Can the story survive the digital age?

Driving home on Friday evening, I tuned into Front Row on Radio 4, broadcasting from the Hay Festival. If you didn't catch this, it's well worth a listen. The question up for debate, by Samira Ahmed and the panel of industry insiders, was: Do we publish too many books?

In the UK, more books were produced in 2012 than in the whole of the18th, 19th and first half of the 20th century. An enormous number of books, but not necessarily of the right quality, or as truly diverse and reflective of our society as they ought to be.

Readership is not increasing at the same level - but dropping. And the potential knock-on effect, with publishers not prepared to take risks, and only producing small print runs of debut novels, results in smaller profit margins for the business - certainly as far as literary fiction is concerned. The inherent value of books, how much readers are prepared to pay for a new book, has not withstood the test of time. Hardbacks now cost less than they did over 20 years ago. And budgets available for books, in the public sector of both libraries and schools, are dwindling.

Ali Sparkes, a member of the panel, said that both she and plenty of other big names were facing a drop in royalties, with 50% of her income now predicted to come from events such as school visits.

About 34% of the 170,000 books published in 2012 were ebooks. In a growing digital market, cheaper availability brings with it greater accessibility for both writers and readers. With many self-published books now available, readers can bypass publishers and pick and choose what they want to read - and the digital publishers, in turn, are more attuned to the specific needs of their audience. Unpublished writers can use digital platforms - such as Wattpad - to engage a readership, and then potentially find a path to traditional publishing.

So it would seem that certain barriers are coming down, that the publishing power is leaning more towards the direct relationship between writers and their readers. Yet I couldn't help thinking that the openings in the changing market are for the younger writer, the writer nearer to the age of children with apparently dangerously dwindling attention spans.

This need to create multi-media ways of telling a story, in order to engage children in the first place, feels sad. Are we losing the traditional desire to be able to capture a child's imagination with the written word? Or is there room, and indeed a great need, for stories to be out there, available to all in a multitude of formats? Perhaps there's hope in the belief that a good story, whichever path it takes, will eventually find an audience.

If you missed last week on Words & Pictures, then have a quick look at these links:

Monday ~ a new kind of publishing, with Sarah Towle
Tuesday ~ blog break interview with Sarah Broadley
Wednesday ~ a new feature, The Buzz ~ Vlogging, by Larisa Villar Hauser
Thursday Event report ~ from the masterclass on commercial fiction, by Lil Chase.
Network news ~ from Central East, with Helen Moss
Friday ~ June's featured illustrator, Heather Kilgour
Saturday ~ Around the world with scbwi, with Sarah Broadley - this month, Japan

Nancy Saunders is the Editor of W&P. You can find some of her short stories here, and on Twitter @nancyesaunders


  1. What a staggering statistic! I wonder how that works out as books per head of the population?
    One good thing - i'm far from a younger writer but i've never grown an adult length attention span so there is still hope:)

  2. Great piece, Nancy. I've always thought that we publish too much to the point of some books becoming disposable. That said, I want to keep getting published.

  3. Yes, as Candy says, the sheer choice of books out there is confusing but we also want our books on the market! It's like complaining about being stuck in traffic and not acknowledging that your car is making the traffic jam longer.

    Maybe the solution is to embrace the chaos and instead work on ways of improving discoverability for good (and diverse) writing?

  4. Here here! Quality above quantity - with tasty nibbles for the grazers, and hearty feasts for those who want longer reads. Interestingly, one of the panel said that the best-sellers of the market (the 50 shades) paid for the existence of more literary titles...


We love comments and really appreciate the time it takes to leave one.
Interesting and pithy reactions to a post are brilliant but we also LOVE it when people just say they've read and enjoyed.
We've made it easy to comment by losing the 'are you human?' test, which means we get a lot of spam. Fortunately, Blogger recognises these, so most, if not all, anonymous comments are deleted without reading.

Words & Pictures is the Online Magazine of SCBWI British Isles. Powered by Blogger.