How the financial crisis changed our reading habits
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When the global financial crisis struck a decade ago, there was no reason to think that publishing would be immune from its effects. The golden goose of the celebrity autobiography was on the wane; Amazon was gearing up to wreak its deep-discounting havoc on the traditional retail model. Despite the dictum that books are comparatively recession-proof — they don’t cost very much and yield an impressive bang for their buck in terms of entertainment — the future looked shaky. “The key,” as Britain’s Arts Council put it in its review of 2009, “is not to panic”.
These were wise words during the early days of the “pincer movement” of depressed consumer spending and reduced public funding that characterised the literary landscape in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. A decade on, however, the Publishers Association was in a position to issue a “blueprint” for the UK publishing industry, championing the cause of an industry that it claims contributes £7.8bn to the national economy and over half of whose turnover comes from exports. Meanwhile, the trade press brims with news of growing sales and exciting new business fields such as audiobooks. Crisis, what crisis?
Yet, a question still remains: beyond the business of making books what effect did the 2008 crash have on the books we actually read?
A quick glance at Britain’s bestsellers in the year following the crisis provides some insights. There were top slots for Stephenie Meyer, author of the Twilight series of novels, for Dan Brown, and for Stieg Larsson, the late author of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Indeed, Meyer spent 46 out of 52 weeks of the 2009 year at the head of the Bookseller magazine’s children’s chart; combined with Brown, her sales that year amounted to a staggering £44.2m. And there was also a piece of well-timed publishing, with Canongate scooping Barack Obama’s Dreams from my Father, acquired pre-presidentially and now a balm for those living through fractured times.
What kind of books were these? Meyer and Brown sit firmly in the categories of fantastical yarns. In the case of Meyer, a small-town love story is catapulted into melodrama by its vampire hero; Brown’s is a reworking of the quest story, in which code-breaking protagonists uncover a global conspiracy that leads back to the lineage of Christ himself. Both inspired legions of fans (and fan fiction that became wildly successful in its own right); both spawned films and sequels and entire branches of the storytelling industry. Neither were what you could call literary.
In retrospect it is the dominance of Meyer’s Twilight books that most strikes a chord. Before the crash, David Shelley, chief executive of Hachette UK, tells me, it had been legal thrillers that had been doing particularly well; afterwards it was the escape into fantasy. “The crash happened in late 2008,” he says, “and straight after that, there were some big series set in other worlds that people retreated to, or immersed themselves in. That is something fiction can do when there are challenging things going on in the world.”
Meyer spawned another publishing phenomenon: that of EL James’s Fifty Shades trilogy, which in 2012 occupied all three top best seller slots, and outstripped both Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and Harry Potter in the speed with which it raced off the shelves.
The popularity of Fifty Shades, which started life as an exercise in Twilight fan fiction — the increasingly popular internet-based practice of fans taking settings and characters from their favourite books and inventing new stories for them — has sometimes been attributed to the privacy afforded to readers by the rise of ebooks. But the physical book, too, experienced extraordinary sales; here was erotica that caught something of the moment.
It is also worth noting that, in a world in which high finance was taking a reputational battering, Christian Grey’s absurd wealth — Anastasia seemed to spend as much time on his private helicopter than she did in the red room of pain — was not a turn-off. That it foregrounded frankly problematic sexual politics; that the world it evoked was barely plausible; or that its sentences lacked elegance, mattered little. Readers could not get enough of it.
And if those readers wanted to spend their time anywhere but the real world, they had more opportunity with the arrival of Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, a trilogy aimed at young adults in which impoverished teenagers compete in a Roman-style arena for the amusement of the wealthy. Like George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, published in 1991, the global popularity of The Hunger Games was boosted by its screen adaptation — but it was the appetite for bloodthirsty conflict and power wrangles that fuelled both narratives. Game of Thrones in particular found itself frequently invoked as a parallel to contemporary politics; just look at the apparent reincarnation of Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn as GoT’s ascetic revolutionary High Sparrow, swept to power by a cadre of devotees.
Then there were the books that dealt directly with the times. These include Sebastian Faulks’s A Week in December, whose main character was a hedge fund manager, or Alex Preston’s This Bleeding City, also set in the world of the deal, and garlanded with plenty of sex and drugs.
But the novel that most overtly advertised its state-of-the-nation appeal — through its very title — was John Lanchester’s Capital, published in 2012, and centred on the residents of a south London street. From the homeowners who had seen themselves become mortgage millionaires to the immigrant workers building their extensions, from the trader brought to ruin by the non-appearance of his bonus to the star footballer arriving in the country only to find himself instantly crocked, Capital rested on a bedrock of money: who had it, who wanted it, who was losing it hand over fist. And in the midst of such single-minded activity, the novel’s less money-hungry — the elderly woman, slowly dying, the Muslim family taken for terrorists, the Zimbabwean traffic warden caught in the hell of detention — simply fell by the wayside.
Two years before the publication of Capital, Lanchester had brought out a work of non-fiction, Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay, in which he both attempted to make clear the intricacies of credit default swaps and subprime lending to the layperson and to assess where our fiscal future might lie. The eagerness for books that would explain what had happened — Michael Lewis’s The Big Short, for example, or FT journalist Gillian Tett’s Fool’s Gold, and, of course French economist Thomas Piketty’s Capital (not to be confused with Lanchester’s somewhat fruitier novel of the same name) — is not difficult to understand. But it’s interesting to see the trend towards the high-end explainer during the past few years. From Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, which scrutinises different modes of mental processing and questions our ability to think rationally about complex systems such as economics, to Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, which ranges over the whole of human evolution, readers seemed to want perspective — to distance themselves from the maelstrom of current affairs and find some answers. They are also fairly handy volumes to display on your coffee table.
At the same time, in fiction, we began to see the rise of the dystopia — in novels such as Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, set in a near-future New York teetering on an economic abyss, in Dave Eggers’s nightmarishly prescient tech-horror The Circle, and in Lionel Shriver’s satire The Mandibles, which imagined the collapse of the dollar and Mexico’s subsequent erection of a wall to keep illegal American immigrants out of their economically successful country.
A decade after the crisis, publishing — like society and business at large — has begun to change in other ways as different communities question the dominance of traditional models of power and inclusion.
The success of projects such as Nikesh Shukla’s The Good Immigrant — which has now spawned The Good Journal and The Good Agency, the latter committed to providing writers of colour with greater representation in the publishing process — speak to an awareness that the power of the written word will founder if it does not reflect traditionally marginalised voices. Crowdfunding — most noticeably through the publishers Unbound — is flourishing; audiobooks have a new lease of life.
And while mini-trends surface — such as “grip-lit” psychological thrillers known or more emotionally sustaining “up lit” fiction, typified by the award-winning novel Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine — it is these more profound shifts that are beginning to shape what we read.
Money, as ever, underpins everything. Near-daily reports tell of authors unable to make a living from their writing; most recently, they had to fend off the attempts of a website, OceanofPDF, to make thousands of books in copyright freely available to their users. For wanting to be paid for their work, many writers were branded elitist.
So where do we read from here? It is noticeable how many books that address issues of marginalisation and empowerment have done well. These include books such as Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, Matthew Syed’s You Are Awesome, in which the journalist attempts to fill children with the confidence to throw themselves into activities they find daunting, and Slay in Your Lane: The Black Girl Bible, by Yomi Adegoke and Elizabeth Uviebinené.
The margins are also lively in terms of the actual business of publishing. Away from the mainstream giants of the industry, there is an encouraging growth in small presses taking risks and, heaven forfend, having fun. There has rarely been more pre-publication giggling than has met the return of arch-humorist Francis Plug, who took the world of haute literature to task with How To Be a Public Author, and now comes back with Writer in Residence. Authors, not generally known to laugh at themselves, have willingly allowed themselves to be lampooned at the hands of the satirist Paul Ewen.
A decade after the crash altered the book-buying landscape, Britain’s publishers now have another crisis to manage: Brexit. How will the UK’s departure from the EU affect our reading habits? Should we be braced for Brexlit? Advance copies of Jonathan Coe’s state-of-the-nation novel, Middle England, to be published in November, are being circulated enthusiastically.
Perfidious Albion, by Sam Byers, imagines a near-future and post-EU Britain, in which the rightwing marches on as the country falls apart. Will such head-on reflections find favour with readers, or will they once again flee to fantasy?
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