novel does fade away, into a quiet state of decrepitude, there will still be writers around who are dumb enough to believe that -- if they just stick at it long enough -- fame and fortune must inevitably be theirs.