Commodity Publishing, Self-Publishing, and The Future of Fiction

Commodity Publishing and The Future of Fiction

Many years ago, when I started working for Writer’s Digest, I was put on the self-publishing beat. I started by reading Dan Poynter’s guide, by the godfather of self-publishing, then the Marilyn Ross guide. I attended EPIC, once the leading conference for e-book authors, and sat on a panel with Piers Anthony to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of traditional publishing, POD publishing, and digital publishing. For a couple of years, I edited a newsstand-only magazine called Publishing Success, geared toward independent authors, and oversaw the Writer’s Digest Self-Publishing Book Awards. I developed lasting relationships with several indie authors during that time, including John Sundman and M.J. Rose, and I saw a few authors successfully cross over to traditional publishing.

At that time (which was in the early 2000s), if you were a self-published author, print-on-demand was emerging as the golden ticket to affordable independent publishing. New POD publishers were marketing their services with dirt-cheap introductory packages—as low as $99—to entice authors fed up with rejection to find success through this no-print-run-required technology. What most authors discovered, however, is that without access to bookstore shelves, or a reliable way to get in front of readers (these were the early days of the Internet—no social media and very little in the way of popular blogging), you were pretty much wasting your time.

One author stood out, though, as finding a way where the others didn’t—M.J. Rose. She was turned down by traditional publishers but was convinced there was a readership for her work. So in 1998, she set up a website where readers could download her book for $9.95 and began to seriously market the novel online. After selling 2,500 copies (in both electronic and trade paper), her novel Lip Service became the first e-book sensation to score an author a traditional publishing contract. (What is also interesting here is Rose’s background: advertising.)

When asked about the future of self-publishing in October 2012, Rose told The Nervous Breakdown:

In 2000, when I was the e-publishing reporter for, I was asked about the future of self-publishing and at that time said it would become the best test market for publishers to find future superstars—as soon as e-books took off and that wouldn’t happen until the readers dropped to under $100. We’re there—it’s happening. Every week the press reports on two or three major deals with self-pubbed authors who have built up their own fan bases.{{1}} [[1]]Publishers Lunch reported on roughly 5,000 traditional publishing deals in 2012; 45 of them were for books originally self-published.[[1]] But notice how those self-pubbed authors are moving to traditional deals.  As empowering as self-pubbing is—it’s not easy to go it alone. Most of us writers want to be writers—not have to spend years studying the business of publishing and becoming entrepreneurs.  So I think there are going to be more and more creative business models to offer authors trustworthy and creative partnerships as solutions to going it alone. It’s an amazingly exciting time in publishing.

I agree with M.J. My question is: Is self-publishing going to become the predominant, preferred, or recommended means for authors to launch their careers? While we might all agree there are more paths than ever to get published and be a successful author, some advocates of self-publishing—primarily those (perhaps exclusively those) who write genre fiction go a step further: Don’t even bother getting traditionally published. Self-publish first.

Usually the model or formula is expressed like this:

  1. Write a ton of material.
  2. Publish it yourself on all the digital platforms.
  3. Repeat as quickly as possible.
  4. Make a living as a writer.

For those unfamiliar with this emerging model of authorship, you may think I’m oversimplifying. Not by much. This model doesn’t care about quality. It says: You will get better as you write more, and besides, everyone knows that quality is subjective. It says: Don’t waste your time perfecting something that you can’t be sure makes a difference to your readers or your sales.

Nor does this model rely on marketing and promotion. According to its rules, the author is better off producing more salable product, which, over time, snowballs into more and more sales, and people discovering and buying your books. Do you need a website? Of course, like any author does. Do you need to market yourself or your work? As little as possible, the model says. Focus on writing your next book.

If you want to delve into the philosophy of this model further, I recommend reading the blogs of Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Katherine Rusch, very commercially successful genre fiction authors who have significant followings, with experience in both traditional and indie authorship.

My observations follow.

1. This model relies on a readership that consumes books like candy, or readers mostly interested in finding a next read as quickly and cheaply as possible. (We’re starting to see the impact of this cheap-read behavior: agents asking publishers to reduce prices because it’s inhibiting the greater volume needed to reach maximum profits.)

If you’ve ever walked into certain kinds of used bookshops (especially back before e-books became prevalent), you’ve seen the racks and racks of mass-market romances and other genre fiction, sold for 25 cents each. A customer might walk in, buy a grocery bag full, walk out, then return the following week for a refill.

The new era of self-publishing authors{{2}}[[2]]There’s also another subset of self-publishing authors that are of the Seth Godin variety: authorities or experts who publish nonfiction and offer other content and services to a fan base, whether a large one or more modest one of the Kevin Kelly variety. I’m excluding such authors for the purposes of this post since I consider them an entirely different animal.[[2]] are, by and large, serving these customers.

I call it commodity publishing. It’s not about art; it’s about product.

But isn’t that what traditional publishing has been about all along? Isn’t it also commodity publishing? It is a business, yes?

Funny, it’s the business that no one gets into for business reasons. It’s the business that, if you asked its individual participants, would likely prefer to talk about the art or culture of the business, would prefer to make the argument that it focuses on quality work that deserves publication. Yet those with trade experience know how the decisions really get made: based on a profit-and-loss analysis (P&L) and for the benefit of the bottom line.

2. If commodity publishing is here to stay, I can only see its future in the realm of genre fiction, because this is the area where I see sufficient reader demand to drive the kind of volume that leads to a living wage. It’s also the only area where I see authors without qualms about quality, or without any hesitation to produce as much material as possible, with the only limitation the amount of time you can keep your butt in the chair writing.

Most literary authors and nonfiction writers I know are not able to pursue this model. They either cannot produce—or would not want to produce—multiple volumes in a few years’ time.

I’m now on the edge of a longstanding argument: whether genre fiction is as “good” as so-called literary fiction. I’ve had more than one person challenge me on the definition of “literary” fiction on the premise that it’s an elitist, exclusionary term that implies that other types of fiction can’t be as intelligent or complex. That is to say, it is possible for literary romance, literary thriller, etc., to exist, and that “literary” should not exist except as an adjective to some other genre category.

That’s a sensible argument. But I do think it’s relevant to talk about how readers self-identify, or how they decide what to read next, and you can be certain there’s a class of reader who considers themselves devoted to the consumption of, at the very least, serious fiction. Serious fiction means: you don’t read it or skim it in an afternoon, and you don’t go through an entire grocery bag of them in a week. A lot of people enjoy both types of fiction. Yet you don’t often find authors who are switching off between writing beach reads and next year’s critically acclaimed novel. Further, authors tend to get pigeon-holed and marketed in a particular way to the same audience over years, since that’s how commercial success works best (see: James Patterson), and even if we find this constricting from a creative standpoint, it’s a sound marketing strategy.

All this to say: I don’t think it wise to recommend self-publishing as the first strategy for writers outside of the genres. I don’t think it is compatible with the goals or attitudes of a significant population of authors. However, this is NOT to say that such authors are somehow exempt from innovation, or from adopting digital tools to further their careers. Quite the contrary, and regular readers of this blog know how often I advocate that authors break out of the traditional thinking and experiment across mediums—that they think beyond the book in approaching creative expression, storytelling, and marketing/promotion.

As far as the ongoing need or demand for traditional publishers, it’s tough to imagine their demise when it comes to non-commodity authors, though I do worry that if publishers have been playing at the commodity publishing game all along (which they have), and their existing corporate parents expect growing profits, should we expect their fortunes to fall if/when the genre fiction authors increasingly go-it-alone{{3}}[[3]]I’ve also written about my concern that traditional publishers may not evolve to offer sufficient value for authors. I write in-depth about this here.[[3]] because they can earn more{{4}}[[4]]Some have suggested that the high royalty rates that indie authors now enjoy from retailers like Amazon will be yanked down to much lower numbers once the e-reading/e-publishing gold rush has concluded. Who knows if that will come to pass, but if so, it would be smart for authors currently enjoying indie success to start building their online presence and e-mail lists to ensure they can reach their readership and sell direct in the future. Plan for the worst, hope for the best.[[4]]—especially as more readers buy online and buy digital rather than visiting physical bookstores, that dwindling haven of traditional publishing profits?

And if traditional publishing declines, will the big corporate houses have the same ability to publish those titles that aren’t destined to be commercial successes, but critical successes?

Take this year for example:

  • No. 1 commercial success of 2012: 50 Shades of Grey by E.L. James—published by Random House after the author self-published
  • No. 1 critical success of 2012: Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo—also published by Random House; a National Book Award winner and named one of the top 10 books of the year by countless publications

Can Random House deliver books like the Behind the Beautiful Forevers if they don’t also profit from 50 Shades of Grey? Maybe someone else with more insight into corporate-wide publishing P&Ls can offer insight here.

3. Lest one be misled into thinking I prefer literary fiction and would like to protect it (and the infrastructure that goes along with it), I must agree with what Tim O’Reilly said in a recent interview with Wired:

Wired: You’re a publisher and big reader as well as a technologist. What is the future for books?

O’Reilly: Well, what kind of book do you mean? Because there are many, many things that were put into codices that have no particular reason to be books. Things like paper maps and atlases are just gone. Online dictionaries and online encyclopedias have killed printed dictionaries and encyclopedias. … But I don’t really give a shit if literary novels go away. They’re an elitist pursuit. And they’re relatively recent. The most popular author in the 1850s in the US wasn’t Herman Melville writing Moby-Dick, you know, or Nathaniel Hawthorne writing The House of the Seven Gables. It was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow writing long narrative poems that were meant to be read aloud. So the novel as we know it today is only a 200-year-old construct. And now we’re getting new forms of entertainment, new forms of popular culture.

Personally (after a couple decades of being a very devoted reader of novels), I have all but stopped reading fiction. My storytelling fix comes from watching TV, which, for my money, is where the best narratives are told these days—Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, Breaking Bad, many others. I know I’m not alone in this.

So that raises the question of what I do read, and it’s narrative nonfiction of a journalistic bent (one of the reasons I recently joined VQR). I’m sure everyone is aware of the parallel conversations happening, in the magazine journalism and news world, about what their publishing future entails, and you’ll find no less confusion or wringing of hands. But I find their practitioners to be in a similar boat as the serious fiction authors, in that they need some kind of support—typically traditional media/publisher support—to carry out their work, which takes years to complete and cannot be churned out on demand. Katherine Boo, and many other nonfiction authors, require years of research to produce even a slim volume of import. What they produce is distinctly not disposable, not a commodity.

Will such authors be supported by nonprofits? Grants? Small presses whose profit demands are lower? Crowdsourcing? Kickstarter? I don’t know, but of all the options I can fathom, self-publishing seems least likely to become the preferred or prevalent model.

What do you say?

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Jane Friedman has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. From 2001–2010 she worked at Writer's Digest, where she ultimately became publisher; more recently, she was an editor at the Virginia Quarterly Review, where she led digital strategy. Jane currently teaches writing and publishing at the University of Virginia and is a columnist for Publishers Weekly. The Great Courses just released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (2017). Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.
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  1. Pingback: Commodity Publishing, Self-Publishing and The Future of Fiction | book publishing |

  2. Jane,
    I think many of your points are valid: traditional publishing will always be the venue of choice to curate and create books that are “souvenirs.” The special books that readers feel reflect their personalities and want a copy to keep on their shelves, to show the world who they are.

    But I disagree with your point that indy writers are not concerned with quality. It’s not just writing a book and repeating that leads to success, it’s writing a GREAT book, one that will delight and inspire your readers to tell their friends and share it with the world, then repeat.

    It’s the exact same formula that most mid-list authors contracted by NYC follow as well—many of them also “churning” out multiple books a year under a variety of pen names. The main difference is that with indy publishing midlist authors can actually make a living wage.

    Why have many indy authors been able to find success outside of traditional publishing? It’s not because they’re churning out books with no regard to quality.

    It’s because they know and understand their readers.

    Successful small presses like Alquonquin have also done this.

    When NYC looks beyond pleasing stockholders and distributors and truly begins to understand the heart and soul of readers (hint: listen to your editors talk about books they’re passionate about because the character and story moved them, not because of an impressive P/L sheet, which is its own kind of fiction anyway) they won’t need to bemoan the changes in publishing—instead they’ll be embracing exciting new opportunities.

    Thanks as always for sharing your insights,
    CJ Lyons

    • Terrific insights, Jane, and thumbs up to CJ as well. I’ve watched this industry change since the early 70s and what’s happening now is fascinating and exciting, especially for the writer. There are so many more options. MJ, of course, will always be the blog book tour queen in my eyes. 😉

    • Thanks for provoking the discussion, Jane.

      Publishing needs to get away from the idea of quality as some kind of objective judgment (evaluated by gatekeepers) and understand that quality is about meeting the reader’s expectations, whatever they are. It has always been true that if you picked up a novel by Philip Roth (to take a literary example) while expecting a Stephen King horror read, you’d likely be disappointed. And vice versa.

      As for production over quality, as a former literary agent and Doubleday editor, I can say with conviction that beyond the extremes there is little correlation. I’ve seen people labor for a decade to produce crap. On the other hand, before the days of ebooks many genre authors produced three or four quality books a year — sometimes more…sometimes under multiple names — in mass market paperback. Only later did these authors build big enough audiences to break into hardcover. Isaac Asimov, to take one example, had his name as author or editor on more than 500 books. Some sold better than others. As for posterity, he’s remembered for only a handful, but that’s better than most ever achieve.

      Fiction — even genre fiction — relies on a certain alchemy. Even the greatest novelists (however you choose to define greatness) were not great all the time. That, in and of itself, is an argument for doing more writing and less [fill in the blank].

    • CJ,

      Thanks so much for taking time to comment.

      It wasn’t my intent to characterize *all* indie writers as unconcerned with quality—only to point to a growing phenomenon/trend of indie authors saying that quality is subjective or not as important as is usually taught.

      After hearing your presentation in Pittsburgh last fall, I couldn’t have been more impressed by your own model of top-notch quality (and concern with serving your readership) combined with a savvy marketing approach — and to top it off, a reasonable and respectful approach to all types of publishing paths and goals. I’m fairly confident that your marketing/promotion wouldn’t work half as well (or even a tenth as well) if you didn’t have the quality books to begin with.

      For any aspirants reading, here is your model to follow. (She teaches classes!)

      • Okay, now you’re scaring me–there are groups of writers expecting readers to spend their time and hard-earned money on their books and they’re saying that quality doesn’t matter???

        I wouldn’t worry too much about them, they won’t be around long…readers are smarter than that.

        Thanks for the kind words about my model, Jane! I don’t see it as marketing/promotion (although I know it is, but those words imply “work” and I love what I do!) so much as relationship building…and it all starts with a great story worthy of my readers.


        • I am not aware of any successful writers who argue that quality doesn’t matter. Although Ms. Friedman did separate the two concepts (quality is subjective, quality doesn’t matter) with an “or,” I do get a strong sense that she thinks they are related and/or one implies the other. If I am over-reading that, then that is my error. The two authors she cites as major examples of advocates of the first position (quality is subjective) would certainly NOT argue that quality is irrelevant.

          That being said, in my opinion they would very possibly argue that not only is quality subjective, but that what the Literary World considers a quality book is so highly subjective, and unrelated to what the typical reader would consider writing of quality, that it is almost a parody of the idea.

    • I agree with CJ. Those that are the “loudest” proponents of the model, such as Dean Wesley Smith, always mention they send off to their editors. Perhaps without being involved in the indie community it seems like there isn’t an emphasis on quality, but that’s not true. It’s discussed a great deal, and with very strong conviction. But I agree with CJ that it’s about appealing to readers over publishers.

      Indie authors are under much more scrutiny than the average mid-list author. We get reviews that our books are “filled with typos” when the reader actually only found one (happened to me). And yet, I’m reading a trade book with typo after typo, and not one person mentioned it in their reviews of it on Amazon. Perception is everything.

      Those that self-publish without regard to quality, I’ve found, are not actively involved in the indie community. They don’t read those articles, they don’t participate in the communities and blogs. They just publish. There is a difference.

  3. So nice to have you say this, because I know that more editors and people in “the biz” do feel that way about literary fiction. And I think it’s good to talk about it openly, maybe 2013 is the year that “the biz” abandons serious fiction.

    I can see it happening, as literary journals (like your VQR) are turning to narrative journalism now. I think that’s good, actually. I don’t think that serious fiction should be holed up in academia. University journals are only for schools, they only print stories of professors, and commercial magazines abandoned serious fiction at least a generation ago. So you do have something that seems dead in the outside world.

    Maybe we will see a new kind of public intellectual, the “serious” author who is not aligned with a university, and therefore not holed up in the literary journals that have no commercial following. Instead they will self-publish their work and find a small, but dedicated, audience. I am not sure how this model will actually pay, because it won’t work like the genre model of “buy a bag of books at 99 cents each” but if they can find their readers they will make it.

  4. As for self-publishing as the first route to entry, if the author is entrepreneurial (can hire a team to help with the quality and distribution) and can write a series, they can build a good readership so that model works for some. And what model works for all? None. Offering a freemium plus marketing has landed several of my author friends into the full-time fiction writer role, which they couldn’t do with their once-a-year traditional deals. Some are hybrid authors and some self-pub only, but it’s still a model for serious authors to consider. (I don’t believe it’s “on demand,” but putting thought into a longer story arc.) Readers aren’t dummies. They know if they are being short-changed.

    I also agree one book sale sells another, but “churning out” books is usually only an option if you are writing full time so it’s a chicken and egg thing. I absolutely don’t think that’s a self-pub only model. I’ve noticed many traditionally published authors are now at two books a year because the readers and publishers need it to keep the reader’s attention and compete.

  5. I would submit that there is a model emerging for self-publishing authors (like me). We want to go it alone, so to speak, meaning without a traditional contract. But we are more than willing to gather a team in support of what we do. I’ve hired an editor and cover designer, and someone to do the interior formatting of my books. I do my own marketing but I’m willing to job out some of that if i find the right person. I would love to hire a manager, because agents don’t fulfill my needs. I think companies and individuals who recognize that self-published authors want and need qualified, creative professionals handling the non-writing elements of their business (and of course, writing is a business) will find rewarding partnerships.

    • @twitter-240542789:disqus

      Viki, I’m jumping in here because, as I go over these good comments on Jane’s essay, I find you saying something you’ve said before and I’m curious as to why you keep asking for it but apparently not getting it.

      You want a manager. Not an agent. OK. Makes sense to me, I get it entirely, smart move.

      So where is your manager? Are you looking? Have you interviewed or spoken with candidates? You’re surrounded by “author services,” we all are. You can have your book formatted by a person in a straw hat with flowers over breakfast on a bicycle, if you’d like. Anything you want is out there in triplicate. I figure that within weeks, Walgreens will replace its film-development counters with author services kiosks. Go in, get your damned book distributed, free flu shot included. It’s almost that absurd, this proliferation of self-styled “author services.”

      So where’s your manager? I’m asking you to move this point you keep making down the road a bit so we can learn from your experience, since you’re The Last Writer On Earth Who Actually Wants To Self-Publish, Not Get a Traditional Contract.

      What’s up with the manager thing? You can’t find one? Or you can’t find one you like? Or you can’t find one you can afford? Or you can’t find one with red hair and blue eyes? Or what?


      • I prefer a manager who’s independent of other author services. I see companies offer a variety of services under one roof, some including a type of managing, though it’s more like customer service. I want a manager who will find me a publicist, not default to the in-house publicist. Does that make sense?

  6. Thanks, Jane. I know this piece comes after much deliberation and experience. But I’m still so glad you encouraged me to release some e-books. Nothing else could have helped me learn the rudiments of what a book is now. I have such respect for everyone involved. Even if a publishing house may take a look at a debut literary novel, I don’t think they would have bothered much about a few short story collections.

    • Nath! Your experiments (and those of others in literary circles) are so very dear to me. I worry I led you astray in my digital optimism. I am still optimistic. But the literary community in general seems to lag behind on this front. Hopefully not for long.

  7. Self-publishing will eventually become the place to discover new and emerging authors. If things progress as they have been doing over the last couple of decades, “literary” fiction, as I understand the implied defintion, will become obselete and the “genre” fiction of self-publishing will become the new model.
    That is not to say it is a bad thing. The volumious amounts of self-published works will have to be waded through extensively in order to discover these new and emerging authors. This is where it all began though, did it not?
    There was a time when paper was so valuable print on demand was the norm. Weren’t Twain and Dickens both self-published authors to begin with? So maybe we are doing a full circle, paper and ink costs money. Print on demand is environmentally friendly and appeals to the conservationist within.
    I think that literary agents and traditional publishing houses should be very worried. The entire structure of publishing, inclding the jobs within that structure, are changing drastically, for good and bad reasons.

  8. The idea that Indie authors are simply pounding out inferior books as quickly as possible to take advantage of the growing digital market is such a grave generalization it’s laughable. All Asian kids are great at math. All priests are pediphiles. It’s insulting. Do some Indie authors put out bad books. Yes. It’s called bad writing and the readers pick up on this right away. Thank goodness the traditional publishers are there for us, however, because prior to the ebook craze I’d never read a bad book before.

    • It sort of seems like you’re making a generalization about her generalization. She’s not saying every indie book is disposable, but many of them are. And she’s right. I say this as a self-publisher who writes un-mainstream genre fiction and I wonder if I’ve made the wrong choice self-publishing, as I don’t write books catering to this audience. Some of my reviews reflect this (“confusing,” “boring”) because these readers are expecting something you don’t have to think very much about.

  9. I don’t really give a **** if Tim O’Reilly goes away. What youthful arrogance. I suspect 100 years from now people will still be reading Melville and asking “Tim who?”.

    • @5dfc713cb1a45542c527de1ea20d2113:disqus
      David, I’ll just jump in here to ask you to read the first item in my Writing on the Ether of January 3, it will shed some light on what Tim O’Reilly was saying — his comment was not what many thought it was in the Wired article, where it was stranded from its context. Here you go, and thanks:

  10. I’m deeply interested in this discussion. Jane, when you posted that interview with O’Reilly right around Christmas Eve, I read the comment about “not giving a shit if literary novels went away,” and I felt both anger and anguish. I aspire to write literary fiction, which is to say that I aspire to be read 100 years from now. Maybe I will fail at this, but that’s my aspiration. I’m not ignorant to the fact that in order to be read then, I need to be read NOW. You ask a good question in your last paragraph: how am I supported? I’m very lucky to have an academic teaching position; sadly, the continued creation of such positions have not kept pace with the rapid growth in popularity of creative writing instruction. But that’s another story for another day. Every writer I know is struggling with these issues, these changes happening in publishing. To say that mid-list/literary/academically-employed writers are living in some kind of La-La Land of denial is not true. Well, it’s kind of true, but not entirely. Even George Saunders (this generation’s Kurt Vonnegut, I think) is thinking about how he can appeal to a “bigger basket” of readers. So many thoughts. So many feelings. Suffice it to say that it’s this kind of discussion that prompted me to teach a class on Literary Citizenship this semester (my term for “platform”). I’ll let you know how it goes.

    • Again, are you saying there is an inherent distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction in this sense? If so, I don’t follow you. People are still reading Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs: people will still be reading Heinlein, Asimov, Tolkien and Clarke a hundred years from now (or beaming their book-engrams into their brains, or however they do it then.) Meanwhile, what do you suppose the odds are that Beyond the Beautiful Forevers will still be widely read a century hence? Certainly not zero… but IMO, not great. (No offense to Ms. Boo.)

      Or as another genre writer observed, “Only posterity can make those judgments.” (Joe Haldeman, The Forever War)

      • If anything, I’m trying to say that the best course of action is to steer your boat between the two poles. Certainly not trying to draw a distinction between literary and commercial, although the market does. Bookstores do. Agents and editors do. In the course of doing research, I like to open up short story anthologies, literary journals, and commercial magazines that published fiction from 30, 50, 100 years ago and look at the names to see how many I recognize. It’s always startling when you realize how many published writers “fade away.” I live across the street from the childhood home of writer Emily Kimbrough, the first woman to edit Ladies Home Journal and author of a few best-selling memoirs, one which became a film, Our Hearts Were So Young and Gay. The house is falling down, and few visit. It’s rather sobering. Why isn’t she read anymore? There are many reasons. You’re right that posterity makes those judgements. All writers can do is write the best book they can. What unnerves me are the number of writers who think “literary” is a dirty word.

        Have you read the Boo book? I haven’t. BTW: I notice that all the genre writers you mention are men. One thing I’ve observed is that writers, critics are willing to tout the “seriousness” of “male” genre fiction but poo-poo “female” genre fiction. Not that you’re doing that. Just something I find interesting…

        • That’s more than fair, and you’re right that the distinction is made, but my point is, I don’t think that the distinction is valid, consistent, worthwhile, and/or helpful. I have seen no evidence that it serves any beneficial purpose whatsoever, other than to provide a level of insulation and job security to its proponents.

          I have not read Ms. Boo’s book. I am sure it is wonderful and deeply moving to the sort of person who likes that sort of thing. But history is littered – as you point out – with people who wrote wonderful, deeply moving books which were hailed as literary classics and then just… went away. I am not sure that the record of “literary” works is much better than the record of “genre” books on this score. Certainly not if you only count books people read when they are not forced to do so by English teachers. :) I still recall the outraged horror most of my classmates demonstrated when a literature professor assigned us The Left Hand of Darkness… that’s not literature, that’s science fiction! Yeah, well, you show me a “literary” work with anything more interesting to say about the meaning of gender than TLHOD. :)

          You are right to call me on the fact that all the genre writers I cited are men. The first name which comes to mind as a good example of a genre writer who seems to be passing the test of time is Agatha Christie. In fantasy, there is E(dith) Nesbit. There are some examples – not titans, but reasonably tall giants – in science fiction, but almost all of them were forced to publish under male or gender-neutral pseudonyms.

          • I’m kind of fascinated by the Literary vs. Commercial issue these days. In my novel-writing classes, my students have to query faux agents. They have to say whether what they are writing is literary or commercial, and it puts them in stitches. I taught a novel this past semester called PURE by Julianna Baggott, which was marketed in a commercial way but is quite literary in that it’s gorgeously written and it’s dystopian vision is fully imagined. (We skyped with the author who said this was her aim.) I asked my students to say whether it was “literary” or “commercial.” Half said it was the MOST literary book we read. Half said it was the MOST commercial. Ha. (The other books being A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD by Egan, ELECTION by Perrotta, and TOWELHEAD by Erian.) It was nice talking to you about this, Marc.

          • curious. you are implying that a commercial book is not well written? i am an avid purveyor of commercial books, thrillers and what like and also an avid consumer of ‘literary’ fiction. i find no distinction in the quality of writing. Lee Child’s ‘commercial’ book has just been made into a movie by Hollywood. that extends the long tail of his commercial books. i wonder how long will the tail be for ‘literary’ fiction over decades and centuries

          • I don’t think that I’m going out on a limb here when I say that there are some commercial books that aren’t as well written as others. Also “well written” can mean many things. To some it means overtly lyrical writing, to others, “well written” means straightforward, no-nonsense prose. Willa Cather once said, “I don’t want anyone reading my work to think about the style. I just want them to be in the story.” Both of these (lyrical, plain) are “well written” to me, and both are hard to achieve. It is unusual (but certainly not impossible) to see overtly lyrical writing in commercial fiction, which is why my students didn’t know how to classify PURE. It was written in a way that signaled to them literary, but was presented in a very commercial way. Hence, their reactions.

          • Norton is creeping up on “test of time” status, by which I would mean two or three generations (fifty to sixty years, ish) and McCaffrey will probably get there before long and still be strong when she does. Shelley is definitely there already.

            It’s not that there aren’t a lot of great female science fiction authors (or fantasy authors, including LeGuin, the author of The Left Hand of Darkness The late Octavia Butler would be another of my own suggestions.) It’s just that they didn’t get in on it, for the most part, that hundred years ago that seemed to be one of the parameters I was responding to. The male authors have a headstart and are closer. (Verne and Burroughs, of course, are already there.)

  11. Very interesting observations, Jane. I’m seeing authors that I would consider “hybrids.” These mid-list genre writers developed a following of readers through traditional publishers, which are squeezing some of them out, and are getting ownership of their backlists and self-publishing them.

    I’m currently reading “The Middlesteins’ by Jami Attenberg (published by Grand Central), which has gotten terrific publicity through reviews. Not sure if it qualifies as literary fiction.

    Wondering if securing an agent is still somewhat the “holy grail” for breaking into the publishing world or not?

    • I’m see a growing field of hybrids, too. I’d love to see most authors work on a hybrid model, along the lines of what CJ Lyons does. It seems to make a ton of sense, at least in the current market.

      For the large majority who pursue Big Six publishing, an agent is still necessary; and they’re the ones increasingly plucking the self-pub bestsellers from the top Kindle book lists …

  12. I’m a full-time nonfiction writer. When I speak to youngsters, some of them come up afterwards to ask, “How do I become a writer?” I say, “Get in print— anyway you can. It’s good for your soul, it’s good for your resumé, and you’ll start referring to yourself as a writer.” E-publishing opens the doors to anyone who wants to give writing a shot.

    • I don’t agree that getting into print anyway you can is the way to become a writer. Perhaps in nonfiction? I don’t know. I write fiction and teach fiction writing. I’ve had students rush to publish their work before it was ready, before it was even readable, and they found “publishers” willing to put it into the world. When they ask me to promote or celebrate this work, I cannot. I recognize that my “blessing” isn’t the point, but I wish they weren’t in such a hurry. Agents, editors, readers do Google and might not be willing to take on their better, more mature work. That’s my fear. However, Charles, I will grant you that for many of my students, blogging (which is a kind of epublishing) has helped them find their voice, a community, a sense of purpose.

  13. Agree! “My storytelling fix comes from watching TV, which, for my money, is where the best narratives are told these days—Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, Breaking Bad, many others. I know I’m not alone in this.”

    You’re not alone. Right now my obsession is Breaking Bad. For writers who want to work on their craft of great storytelling, it’s a perfect example of Kurt Vonnegut’s eight basics of creative writing.

  14. Very interesting arguments. I totally agree that it’s easier for a literary author to publish if backed by the support of a commercial company. But unfortunately publishers are not looking for new original literary authors.

    Jane, you’re no doubt familiar with my history as I’ve guested here, but just to recap for others I have two literary agents, I write unusual stories, which agents and editors praise for their originality – and then reject because they’re not like everything else. I self-published my first novel because otherwise it would have spent its life locked up by the gatekeepers. It’s getting reviews that suggest it’s seen as a serious work, and many of those reviews express surprise that it wasn’t picked up by a publisher and launched properly.

    I can’t be the only writer in this position. Although many self-publishers do opt for writing genre fiction, there must be a sizeable minority like me who want to tell stories with a bit of heft, quality and scope, and have laboured at it for long enough to make a reasonable job of it. Publishers don’t want us – probably for good commercial reasons, but they don’t. So we have no choice but to self-publish.

    It’s not easy. It probably isn’t profitable. But then, getting published traditionally is rarely profitable either – especially as these books take so long to write. But I am so very, very glad I self-published my literary novel and I would urge others in my position to do the same.

    • Thanks so much, Roz, for your perspective here. Very valuable. The situation of literary authors is vexing to me; perhaps they get stuck in a limbo because the audience is harder to define and clearly reach, so it has to be done on an author-by-author basis. I’m not entirely sure, but what hope I have lies in small presses who establish strong brands.

    • You definitely aren’t the only writer in this position. I self-published a non-fiction book that would never have been accepted by a traditional publisher, and I sold enough copies and did a good enough job that I’ve gotten a translation deal with a European traditional publisher. I fantasize about getting an English book deal with a traditional publisher that would pay me so that I could improve the book (it’s good, but it could be better) and then help me get the word out across America, but at this point it seems unlikely — although who knows what’ll happen once the translated version is out in Europe?

      I’m willing to bet that there will be a mechanism for publishing houses to do physical-distribution-only deals within the next 5 years. I already proposed this to a couple publishing houses for my first book, but I didn’t have any takers. Then I saw an article by Tucker Max who says he’s throwing his weight behind something similar. His breakdown (which is the same as my breakdown when I came up with the idea) is that there’s nothing traditional publishers can do that a savvy self-publisher (aided by freelancers) can’t do better, except for physical distribution. I’m thinking that if I can get more experience and some more good books under my belt, I’ll be able to pull something off along these lines.

      But of course, as Jane noted in her fantastic original post, most writers don’t want to do that amount of marketing/formatting and other scutwork. I’m not even sure I want to keep doing that amount of marketing/formatting and other scutwork. I have one big project in the works, and after that I’m weighing my options between getting into e-publishing hardcore now, and pulling back. I think that there are going to be some major players introduced during this time of tumult (in fact I think we already have a sense for who some of them are — check out Plympton!!). And I think I could be one of them if I applied myself. But I honestly don’t know. Being a full-time and entirely self-published, self-promoted writer as long as I have has already taken it out of me.

      I’d love to trade in my accumulated capital and experience for a steady editorial gig somewhere. But we all know that those gigs are dying out ….

      • Hugh Howey just got what may be the first major such deal – he kept all his e-publishing rights and just sold the physical book rights to his already best-selling e-book “Wool.”

  15. Jane, excellent insights, as always. I’m unpublished and write what you call “literary” novels. I probably don’t know what I’m talking about, but here’s my two-cent prediction:

    1) Genre novels will be largely self-published, with the very best going traditional … but only until the authors have publishing-house cred; once they do, they’ll return to self-publishing.
    2) Literary novelists are not elitists and will not go away. There will always be a market for serious fiction.
    3) Boutique publishers will proliferate because of technology, in the process capturing more of the literary fiction market, especially first-time authors. Once these authors gain cred, the best will move up the food chain as they do now.
    4) There is nothing (except, possibly, investment capital) to prevent literary agencies becoming boutique publishers for ALL types of fiction, thereby adding to the number of boutique publishing houses.
    5) Literary nonfiction writers will need to go book-first instead of relying on gaining cred via magazines, which may be the most doomed (long-term) of all publishing platforms.
    6) Writers will need to adjust the most. The days of teaching literature or creative writing at college are slowly coming to an end, as are the days of making a real good living as a writer — at least for the vast majority of us. There was a time when I thought (romantically) I might use the James Joyce model; write, beg, subsist with the aid of wealthy women. Now I prefer the Wallace Stevens model; work in a normal job, contribute to the economy, and write whenever I can find the time. One thing will never change: a writer who wants to write serious fiction wants to write and nothing else. If I have a choice between starving and writing or eating and writing, as an unpublished writer, I’ll take the latter any day. I just don’t want to spend more time acting like a publisher than a writer if all I’m going to do is eek out a living.

    Sorry this is so long. I’ll be quiet now.

    • Is “serious” fiction defined as “fiction which is not genre fiction?” I’m having trouble understanding the distinction.

      Also, I was under the impression that making a “real good living” as a writer was more or less a lottery-odds thing even in the good old days. I’d be willing to bet that more people are making more money from selling their writing today than has ever been the case.

      • Porter commented on Twitter (and I think he’s as close as we might get to a definition) that “serious” fiction is work in which the art/message is more important than the entertainment value.

        • That’s ridiculous. If one is moved by a work, then one has been entertained. It doesn’t matter if the result is a long walk reflecting deeply on the work, or tweeting, “Wow, that was awesome.”

          I believe the most productive way writers can handle the question of genre v literary is to ignore it completely. Serve the story, always.

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  17. Being a writer, I used the month of December to catch up on my reading. My 1st pick was from the list of 100 notable books of the year and the 2nd book by a professor of my MFA program, both agented authors and traditional publishing in both instances – great writing, but the typos and electronic formatting were disgraceful. While this conversation is focused on the pros and cons of publishing models, a similar one should be held about the public’s growing demand for ‘everything for nothing.’ Giveaways might be the cornerstone of marketing, but I find it shocking to hear readers feeling smug about their well-stocked libraries of free downloads.

  18. Current trends are not very encouraging for either traditional publishing or its literary fiction subset, which has long been a “boutique” feature made possible by the commodity books that bring in the real money. With self-publishing and e-reading still a rising market, and with bookstores facing a rapid decline, the best bet for writers of literary fiction is to follow the curve. How it all plays out in the long run is anybody’s guess, but your chances in traditional publishing, always slim at best, are not improving any. They like to say that the slush pile has gone online, but that’s where the agents and other industry types will be searching for their nuggets, so you might want to be where the action is.

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  20. There are tons of free ebooks that aren’t bad, which makes me question how anyone is making money. Even those who read books like candy can purchase several free books a day and often find one or more that are well done. We don’t pay for cable or have access to television that’s not cable in our area. As a result, we still read for entertainment too. Among the free books, I see most genres and a smattering of nonfiction too. To those who wonder what I view as a book of decent quality, it’s not quick read romances or elementary detective stories. I’m a writer and editor who’s published in multiple industries, along with having been a judge of a book contest and a teacher.

    • Ironically, serious readers (as in, people who seriously enjoy reading a lot, not people who only read “serious” stuff) are starting to use price as a filter in searching – when I increased the price of my novellas from .99-1.99 to 2.99, sales went UP. It’s not that there isn’t good free stuff, it’s that the signal to noise ratio has gotten so insane that people are starting to avoid it altogether.

  21. Interesting discussion, as always, Jane. I’d like to add my perspective as a writer and as Director of The Alliance of Independent Authors. I was previously trade publishing and turned to self-publishing last year and it has been a fantastic experience — creatively and commercially. My books are categorised as literary fiction (of the accessible kind) and I believe we will always have readers who want fiction that does more than just tell a story, that does the things that only fiction can do — for most literary fans, it’s a matter of language. And while busy, career-focussed people turn to television for their storytelling fix, there is some evidence that later in life, when hectic schedules slow that the joys of deep fiction are indulged again. What’s interesting to me is that self-publishing affords a route whereby writers like me can make money again. Not the kind of money that’s earned by repetitive genre fiction, no, but the kind of money that the working short story writer or novelist hasn’t seen since magazines stopped paying for fiction. This is not just my experience but that of many of our members. Self-publishers come in all shapes and flavours — it’s a shame that the big sellers are the ones that take almost all of the attention, because its impact is much wider and deeper than that. As to the creative freedom, it is heady and a joy — but that’s a conversation for another day. Thank you for your forum, always stimulating. I hope the new job goes well.

    • Thanks, Orna. I do agree there are more routes than ever for all types of authors to make money again, maybe not a livable wage, but something, and probably more benefits for those with the work ethic and business sense, as Bob Mayer points out in another comment.

  22. As usual Jane, excellent post! We took so much away from this and will be sharing it with all of our networking friends.

  23. Brilliant article which resonates in all kinds of ways with my own situation.

    I fell into writing by accident and without knowing anything about the publishing game, enjoyed great success albeit within a very specific genre. After 15 years and 13 titles -all achieved via major houses and without any representation- I moved my entire back list online and my career took off again. Primarily because for the first time I had total control of my output and was able to target market my work.

    I don’t know if what I do sits within any established model as I do not mix in publishing circles nor for that matter, do I know many fellow authors. But what I do works for me and with my readership happy and growing, that’s all I really care about.

    Don’t get me wrong, if a traditional deal came along I would probably bite their hands off but it’s certainly not something I have any intention of chasing. I’d far rather be writing!

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  27. I remember teaching with Dan at the now defunct Maui Writers Conference and when MJ made a stir getting her self-published book picked up by a book club.

    I’ve been thinking about the quality/quantity argument and here are my thoughts: when I was making my living in traditional publishing I wrote four books a year, writing under my name and three pen names. Publishers didn’t want more than one book a year because their production schedule was geared that way and they had little clue how a book did for at least six months. It’s sad that royalty statements are still generated on this anachronistic system, while 47North can tell me this afternoon exactly what I sold yesterday, where I sold it, and in what format. A traditional publisher won’t be able to tell me what I sold between June and December 2012 until after April 15?

    I know a lot of writers. I’ve collaborated with other writers. And frankly, those who take a year or 18 months to write a book, often simply don’t glue their butt to the chair. They act like they’re searching for divine inspiration, but maybe they just don’t have the same work ethic as indie authors who work 18 hours days, seven days a week? Maybe when you get an advance and some of the money is in the bank, you’re just not as productive? That’s a harsh truth authors don’t want to admit. Maybe when you rely on actual sales every month to pay the mortgage you view the job differently?

    We used to joke at Maui that they gave genre authors check and literary authors awards. The one common trait I’ve seen in those who succeed as indies is a tremendous work ethic and also an acceptance that one must also run a business as an author.

    As far as genre vs. literary vs. art– there are man roads to Oz and Oz means different things to different people. Technically, Lonesome Dove should be racked as a Western, right?

  28. Great article. Not sure what it’s like with US teenagers but here in the UK the 14-year-old son of a friend of mine recently said that he doesn’t know of any of his friends who reads books, which is rather depressing. Very interesting learning that the novel as we know it today is a 200-year-old construct and indicates how things evolve and are evolving still. Perhaps the written word will eventually need to be presented in bite-size, MTV style chunks too, maybe integrated with some other library sourced visual or audio medium?

    Not sure if it’s due to as having a more deeply entrenched class system in the UK but my personal experience was that writers of literary fiction were actually MORE likely to get book deals with major publishers in the UK (I wrote an article touching on this in The Bookseller entitled ‘Where is the Gateway Fiction?’ published June 17 2004).

    Briefly, I self-published a novel called Is Harry on the Boat? in the late 90s. With a bit of guile, inventive marketing (pre-Internet marketing) and a lot of determination, I sold 20,000 copies, a not insignificant amount for the UK. As outraged as I was at the time that I didn’t get a publishing deal, now that I have 15 years of subsequent writing behind me I can see why. It was very raw and broke a lot of the ‘rules’ in terms of structure etc. However, the one thing I was always clear about was its commercial potential. I knew my target market and the sex/drugs/Brits in Ibiza theme was hugely popular at the time. I designed the cover for this market and as I predicted, whenever it was given a reasonably prominent display on a bookshop shelf, it did remarkably well. It was even number one for three weeks in one of the City of London’s biggest book stores, no mean feat given the approx 2000 books a week released at that time.

    So, having proven my point, I approached three major publishers again. Despite my success, I STILL received two rejection letters. Luckily the third, Orion publishing, gave me a deal. And the reason?

    I addressed my letter to the chairman of Orion rather then the editors as I did the other two. The problem with editors (at least back then and in the UK) is that they are far more interested in intellectual kudos than commercial reality. As such, they fawned over literary authors whom they could brag about over vol-au-vents at industry parties. The only time commercial factors seemed to come into play was when they had a massive, populist best seller that could not be ignored and which gave the similar props.

    My novel went on to sell over 100,000 (again, just as I predicted) so they had to give me a decent deal for another two novels. However, they DIDN’T have to promote them (especially when the chairman left) and without me pushing them in the way I did my first one they only sold in the 20,000-30,000 range each, not enough to cover my advance. So, after kicking down the doors of the industry, there ended my career as a novelist (thankfully, I moved on to script writing).

    Two other points out of that. Firstly, if you are self-publishing then you are focussed solely on your own book. You jump on any chance for publicity and of keeping it in the public domain. Unless you are a favored author then even if you have a deal with a major publisher you are one of many, usually near the bottom of their marketing priorities. It’s logical: If you’ve received a 500,000$ advance rather than a 10,000$ one they are going to work a darn sight harder to recoup it.

    Secondly, back then, the majority of editors were middle-aged, middle class women. Broadly speaking, they could only relate to novels from within their own social demographic, hence the proliferation of Chick-Lit books if the Bridget Jones variety. An overweight, middle class girl who couldn’t get laid…

    I must admit after over a decade I am thinking about doing another novel or rewriting my existing ones for the US market. The problem is that when I marketed my book back in 1997, all I did was ask what it was that made me buy a book. Usually it was having one catch my eye on a shelf, or reading about it in a review and then being reminded of it, once again by seeing it on a shelf. Were I to buy a novel now then I wouldn’t go onto a site specifically for non-published authors, even though I was one myself. Yes, I’ll support by mentoring and advising but by definition, a publisher is a quality control filter. I suppose that as before, you simply have to compete with the majors by trying to get as much PR as you can, which I’m sure is a lot easier with socai media etc.

    Guess there’s only one way to find out…

  29. Here’s the part I don’t get:

    Is there non-genre fiction? Are there non-genre fiction authors?

    I mean, yes, there are authors who write in *multiple* genres. But the distinction seems wholly artificial and completely arbitrary to me. And, yes, elitist.

    I could easily provide you with examples of “genre” books (notably science fiction, fantasy, and horror, which are my preferred genres) which no, you do NOT read at the beach in a sitting, or go through a grocery-bag of in a week. And which likewise you will be thinking about for days or weeks or months or YEARS after you read them. Why are they not “literary?”

    Contrarily, I have read many allegedly “literary” works which were quite transparently critic-bait, and any intelligent person who *hadn’t* drunk the literary Kool-Aid would justifiably decide had failed the wall test. (A book fails the wall test when you cannot resist the urge to hurl it against the wall in disgust.) If a book causes me to speak the Eight Deadly Words, I don’t care how literary it is, it has failed in the primary purpose of fiction: *to engage the reader.* Such works are the literary equivalent of Jackson Pollack paintings: Tools to allow the critics to feel superior to hoi polloi who don’t understand the meaning of genius.

    • Welcome to my senior thesis for my BA in English Lit. I’ve argued that “Literary” means “Uplifting because it depressed you to the point of suicide, but you like that kind of thing.”

    • You don’t understand, but that’s because you’re a genre reader. Yes, “literary” work is more or less outside all genres. Sometimes they can have a crossover (like Jonathan Lethem has elements of, say, sci-fi), but no, literary fiction is not genre fiction.

      What i find interesting is that Jane doesn’t read literary fiction anymore. With that and the comment by Tim O’Reilly about literary fiction, I am beginning to feel like an outsider here.

      • Name me a literary work which is outside all genres. One. Just one. I will concede the point and ne’er darken your door again, metaphorically speaking.

        Extra points if it has a man in a kilt in it somewhere.

        • I’m with you Marc. The term literary has an elitism to it that I feel is unfortunate. I’ve always thought of the classifier of “literary” as an overlay, not as a genre in-and-of-itself. That is, every novel fits into some type of genre, but novels that seem to exceed (however you measure that) the specific genre’s conventions somehow becomes literary. I made a video about this very topic over at my YouTube channel if you want to check it out:

    • I agree with you, Marc; there’s thoughtful, well-written “genre” work, and there’s “literary” bilge. To Jane’s point, and yours, the dichotomy is between the fast-food type of product and that which takes time and care to produce (and is hopefully more memorable than a Happy Meal). As you suggest, the distinction is one of quality.

      Even if you refuse the concept of genre, though, those with an allergic reaction to any suggestion of hierarchy are apt to lob the dreaded “elitist” label at you for making such a distinction.

  30. i am an indie author and released my first book last month.

    i decided to self publish since i did not have the time and energy to
    go after gazillions of agents and e-publishing offered me the outlet to
    create a product and release it to the market. i have tried to write the
    best possible book i could and since i did everything myself, i tried
    to do the best job i could in terms of editing and what not.

    my book might not be perfect, it might not appeal to any one, it might not sell a single copy (thankfully it has sold a few).

    point in all this is i dared to raise my head above the parapet and be
    prepared to be shot down. if my book is crap, the market will decide. if
    my book is good, the market will have its say. i do not have any
    middlemen, any one to hold my hand.

    all self published authors are in my boat and i can only applaud their courage.

    there are those whose product is not that good but again it is the
    market that will teach them to go back and create a better product or
    give up.

  31. The problem with your analysis is that you are starting from a conceptual basis that is completely inadequate. There is no such thing as the publishing industry. There are many different types of products that are delivered in “book containers” (physical books). E. L. James and Katherine Boo are not in the same industry any more than everything that ships in a cardboard box is in the same industry.

    Some stuff that used to be delivered the book container has already completely migrated to other forms. When was the last time you bought an encyclopedia in book format? Narrative fiction will certainly migrate away from the physical book. The economic advantage of ebook distribution is overwhelming. Despite what all the “industry experts” tell you, a product with a zero marginal cost of production will always beat a competing production without that advantage.

    If the old system of publishing was a sub rosa transfer of wealth from genre writers to literary fiction writers (which is what you describe), it will collapse, much like the daily newspapers are collapsing as the classified ad migrates to Craig’s List, etc. Katherine Boo’s books will be published in the future, probably by her think tank employer or organization’s like ProPublica. We are already seeing a renaissance in non-fiction for the “too long for a magazine article but too short for a book” pieces that become publishable and profitable as a Kindle Single or the like.

    What to do about literary fiction? I think the ebook revolution is the best thing to ever happen to literary fiction. The market for literary fiction is small and small markets are profitable in ebooks, but not in print. The self-publishing model that works for genre fiction is not the right model for literary fiction. The writers and readers of genre fiction have enough shared expectations that the risk for the reader of investing a lot of time and money in an unsatisfying experience is pretty low. If I tell you that Brent Nichol’s “Gears of Mad God” is a pretty good Lovecraftian Steam Punk adventure, you will know right away whether or not there is any chance you would like it. Trying to explain why you would enjoy Michael Chabon’s “Telegraph Avenue” is a little harder.

    Literary fiction needs a new kind of publisher. Or rather, literary fiction needs to return to an older model of publisher. A publisher who has a consistent judgment about literary fiction can build an audience. And that audience will be willing to pay a premium for the books from that publisher. And writers will be willing to give up more of the total income stream to get access to that audience (just like genre writers are willing to give up 30% of their income to get access to Amazon’s audience).

  32. Pingback: My reply to Jane Friedman’s Self Publishing – Future of Fiction « Ty Patterson

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  35. Jane, thanks for mentioning my blog. I do hope people go to my site and look at it, because you mischaracterize me and what I’m saying.

    I do tell writers to produce a lot and publish on all platforms *in my posts on promotion.* I believe that most promotion that writers and mainstream publishers do is worthless, so it’s better for writers to make certain they have a lot of material for their readers to choose from. A reader who likes one book will come back to buy another from the same author. This is why traditional publishers want exclusivity.

    In other words, I tell writers to use their time *writing,* not promoting.

    I am a traditionally published author with many pen names. I do publish literary fiction in prestigious journals. I have been nominated for major literary awards. I’m not “just a genre” writer by your definition, although I am by mine. Because I believe that literary fiction is just a genre as well.

    I believe in quality. I simply do not believe that a writer can achieve it by rewriting the same manuscript over and over. That’s like playing the same piece of music on your piano. You might learn that piece of music, but you’ll never master the piano. Writing is the same way.

    If I didn’t believe quality was important, I wouldn’t teach classes on craft, which I do. Nor would I be an award-winning editor which I am. I have read a lot of crap, much of it rewritten until the life has been choked out of it. I know what a slush pile looks like. I know how writers learn. I know quality fiction. I’ve written some and published a great deal by other writers.

    I wrote a series of blog posts last summer on this very topic. The idea of perfection in writing is deadly to writers. The first post is called “Perfection.” I hope people will take a look.

    I still traditionally publish my work. I also indie publish. I hire editors to go over my material when it’s finished. I make sure that my stories **and my words** work.

    I also believe that every writer needs to follow her own path. She needs to understand what the paths are. To give a blanket statement that some things are good for “genre” writers, but not “literary” writers, helps no one. Each writer is different.

    Many of your points here are solid, particularly when it comes to critics and their acceptance of “good” fiction. If that’s important to a writer, then she should follow your advice here. Right now anyway. Because the market is changing all the time. Now that the New York Times is reviewing indie books, all bets on the critics remaining entrenched in that “traditional is better than indie” attitude are off. Those attitudes changed among music critics. I’m sure literary critics will eventually follow suit.

    Again, thanks for the mention of my blog. I hope I’ve clarified a bit.

    All the best,
    Kristine Kathryn Rusch

    • Kristine,

      Thank you so much for fully and clearly describing what you write/publish and what you recommend for others. I’d venture to say we agree on much more than we disagree. Very grateful for your comment here.

  36. I made a modest amount of money self publishing back in the 1980’s, writing the first book on video editing. I sold that book to a traditional publisher and that lead to four editions and other non-fiction titles. I have self-published novels and how-to books.

    What I always knew was that writing as a career is like acting. It can be done. It is very hard to do and it continued success is highly unlikely. Few individuals can make a living at putting words to paper. Even fewer do it in the fiction arena.

    Still, the cost of publishing, especially eBooks has dropped to 0, although the wise writer will employ an editor to proof their work.

    The media; video games, 100’s of cable channels, dvds, movies, HBO, SHOWTIME and online distractions have taken most of the audience’s attention.

    Still, with word processors like open office and MSWord writing has never been more accessible, but is not easlier.

    Anyone can be published. Not everyone will be read. Quality is in the eyes of the reader and there will always bee the Shades of Grey, Billy Jack and Blair Witch sensations that will break through.

    Over 200,000 books are published each year, but we who do write, usually do not try to build a blockbuster.

    We write because we must. We are writers.

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  55. The one thing I’d say in regards to the TV argument – as someone who has worked in the motion picture industry – the collaborative nature of the medium, as well as its large fixed costs, lead to external factors affecting artistic decisions ALL THE TIME. (Just ask Joss Whedon about working at Fox.)

    Sometimes these limitations and interferences end up actually improving the product (counter-intuitive relationship between constraints/creativity, increased rigor, etc.) but sometimes also not. Long-form prose can be the uncompromising product of a single person’s imagination and efforts in a way that TV or movies never can.

    It is one of the reasons that I switched over to fiction writing from film years ago, and a reason why I continue to have faith in fiction, even literary fiction, even self-published literary fiction. (And I also agree with O’Reilly that there is nothing special about it that merits protection other than the baseline level of merit-based arts support that many serious fiction writers, programs, and publications receive every year.)

    I do see HBO/premium TV as a prime competition for consumer time and mindshare. They have Claire Danes’ cry-face, after all. :) However, I as a consumer actively seek out the best in both media, and know many who do.

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  67. What about over writing big wordy stylized spoof/satirical fiction that includes more serious dark fantasy elements? Is that a known crossover genre or literary fiction? If so I want book/author names for my own personal research.

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  70. I Agree with Jeff. Quality is in the eye of the reader. I don’t mind the odd typo, grammar error or funny sentence as long as the story keeps me glued. At the end its about story and nothing more. Fiction must entertain. Period. Thanks for an awesome and insightful article!

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