Despite news this week that sales had fallen dramatically, the Welsh Books Council’s chief says that the sector is showing real growth
The head of the Welsh Books Council (WBC) has hailed a “golden age for the Welsh-language novel” despite reports of a dramatic decline in sales.
BBC Cymru Fyw reported earlier this week that sales of Welsh-language children’s books through the WBC’s distribution centre had fallen by 16% to 196,000 in the six years to 2017, while sales of Welsh-language books for adults were also down, by 18% to 118,000. These figures come a year after the Welsh government backed down over proposed cuts to the WBC after hundreds of authors, including Philip Pullman and Sarah Waters, said it would have a “significant and deleterious impact” on Welsh literature.
But while WBC chief executive Helgard Krause admitted there had been a dramatic decline in children’s book sales, she said the “children’s books in question are basically Welsh-language text books commissioned by the Welsh government for schools – the world has changed, and a lot of these books are now commissioned in digital form and made available for free”.
Krause said that there had been a real increase in sales of novels and poetry in Welsh over the last few years, with annual novel sales rising from 19,980 in 2011/12 to 28,407 in 2015/16 – a 42% increase. “It is not unusual for a popular Welsh–language novel to sell 3,000 copies, which is pretty amazing for a language with 600,000 speakers … If you look at the number of Welsh speakers versus the population of Britain (65 million), it follows that 1,000 copies of the Welsh-language book equates to 100,000 of the English-language book,” she said, adding that last month had been the best October in five years for sales.
Krause cited titles including Ymbelydredd (Radiation) by Guto Dafydd, which won the Prose Medal at the 2016 National Eisteddfod and has sold more than 3,000 copies; Caryl Lewis’s Martha Jac a Sianco, a novel about three elderly siblings trapped by a life of hardship on a farm in rural Wales, which she said had sold more than 7,000 copies in Welsh; and Y Gân Olaf (The Final Song), the posthumously published final volume of poetry by Gerallt Lloyd Owen, which she said sold more than 1,600 copies.
Her comments were echoed by Welsh publishers and booksellers. Eirian James, at independent bookshop Palas Print in Caernarfon, said that its sales of books for adults in Welsh had increased steadily over the past four to five years.
“We are very aware that sales of books to schools and libraries have gone down significantly over the past five to six years. At the same time, sales in the shop - both books for children and adults in Welsh and in English - have continued to grow steadily and consistently,” she added.
At publisher Y Lolfa, Garmon Gruffudd agreed and said both the number of Welsh novels published and sold were on the rise. “Over the past five to 10 years, sales have been constant and this year we have seen an increase in the sales of Welsh-language printed books,” said Gruffudd.
According to Gruffudd, 15 years ago a Welsh novel would sell less than 500 copies, but now “there are dozens of mostly young writers with strong followings writing contemporary fiction” and selling between 1,000 and 4,000 copies of their books.
Aneirin Karadog, who has been shortlisted for the Wales book of the year prize for his poetry collection Bylchau, said: “In the drive to promote the use of the Welsh language, encouraging oral use and reading are two different fronts that don’t always help each other. Many Welsh speakers are comfortable using the language orally but when it comes to reading, because of dialects or attitudes, a more formal type of Welsh can be offputting to some.”
But he believes it is “critical that Welsh-language authors are encouraged to create books in Welsh and not to be slaves to translations of what is popular in the Anglo-American world. Welsh-language books have come a long way, especially for children and young people, but we can always do more.”
Welsh, or Cymraeg, is Karadog’s first language, and so “writing poetry in Welsh is as natural as breathing”. He has written in English, but “when in my natural element as a poet, I write in free verse and cynghanedd [a form of Welsh poetry] and this connects me to Aneirin and Taliesin of the sixth century. It places me in a poetic tradition I am proud to be able to continue,” he said.
Author Dyfed Edwards, who is bilingual, feels that Welsh authors “should be writing what people want to read … I know that sounds obvious, but I think sometimes in Wales – and in Welsh-language publishing – we maybe exist in an echo chamber. Most of the voices are very similar, the tone of the books published are similar – though, of course, there are exceptions. We write for the same readers, many of whom are our fellow writers. We need populist and popular novels and we need experimental and challenging novels,” he said. “We need Dan Browns, Cormac McCarthys, Stephen Kings, Nicholson Bakers in the Welsh language. We need Kane and Abel and we need Catch-22.”
Edwards speculated that “Welsh-language readers are mostly middle-class, educated, very much involved in ‘Welsh’ life. Maybe we should be focusing on developing [an audience] among the less traditional Welsh-speaking readership. That will certainly mean populist, genre novels, aimed at the young,” he said.
He also called for a push to translate more books from Welsh. “Look what that’s done for Scandinavian fiction. It would draw attention to the fact that we have a Welsh-language publishing industry, even among Welsh speakers who perhaps don’t buy Welsh-language books at the moment. I live in England, and often people ask me, ‘Are books published in Welsh?’ I doubt they’d ask the same of Norwegian or Finnish or Icelandic,” he said.