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Funding literary writers

26 May 2014

In an article in the print edition of the Bookseller, Philip Gwyn Jones offered a clear-sighted analysis of the current model of funding literary writing. He is the former publisher of Granta, a very highly-regarded editor with masses of experience in this area and the independence currently to call it like it is.

Gwynn Jones says that serious non-fiction publishing is in trouble and that publishers are simply not prepared to come up with the advances which will enable writers to spend the time they need researching their books, perhaps over several years.

The same thing is happening with literary fiction, which may also require some research, and it's getting harder for aspiring writers to support themselves whilst they write their books. There never has been much funding of this kind of writing, but in the past it was possible for writers to supplement their income by occasional bits of journalism, now becoming very scarce as newspapers cut back.

The biggest change has come about because publishers have become much more realistic about their advances as a result of the sobering effect of epos - electronic point of sale - which has given the book trade an accurate picture of what is actually selling. And in many cases it's not enough to give authors and their agents the chance of justifying paying anything more than a low advance, of the sort which will not really finance an author who needs to work on a book for several years.

For many the saviour has been teaching creative writing, ironically training up more writers who will also find it hard to make their way. Poets have been particularly successful in this, non-fiction writers less so. But many find it, as Gwynn-Jones puts it, ‘creatively corrosive to spend their time inside the creative spaces made by other writers. They teach in order to write, only to find that it impedes their writing'.

But isn't it reasonable to think that these authors will be able to seize the opportunity to self-publish, to find their own audience and make their way to readers directly? Self-publishing works best for genre publishing and for non-fiction books with a strong message or content which can be widely publicised. It's less good as a way of publishing literary fiction and serious non-fiction - and the authors are often also not good at taking the self-promoting sales and promotion role that self-publishing demands.

Is there an answer to this? It's hard to see what it is. Starving in a garret has gone out of fashion and has never been a realistic option.