Remember when James Kelman walked up to accept the Saltire Scottish Book of the Year award and proceeded to criticise the literary establishment? His ire was primarily directed at a cultural climate that meant that, even with the prize proceeds in his pocket, his annual income from writing was pitiful. It was resentment not only on his own behalf but for others in the same situation. “Moderate your language”, shouted one of the audience. As Kelman stepped off stage, some thought him ungrateful and rude. But how right he was, how right.

To mark the 25th anniversary of winning the Booker Prize with How Late It Was, How Late, Kelman recently gave an interview to the New Statesman. That novel was widely lambasted for its so-called profanity, which so shocked one judge, Rabbi Julia Neuberger, she stormed out of the meeting. “Over my dead body” was the mildest of her comments.

About a year ago, Kelman finished a new novel which, he revealed, has still to find a publisher. After a long period with Secker & Warburg and Hamish Hamilton, he moved to Canongate with his last two books, That Was a Shiver, and Dirt Road, both of which were well received. But this new manuscript languishes, untouched and apparently unloved. Nobody, it seems, even in his own heath, is willing to make a decent offer for it.

With some writers, you could understand. Thanks to technology that registers every sale, publishers (and booksellers) can see exactly how bankable their books are. When approached by a writer, they can track their performance at the click of a mouse. If this is healthy, they are far more likely to pounce on them than if the novelist’s sales have not even covered their advance, leaving a publisher effectively in the red.

This does not, of course, mean the novelist is no good. Sometimes it indicates the reverse. Literary fiction is a highly rarified taste – as it always was. Only the most fortunate of such writers make a good living from the proceeds of books alone. For most it is a struggle to get by, hence the number finding shelter teaching on creative writing courses. Kelman himself went down that route for a time, but you can be fairly sure that if his books had sold like airport bestsellers, there would have been no need to find a financial cushion.

In what you can only call the good old days, a young writer like Graham Greene would be given considerable leeway with his early books by a publisher confident that one day he would reward their patience. Today, there is no slack in the system, no time to nurture or take the long view. You are only as good as your last book. And in the case of someone like Kelman, whose readership is a mere fraction of those interested in serious fiction, that spells trouble.

Why do most of those who leap on every title by Julian Barnes or Rose Tremain often not bother with Kelman? Undoubtedly, the furore over his Booker winner damaged his reputation, not only in the rest of the UK, but also here. Kelman, however, suspects there is a more fundamental and disturbing reason. He believes that English publishers are “keeping a lid” on Scottish writers, by dismissing them as a genre. They would rather publish mediocre English novelists, he says, than good Scottish ones.

Read more: Kelman: British establishment is 'keeping a lid' on Scottish writing

There are enough excellent Scottish novelists reaching print to argue that point, but for me this is a distraction from the main issue. Even if Kelman is right and there is anti-Scottish bias among literary publishers, that still does not explain why no Scottish publisher is willing to take him on.

Could his new book be too difficult, or tricky? It would seem strange if that were the case, given his long and distinguished backlist in which there is rarely a misfire. The answer is far more likely to be about money, and the state of the book trade in general. In other words, there is no publisher able or prepared to offer a fee commensurate with what a Kelman book is worth. That’s worth in artistic terms, you understand, not sales. I do not doubt it would be a better investment to publish Diana Gabaldon if filling the coffers is the main objective.

But while the kind of books Kelman writes are unlikely to shower a publisher in gold, they would add immeasurably to its lustre. Here is a novelist who has been shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, and is a worthy Nobel contender. Indeed, consider this my official plea to the Nobel Prize Literature Committee to read everything Kelman has written and tell us his oeuvre does not equal or surpass many of their laureates.

Yet, nobody on his doorstep wants to take his new book. It’s hard to think of another country where its foremost living writer would be treated like this. The only conclusion you can come to is that the world of books has lost it. I’d speak even more plainly, but am aware I must moderate my language.