Gesa Stedman takes a look back at trends and developments which dominated the literary field in the UK in 2018. While non-fiction was on the up, fiction was less important than in previous years, readers were less interested in humour, and bought more memoirs and books on political analysis than before.
The good news is: books are still being sold, and in all probabilty, read as well. The bad news is: the physical book is slightly under threat yet again. Audiobooks are still on the rise, as are non-books sold in bookshops – cards and paper, book-related gifts, merchandising. But books themselves are slightly but steadily declining.
However, compared to the fears that the early days of digitalisation brought with them, this is a mild worry. Interestingly, however, some genres do better than others at the moment, related to the political climate both in the UK and abroad.
Because the British literary field always looks to the global, international Anglophone markets, boundaries become slightly blurred and trends in the UK can often point towards trends in other Anglophone areas of the world. However, below the level of the global book markets, regional ones are also important and this is one of the slightly more surprising trends for 2018.
In line with a greater concern with diversity, large publishers are looking to regions outside London not only to nurture talent and find writers, but also to set up shop – or at least, small branch offices.
But first, a look at genres that did well in 2018.
Fiction is on the wane, in spite of a few bestselling titles such as the surprise hit Gail Honeyman’s novel Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine. Instead, readers seem to be interested in non-fiction, probably sparked off by political turmoil. Humorous Brexit-themed titles such as Five on Brexit Island, a bestseller in 2017, have been replaced – in line with the rise in political drama and the expected fall-out of Brexit – by political analysis and commentary. The first important title of the year in this genre came from the US, an insider’s account of Trump’s government The Fire and the Fury. Inside the Trump Whitehouse, by Michael Wolff. The year ended with another US title hitting the British charts – Michelle Obama’s memoirs Becoming. What in other times may have only left a light mark on sales and reviewing space, received wide-spread coverage and Christmas-bestseller status in 2018. It was read not so much as a personal memoir, than as a political statement.
Memoirs and non-fiction accounts of professions from a highly personalised point of view are the other big bestselling and rising genre. Be it doctors, lawyers, nurses or eyewitnesses of other important professions, events, experiences – these highly subjective accounts seem to resonate with Anglophone readers in turbulent times. Examples are Adam Kay’s This is going to hurt, Christie Watson’s The Language of Kindness. A Nurse’s Story, Amy Liptrot’s recovering-from-alcoholism-in-London-by-returning-to-Orkney critically-acclaimed memoir The Outrun or The Secret Barrister’s Stories of the Law and How it is Broken.
Whether the nth account of drying off or overcoming drug addiction, surviving motherhood or cancer are worthwhile reading and will last, is another matter. The demand for such accounts is high and I wonder whether this is the underbelly of the glitzy Instagram world of instant visual performance. Not that literary non-fictional accounts are any less stylised – but they may counterbalance the world of pleasure and showing off by focusing on different aspects of everyday life, including the less salubrious ones such as sickness, death, legal struggle, or addiction.
There have been other changes throughout the year in the book world. The decades-long sponsorship of the Booker Prize has been ended by the MAN Booker Group, probably not related to the criticism the prize received at the hands of Sebastian Faulks who accused the sponsors of being “the enemy”. The philanthropist and Silicone Valley billionaire Michael Moritz and his wife Harriet Heyman and their charity Crankstart will sponsor the prize, initially for five years with an option to renew the sponsorship after another five years. Moritz is British-born but lives in the US. Their charity promotes, among other things, scholarships for students at Oxford who would otherwise be unable to afford to go and is given in memory of the English who took his parents in as refugees from Nazi Germany. (See Alison Flood’s article in the Guardian, accessed 2 March 2019: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/feb/28/booker-prize-silicon-valley-billionaire-takes-over-as-new-sponsor)
It is not expected that the highly contentious decision to allow American novelists to have their work entered for the prize will be rescinded. The prize will once again be called The Booker Prize as of 1 June 2018, when the Man group end their sponsorship. The new sponsors are known as avid readers and book lovers, who have no interest in naming the prize after their foundation. Both the Orange Prize and the Samuel Johnson Prize have found new sponsors in the recent past – the Women’s Prize is now sponsored by a group of individuals and firms while the Samuel Johnson Prize has now become the Baillie Gifford Prize.
It is remarkable, however, that in 2018 the prize was awarded to a woman writer and to a challenging novel which was not from an American writer! Last year’s surprise winner was the Northern Irish writer Anna Burns whose novel Milkman returns to the troubles at a time when the Irish-Northern Irish border has become political decisive once again. The book is a challenging, interesting, stylistically mobile account of the Troubles, in particular from a female perspective and returns a very interesting writer to the limelight whose struggles to be a writer after a promising debut tell us a lot about the hardship of the writer’s life.
Independent publishers were very strong in 2018, providing both bestsellers and prize winners, as well as new talent in many different categories. This includes publishers from both Scotland, Wales, and Ireland/Northern Ireland, highlighting the vibrant literary fields in the UK’s four constituent nations as well as in Ireland.
Children’s books are of course still a key growth area, whereas YA fiction is on the wane, largely for flooding the market with American titles and predictable genres (sick lit, thrillers, coming-of-age stories of boring similarity). The few stand-out titles tackle different topics and might show a new direction for future developments. Independent publishers would be useful here, too, for finding other voices and topics to interest readers who have outgrown children’s books but are not quite old enough yet for adult fiction. Or perhaps they are and one should scrap the category all together? From my personal experience as a book buyer for a teenage reader, if you dislike pink love stories, spy thrillers and fantasy, then there is not much left for you to find on the bookshelves.
A trend which bridges children’s and teenage categories are titles which celebrate different notions of femininity and masculinity. Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls and Stories for Boys Who Dare to Be Different sold incredibly well, and spin-off titles abound. In the year that celebrated suffragism and debated toxic masculinity, that is not a bad idea. Whether children and young people actually want to read these books is another story.
Again, on a personal note, I find the in-your-face-presentation of this kind of book slightly annoying, and would prefer different forms of representation in fiction for younger readers – in other words, more diverse forms of being a girl, a woman, a boy, a man, rather than exoticising these remarkable figures and keeping mainstream fiction free of change. But again, that may be just me and my personal hunt for interesting stories which go beyond gender stereotypes (they exist but one needs to forage for them).
What lies in store in 2019? Brexit, for one thing. On a material level, publishers and wholesalers and printers are expecting trouble with paper delivery and distribution. While this may be overcome and be a short-term problem if the UK leaves the EU without a deal, there are of course larger changes to be expected. British publishers always look to the wider English-speaking world but they may also lose interest in the European market, or in books from the Continent, and the laudable increase in translation activity in the UK may well be a thing of the past. I wonder what I will be writing in February 2019 once the initial dust has settled? And ten years after Brexit?
For the time being, the political atmosphere makes readers interested in serious social and political analysis, and that a title such as Darren McGarvey’s Poverty Safari by Scottish indie publisher Luath is doing exceptionally well may be a good sign.
Escapism through fiction is out, even engaged fiction seems to be out – unless one is Ali Smith and manages to be political and artful – but political essays seem to have come back in. And not everyone is interested only in nostalgic titles and biographies of Winston Churchill. There are other readers, not least those in other regions of the UK, and the growing Welsh, Scottish and (Northern) Irish literary fields, and even a Northern English one distinct from the London-dominated national one, is interesting to observe.
And to end with a charming initiative promoting independent bookshops, this time in Germany, here is a customised pixi book for my favourite bookshop, Buchlokal in Berlin Pankow whose owners we interviewed in 2018. Other bookshops throughout Germany were able to join Carlsen’s laudable scheme to make young readers attached to their local indie bookshop, rather than a chain store. The story features different individual bookshops, which the illustrators included on the basis of photographs of the actual shops, and each bookshop gets a batch of 1000 copies of “their” book about going to the shop with their local bookshop featured inside. See the website of the German publisher’s association, last access 2 March 2019, https://www.boersenblatt.net/2019-02-27-artikel-carlsen_liefert_personalisierte_pixi-buecher_aus.1613796.html
Perhaps someone in the UK will follow this idea with their own customised indie bookshop book to boost independent trade? At least the chances are better that independent bookstores in the UK will survive, since the crippling business rates they had to pay compared to Amazon storehouses have been reduced, thanks to campaigns highlighting how much corporates profit from these rates and how damaging they are to smaller bookshops.
Fire and fury will probably abound in 2019 as much as it did in 2018. I expect the devolved territories, Scotland, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Wales, and social inequality to feature heavily both in terms of content and in terms of how the industry addresses these issues in their own policies and work to become the dominant themes of the UK literary field in 2019. And, of course, a topic one is tired of already: Brexit.