The Literary Field in the UK – Recent Trends and Developments

Extreme commercialisation, e-publishing, conglomerates, independent bookshops closing, the death of the public library – the list of negative trends in the literary field in Britain is long. However, there is resistance by individuals but also by institutions who and which do not want to bow to the pressures of profit maximization. Both trends are explored in Gesa Stedman’s overview article below. 

Specific British Aspects

Although most European countries share a number of trends when it comes to recent developments in the literary field, there are specific aspects which distinguish the British from, say, the French or German literary field. I would like to begin my overview with these specific aspects, before concentrating on commercial pressures, their effects, and the resistance against these seemingly overwhelming pressures.

There are few other nations which claim as part of their ‘official’ image the legacy of canonized authors in the way that the British, and in particular, the English do. The English Tourist Authority, Travel UK, uses Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, the Brontës and William Shakespeare as points of departure for tourist interests, trips, and brochures. This does not stop at middle-class, educated target groups, but includes popular culture as well. Tabloids may just as well have a headline with a literary quotation as a broadsheet. And although French and German equivalents exist – Proust, Goethe – the examples are much fewer where either of these authors are points of reference for popular cultural products, or general marketing aimed at (foreign) tourists.

Secondly, any book published in Britain can automatically target a world-wide readership, whereas books published on the Continent are usually limited to much smaller numbers of readers who share the country of origin’s language. Although there are two copyright zones – one for the UK and the Commonwealth, and a second one for the US, and books are produced in two versions for both these markets – a book which makes it in the UK can potentially be read around the world. This lessens the interest in foreign books which require translation – Scandinavian crime novels being the exception – and also lessens the ‘national’ character of books published in English. Many are targeted at a world audience, rather than at a national one. Again, with the exception of regional novels, or non-fiction books with a specifically British, English, Welsh or Scottish (or even Cornish, Yorkshire…) interest and readership.

Thirdly, Britain, and in particular England, has been a commercial and market-oriented society for a long time. Some scholars place this trend in the late early-modern period.[1] This implies that it is not a development of the last 40 odd years, but rather something that is ingrained in the way Britain organises its economy. Even if that is not true, it is notable that ever since Tony Blair’s New Labour government proclaimed that cultural industries and ‘Cool Britannia’ were the order of the day, the realm of ‘culture’ has undergone a rapid commercialization and medialisation which was not so apparent in earlier decades, not even under Margaret Thatcher’s government.

RRPFourthly, and in keeping with this commercial trend, Britain abolished the Net Book Agreement and thus the fixed book price. There is something called the recommended retail price (RRP) but most bookshops do not use it (with the exception of the London Review of Books Shop in Bloomsbury in London and similar independent bookshops), but attracting customers by making books cheap. While at first glance this means buyers do not pay much for books, the lasting effects on the rest of the literary field are disastrous. Publishers make less money, bookshops make less money, authors make much less money – and this means that diversity goes out of the window, and only books are published which guarantee a profit. This automatically precludes niche interests and ‘little’ books or writers without an established name and track record. Ultimately, saving money briefly leads to a poverty of what is on offer and precarious lives for authors and some small publishers.

Fifthly, during the last two decades, the number of literary prizes has proliferated, to an extent where the uses of these prizes becomes questionable. What originally might have helped readers to orient themselves in a rather large book market now seems to serve other purposes, as James English has demonstrated. Not only is cultural prestige awarded to the recipient of a prize, and sales rise. Niche markets can be developed if prizes are created to cater to all kinds of weird interests. In any case, it has become almost impossible to follow all the current prizes being awarded in the UK today.

Three other trends are almost as remarkable: firstly, the boom of reading and book groups which have proliferated in middle England, serving literary as much as social needs of their members. They are so widespread that books and films about reading groups have been produced, picking up this socio-cultural trend. Secondly, the role of the media has changed considerably over the last decade or two. The book rose to meteoric fame on TV, and TV shows such as the Richard and Judy show changed both what readers bought and read, and how marketing departments and bookshops react to these interests. The book has largely disappeared from TV again – except in its old form of literary adaptation, which is as strong as ever. For a brief period, book shows on Youtube and “Booktubing” seemed to replace the book on TV but this trend has not lasted. Blogging by contrast is increasing in importance and social media in general seem to have taken the place of TV for the meantime at least. Further changes are to be expected.

Finally, there are many courses on creative writing, on which famous writers teach, and many people study this professionally. While there are only two places for such a course in Germany – Hildesheim and Leipzig – in the UK many universities have programmes for creative writing, one of the most famous ones being the MA in creative writing at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. This course was set up by the writers Malcolm Bradbury and Angus Wilson in the 1970s, and counts among its distinguished graduates writers such as Ian McEwan, Anne Enright, Kazuo Ishiguro, Toby Litt, Trezza Azzopardi, Tracy Chevalier, Deirdre Madden and many other writers who are less famous but nevertheless quite successful. Writers often teach on these courses, thus financing their careers – only a few can actually live from their royalties and most need some kind of day job.[2]


Earlier than in other countries, and with more vengeance, vertical publishing has taken over in the UK. Mergers and acquisitions have taken on a dizzying quality and speed. What used to be an independent publisher one day, gets bought up and made part of a conglomerate the next. It is difficult to keep track of who buys whom. There are global players all over Europe and the US, of course, and these trends can also be found on the Continent. The most recent and most radical merger took place in 2013: Random House, one of the biggest conglomerates, bought Penguin, turning itself into the world’s biggest publishing house. They are now called “Penguin Random House” and label themselves “the world’s first truly global trade book publishing company”.[3]

In contrast to earlier days, when marketing departments were small, and not much was done in terms of promoting books beyond the review pages of serious broadsheets, literary journals such as the Times Literary Supplement (TLS) or The London Review of Books, and perhaps an interview on the radio or the odd reading or book signing during a literary festival which were much fewer than today, marketing budgets have increased. Book marketing has become so influential, that the marketing departments have a say when it comes to giving a book its title, and of course their own area of expertise, the look of a book, is also heavily influenced by commercial aspects. If a publisher has discovered a trend, or has become aware of a trend, it tries to repeat it. Thus, we get Harry Potter spin-offs and followers, soft-porn à la Fifty Shades of Grey, odd publications such as Schott’s Miscellany for the big Christmas sales, one of the most important times of the year, and of course ‘exotic’ multicultural novels and novelists in the 1990s, and a return to all things British after 2010 (“The Best British Bake-Off”, “British Beer”, “English Gardens”, “The Tudors” etc. etc.).

Curiously, while there are more and more books being published in the UK, one of the largest producers of new books worldwide, publishing trends become narrower and narrower. While there is an enormous amount of books, there are lots and lots of the same – cookery books, biographies, football books, celebrity and political memoirs, crime fiction etc. Because publishers have developed an extreme profit orientation, they want 15% profit rather than 5 or 8%, making it impossible to (cross-)finance books whose prospects of becoming a bestseller are less likely. Poetry, niche publishing, short stories, politically maverick analyses, feminist literature – all these types of books do less well and are consequently much harder to publish. Cross-financing has become less common with publishers wanting to follow the big trends and not wanting to risk venturing into new territories with the possibility of loss-making lurking beyond the horizon.marketing_books

In order to ensure that their books get sold, they even go so far as to buy bookshop space. It is not the bookshops that decide which books go on the “must read”, “three for the price of two” tables but rather the publishers who buy shelf-space for books they wish to promote.

Nevertheless, book chain stores have much influence themselves and there is marked decline in independent book shops. Rising rents, austerity measures keeping people from buying books, the power of High Street chain stores in pushing indie bookshops out of a particular area, and of course the abolishment of the Net Book Agreement have made independent book shops struggle to maintain their share of the market. Nevertheless, even chain stores have to fight their corner, since internet sales have risen and continue to do so. In particular in rural areas, buying over the internet is much faster than depending on the notoriously slow delivery via a bookshop, no matter whether it is independent or the local Waterstone’s. Ever since a wholesale depot of books burned down in the 1940s book distribution has been a disaster in the UK. It can take up to six weeks to obtain a book if you order it through a shop – in contrast to Amazon’s overnight delivery, it is simply a matter of no contest. Why the distribution system has never improved in spite of the fact that the UK is quite a small country, and has trains and planes running and flying to all important areas remains a mystery from a Continental perspective where overnight delivery is the norm in any bookshop unless the wholesaler has a problem, which means it might take 2 or 3 days instead. Waiting for a book for weeks is almost totally unknown outside Britain…

Heading towards a Crisis?

This rather gloomy picture is not improved if one looks at the most recent figures and trends. Ebooks and internet sales have increased, threatening bookshops and publishers by further undercutting prices which are low anyway. This has increased the death of bookshops and made it harder to maintain a position in the literary field. Concentration processes in the publishing world have become even more pronounced, making it very hard for independent publishers to maintain their independence and to remain commercially viable while still upholding their own literary standards.

In spite of these commercial trends, it has become harder for established book prizes to keep or to find new sponsors. Thus, the Whitbread Award was turned into the Costa Awards after rather a long search for a new sponsor, and the Orange Prize for Women’s Fiction was without a successor sponsor and had to be saved by a group of well-known women before it was able to find the current sponsor, Baileys (yes, the alcohol).[4] Whether this is due to the financial crisis, or some other reason, is difficult to establish.

And although one might agree with the critic and literary scholar Valentine Cunningham (see the interview with him on this website) that opening the Booker Prize for American Writers is simply a sign of overcoming former colonial trends, there is also the suspicion that the Booker Committee simply wants a new market – the US market – and needs American winners to achieve this. If that is the case, then the opening of the prize is simply a marketing measure of commercial dimensions, and has nothing whatsoever to do with overcoming a colonial bias.


And is there anything happening that tries to stem the commercial tide and resist these trends? Yes, although it is an uphill struggle. First of all, there are independent bookshops which are able to maintain their position. The Guardian asked their readers to tell them about their local independent bookshop and keeps lists of these on their website.[5] There are also regular articles by famous writers about their favourite independent bookshop, and an article which gives an account of a day spent at an independent bookshop called “One Tree Bookshop”.[6]

Julia Strachey_Cheerful Weather for the WeddingSimlarly, there are independent publishers who face the commercial competition. Each year, the best independent publisher is given an award by the Independent Publishers Guild.[7] Indie publishers, often financed by an endowment or a legacy, are created and manage to fight their corner by appealing to niche readers. Persephone Books is one such publisher.[8] They were created to make a space for neglected women writers of the 20th century, including fiction and non-fiction books. They have 104 books on their list, some by famous authors such as Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield, some by well-known authors such as Noel Streatfield, Monica Dickens or Mrs Oliphant, and some by lesser-known writers. The books look beautiful, and appeal to readers who do not have the time to browse in bookshops, and are interested in women writers. This is just one example of an independent publisher, many more can be found amongst the winners of the IPG’s awards.

Apart from resistant publishers and bookshops, which try to maintain their independence, there are authors who try to limit what conglomerate publishers and their marketing departments demand of them. They do not allow home stories, give interviews rarely and only about literary issues, read only at select festivals and occasions, avoid television and social media and will only appear on the radio if the topic is content-oriented rather than scandal-mongering. They try to force their publishers to produce less profit-oriented books such as collections of short stories. However, publisher often make double deals – you produce a novel and then are allowed to also publish a collection of stories or poetry, both of which are less likely to make the kind of profit that successful novels can generate.

The quality newspapers and literary reviews such as The London Review of Books, the TLS, the books pages on The Guardian, The Observer, The Independent and The Financial Times as well as Granta Books try to uphold high standards of reviewing. Critical blogs complement these attempts which are, however, under threat from other media such as self-published reviews and sales ratings on Amazon, TV shows such as the now defunct Richard and Judy Show, the prize-giving dinners which are transmitted on TV.

Not all is lost, though, and the more obvious the commercial pressures become, the more pronounced are the reactions against them. Writers such as Ali Smith make sure that not every author is considered a silly celebrity. She dislikes home stories and interviews and only rarely gives them. No celebrity photographs are available, and although she is now with a big conglomerate publisher she makes them publish her short stories as well as her novels. She only goes to readings or festivals, or acts as a judge for prizes, or attends literary gatherings, if they don’t interfere too much with her own writing. One needs to be able to afford this kind of life – but it is important, I think, in particular for younger writers, not to think that celebrity portraits, home stories and having your enlarged photo on your book jacket, and the marketing department telling you to write a happy ending for your book and choosing your title has to be the norm. Although shops, publishers and agents, producers, printers and wholesalers are involved with a product, behind the product also lurks a work of art. And although writers need to live, they also need to maintain their artistic independence as best they can in a totally commercialised world. If they don’t manage that, they might get money, but no legitimacy or recognition, which according to Pierre Bourdieu,[9] is vital for a work of art to be considered a work of art rather than simply a commodity.


[1] Cf. Christiane Eisenberg, The Rise of Market Society in England, 1066-1800, New York/Oxford: Berghahn 2013.

[2] (last accessed 6 January 2016).

[3] (last accessed 21 January 2014).

[4] (last accessed 21 January 2014).

[5] Here is a list of bookshops in the Northwest of England, the other regions can also be found on the Guardian website: (last accessed 21 January 2014).

[6] (last accessed 21 January 2014).

[7] (last accessed 6 January 2016).

[8] (last accessed 21 January 2014).

[9] Pierre Bourdieu, Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996 (French original 1992).


This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared in Hard Times 94/2013: The Literary Field in the UK, ed. by Gesa Stedman and Sandra van Lente.