Is this the Crisis of Non-Fiction?

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This is a guest post from Alison Jones. Alison is a business and executive coach, content consultant and publisher. After a 23-year career in trade and scholarly publishing working with major publishers such as Oxford University Press and Macmillan, during which she pioneered digital publishing, she set up Alison Jones Business Services and the Practical Inspiration Publishing imprint in 2014.

Sam Leith, literary editor of The Spectator, wrote a cracking piece in The Guardian last week entitled ‘The Crisis in Non-fiction Publishing’, his main point being that it’s no longer economically viable for mainstream publishers to publish high-quality non-fiction and instead we’re being swamped by a tide of formulaic, me-too titles with ‘a flavour of self-help or how-to’. He makes an interesting distinction between the books he’d like to see more of, which ‘make our understanding of the world deeper and more complex’, and those he sees dominating the market, which ‘can be summed up in a dinner party one-liner’.

Leith sees a glimmer of hope in the US university presses which, with rather less pressure to deliver a profit and a specific mission for advancing knowledge, together with good routes to libraries, higher list prices and (though he doesn’t mention it) lower royalties to authors and lower discounts to retailers, can make the sums add up.

I share his concern, to a point. I don’t want to live in a world that can’t produce really good, original, well-researched and intellectually demanding non-fiction.

However, whenever I hear the word ‘crisis’ in publishing I reach for my gin and tonic. I’ve been in the book industry nearly a quarter of a century now, and it’s been in one crisis or another throughout the whole of that period. I remember another Guardian article a few years back using the c-word too – Andy Beckett wrote in 2009 about ‘the end of quality non-fiction’, pointing out the harsh economic facts similar to those outlined by Leith, and also noting the reduction in public library funding, which is a crucial point.

In that article Beckett quotes Geoffrey Faber speaking despondently about the ‘crisis’ in non-fiction publishing in 1934: ‘The market is glutted. General publishing is therefore fast degenerating into a gambling competition for potential bestsellers.’

But I take a more cheerful view of the emerging forms of non-fiction, which, while they may not tick all the literary reviewer’s boxes, are serving their markets in ways that deserve scrutiny. The best of the ‘smart thinking’ genre than Leith disparages are excitingly good.

Perhaps the real issue is linguistic. When a literary editor talks about ‘fiction’ he is using the word in a particular way, one that excludes a vast swathe of subcategories (chick-lit, lab-lit, steam-punk, fan fiction, etc, etc). Similarly the use of ‘non-fiction’ in Leith’s article has a particular application – what’s commonly known as ‘serious non-fiction’ (as opposed to frivolous, presumably). But non-fiction is evolving in equally rich ways, and although such distinctions may be useful for literary editors they don’t represent the full picture for readers. In reality, this is a renaissance for non-fiction, with the emergence of new routes – blog/vlog/elearning course/podcast to book – being pioneered by some of the world’s most original thinkers.

So yes, there may be an issue with ‘serious non-fiction’ of the kind that was previously mainly bought by libraries and a small, erudite section of general readers – and I don’t belittle that, because, as I say, those books matter. But non-fiction generally? Change, yes. Crisis, not so much.

An earlier version of this article appeared as a LinkedIn post.


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  1. I agree and actually think the opposite is true: non-fiction is having something of a renaissance with books on nature walks, wild swimming Macfarlane, H is for Hawk etc etc just to take 1 sub-genre) but also ,say, mindfulness, cookery still creating mouthwatering books (not to mention general trade history and ideas books all being produced with the highest quality design, typesetting, printing and binding hardbacks and softbacks – something e-books come nowhere close to reaching. At the end of the day people want physical product (hence the resurgence of vinyl – speaking of which ‘Crisis, What Crisis? as Supertramp might say).

    PS Given the percentage of sales of non-fiction (way above fiction) can you blame the literary editors for sour grapes and yet fiction continues to command a disproportionate amount of media column inches/air time.

    1. It’s interesting isn’t it: I thought 15 years ago we’d be reading mostly digital books by now, I underestimated the print technology. It continues to work so damn well and, as you say, the experience of the design and tactile quality of the print (plus the simple fact of ownership) still wins over the ebook. Although I love ebooks too. Fiction, non-fiction, print book, ebook – it’s all good, as long as the content’s well-written and worth saying.

      1. I really agree with your final sentence in your reply. Also, while we are not quite there yet with many fully accessible products, there are interesting things happening in ‘ed-tech’ right now. Using theories of learning to help students learn – and let’s remember in these new forms the high quality content is a key part of delivering the learning.

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