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 Wired.com, 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

Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors.

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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131 Comments on "Commodity Publishing, Self-Publishing, and The Future of Fiction"

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[…] Is self-publishing going to become the predominant, preferred, or recommended means for authors to launch their careers?  […]

CJ Lyons
CJ Lyons
3 years 3 months ago
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,… Read more »
Dani G.
Dani G.
3 years 3 months ago

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. 😉

jefishman
jefishman
3 years 3 months ago
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… Read more »
Dave Cornford
3 years 3 months ago

What CJ said. You can’t build an audience turning out loads of sub-par work.

Lynn Blackmar
3 years 3 months ago
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… Read more »
Nicole
Nicole
3 years 3 months ago
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… Read more »
Malena Lott
3 years 3 months ago
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,”… Read more »
Victoria Noe
3 years 3 months ago
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… Read more »
Porter Anderson
3 years 3 months ago
@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… Read more »
Victoria Noe
3 years 3 months ago

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?

Nath Jones
3 years 3 months ago

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.

Loretto
Loretto
3 years 3 months ago
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… Read more »
Gary Ponzo
Gary Ponzo
3 years 3 months ago

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.

Henry Baum
3 years 3 months ago

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.

TourdeFuquay-Varina
3 years 3 months ago

Good point Gary. I’ve read plenty of poorly written traditionally published novels and wonder about the math of it all–how those “writers” get their books in the B&Ns of the world.

Ty Patterson
3 years 3 months ago

well said

David Lafferty
David Lafferty
3 years 3 months ago

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?”.

Porter Anderson
3 years 3 months ago

@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: http://ow.ly/gEATq

larry
larry
3 years 3 months ago

Nicholas Carr says it was exactly what it sounded like. Is he wrong?

Porter Anderson
3 years 3 months ago

Well, if you’ll read my piece on it, you can make a considered judgment of your own. If Nick Carr means it was what it was inclusive of the correct context, yes. If not, no. Here’s my piece on it, Larry, thanks. http://ow.ly/gEATq

Cathy Day
Cathy Day
3 years 3 months ago
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… Read more »
Marc Cabot
Marc Cabot
3 years 3 months ago
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… Read more »
Cathy Day
3 years 3 months ago
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… Read more »
Marc Cabot
Marc Cabot
3 years 3 months ago
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… Read more »
Cathy Day
3 years 3 months ago
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.”… Read more »
Ty Patterson
3 years 3 months ago

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

Cathy Day
3 years 3 months ago
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… Read more »
Kortnee
3 years 3 months ago

Andre Norton and Anne McCaffrey jump to mind if you’re looking for female genre writers. Mary Shelley is another.

Marc Cabot
Marc Cabot
3 years 3 months ago
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… Read more »
CathyS
CathyS
3 years 3 months ago

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?

Charles Shields
3 years 3 months ago

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.

Cathy Day
3 years 3 months ago
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… Read more »
Darrelyn Saloom
3 years 3 months ago

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.

Cathy Day
3 years 3 months ago

Many great movies, shows, started as books, as textual narrative. https://twitter.com/jenwgilmore/status/286212882327302144/photo/1

Darrelyn Saloom
3 years 3 months ago

You’re right, Cathy. But I’m commenting on the great writing of many of today’s TV shows. I might add that television producers are hiring talented authors such as Treme contributor Tom Piazza.

Roz Morris fiction
3 years 3 months ago

My storytelling fix comes from everywhere – film, TV shows like our beloved Breaking Bad… AND prose fiction. Those shows are the TV equivalent of literary fiction, but that doesn’t mean we want to give up reading. Speaking for myself, sometimes I want the extra dimension of intimacy and interiority that good literary prose does best.

Christian K
Christian K
3 years 3 months ago

Funny, I look at that list and see: Paranormal YA, Crime, Police Procedural Western and Thriller. Throw in Game of Thrones for SciFi/Fantasy and a good Romance. It’s best that Genre Writing has to offer. 🙂

Porter Anderson
3 years 3 months ago

I’d agree with you, Christian, I see less of literary than genre in that list — well-done, certainly, but I wouldn’t classify these shows as literary.

Roz Morris fiction
3 years 3 months ago
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… Read more »
Clarisse Thorn
3 years 3 months ago
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… Read more »
Marc Cabot
Marc Cabot
3 years 3 months ago

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.”

Retha Groenewald
Retha Groenewald
3 years 3 months ago

Very interesting post. I recently wrote my first novel. What would you advice a first time author?

James Showalter
James Showalter
3 years 3 months ago
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… Read more »
TourdeFuquay-Varina
3 years 3 months ago

I really like and agree with your response James.

Marc Cabot
Marc Cabot
3 years 3 months ago

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.

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Belinda
Belinda
3 years 3 months ago
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… Read more »
Tom Lichtenberg
Tom Lichtenberg
3 years 3 months ago
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… Read more »
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Penny Leisch
Penny Leisch
3 years 3 months ago
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… Read more »
Marc Cabot
Marc Cabot
3 years 3 months ago

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.

Orna Ross
3 years 3 months ago
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… Read more »
Inion N. Mathair
Inion N. Mathair
3 years 3 months ago

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

Dougie Brimson
3 years 3 months ago
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… Read more »
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[…] to the rest at Jane Friedman and thanks to Ant for the […]

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[…] promises a smoother process to get readers from finding your titles on the Web to buying them.    The Future of Fiction and Self-Publishing (Jane Friedman) How will serious literary undertakings be supported in the future, if at all? What is the future of […]

Bob Mayer
Bob Mayer
3 years 3 months ago
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… Read more »
Colin Butts
Colin Butts
3 years 3 months ago
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… Read more »
Marc Cabot
Marc Cabot
3 years 3 months ago
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 more »
Ty Patterson
3 years 3 months ago

with you totally.

Kortnee
3 years 3 months ago

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.”

Tricia
Tricia
3 years 3 months ago

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.

Stephen R. Welch
3 years 3 months ago

(… personally, I don’t give a shit about what Tim O’Reilly doesn’t give a shit about.)
🙂

Marc Cabot
Marc Cabot
3 years 3 months ago

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.

calebjross
calebjross
3 years 3 months ago

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: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hm5muPNkANQ

Matthew Wayne Selznick
3 years 3 months ago

You don’t understand, but that’s because you’re a genre reader.

I’m hoping that’s written with a wink, Tricia. Since Marc clearly wrote that he’s read “literary” books as well as “genre,” your comment makes me think you believe his ability to comprehend the issue has been stunted because he’s read something with a zombie on the cover.

The whole argument of “genre vs. literary” is bullshit anyway.

Stephen R. Welch
3 years 3 months ago

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.

Ty Patterson
3 years 3 months ago
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… Read more »
William Ockham
William Ockham
3 years 3 months ago
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… Read more »
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[…] Friedman has a provocative post about self-publishing  that has the potential to rekindle age-old genre wars: whether or not genre is […]

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[…] Friedman’s (@JaneFriedman) Commodity Publishing, Self-Publishing, and the Future of Fiction provides a very long for her overview of where she thinks the publishing industry is now and where […]

Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
3 years 3 months ago
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.… Read more »
steven e browne
steven e browne
3 years 3 months ago
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… Read more »
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[…] you’re interested as a writer–or a reader–in the future of fiction and self-publishing, Jane Friedman has another great discussion at her site. Considering the current trend toward […]

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[…] In Commodity Publishing, Self-Publishing, and The Future of Fiction, she takes on a rather strange and definitely strident call in a subset of the self-publishing genre community. Authors are being encouraged to write fast, write as many books as they can, pile them up as high as possible before even thinking about doing any “platforming,” or promotion or marketing or audience-building. The way forward, in this formulation, is directly into self-publishing. […]

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[…] Friedman brings us up to speed on commodity publishing, self-publishing, and the future of fiction. Some of the future may be seen in the new distribution partnership and joint venture between […]

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[…] a related note, today I came across this article on “the future of fiction” by writing and lit-blogger Jane Friedman (found via The Passive Voice). Basically, Friedman distinguishes between genre fiction – […]

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[…] Commodity Publishing, Self-Publishing, and The Future of Fiction […]

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[…] you don’t follow Jane Friedman, you should. If you only follow her for the occasional post like this one, it makes it all worth […]

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[…] and publishing. Two stood out the most to me: “The Culture of the Copy” by James Panero and “Commodity Publishing, Self-Publishing, and the Future of Fiction” by Jane […]

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[…] BIGGEST reason we believe self-publishing will be PREFERRED by […]

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[…] you think real literature is becoming obsolete? Here’s what I think about it. My story is called – A […]

Michael Lorton
3 years 3 months ago

“Begs the question”? No, it raises the question.

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[…] Friedman on the future of fiction. I have to say this is one of the best posts I’ve read on the subject […]

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