Are novels really being pushed aside by box-sets?

Today let’s wrench our eyes from the slow-motion train crash of British politics. Let’s avert our gaze from Boris Johnson’s made-up hobby of painting model buses. And let’s talk instead about the future of books.

As an occasional reviewer for the Press Association, I always have at least one book one the go. Often the book being read for pleasure is put aside for one to review.

My favourite two reviewing reads lately have been Big Sky, the long-awaited new Jackson Brodie novel by Kate Atkinson, and Underland, Robert Macfarlane’s astonishing mix of travel writing, thinking and what you might call eco-philosophy, wrapped in a deep exploration what lies beneath our feet.

New to my eyes is Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman, a few chapters in but already enthralling.

Favourite non-reviewing reads have been Transcription, by Kate Atkinson again, and the first two books in Ali Smith’s planned quartet, Winter and Autumn. Spring awaits my eye but keeps being pushed back by other books.

As a published but hardly successful author, I always have a book on the boil, too. A new crime novel has been started lately, with 10,000 or so words written, only to be then puzzled over.

Some writers are sensible and spend ages with charts and bits of paper, maybe even pins, string and a corkboard, mapping out the narrative angles. Others think, oh let’s just get this book started.

My newest novel is too embryonic to discuss, and God knows if I’ll ever see it or anything else published again. As suggested, it is being written in the free-form way, setting off with only a shape and a vague sense of direction. This approach can work well, although there is a risk of winding up in a plot cul-de-sac, where you stand and scratch your head, wondering how this bit fits with that. That’s where my writing feet are at right now.

A report on the front of The Times today has the alarming headline, “TV’s golden age is closing the chapter on novels.” The gist of the story is that “Britons are shunning novels in favour of box sets.”

A reporter looking for an angle will sift through the ashes and find what they seek. The ashes being sifted here are the latest sales figures from the UK publishing industry.

Over in the Guardian, these figures are referred to as the UK publishing industry being “hit by a surprise fall of £168m (5.4%) in sales of physical books last year, ending a period of growth stretching back to at least 2014”.

The picture is complicated and lends itself to interpretation. The Times chooses the box-set angle, while Stephen Lotinga, chief executive of the Publishers Association, points to a rise in audiobook sales, adding: “There is some substitution away from print, audio has surged, but there was also always going to be a point where print sales couldn’t continue rising every year.”

Printed books still account for more than 80% of the combined print and digital book market of £3.6bn, so readers are not exactly giving up on paper and ink yet.

Audiobooks are a great idea, not that I listen to them yet. A box set can be satisfying, as occasionally can a Netflix binge (the US adult comedy Easy is my tip of the moment).

But nothing beats reading a book, a book held in your hand. Yes, I have a Kindle but its flame hasn’t been lit in nearly two years now. I was reading my way through Dickens on there, but real books keep asking to be read instead.

Anyway, must go. There’s a cul-de-sac waiting for me.

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