Publishing is dead, long live publishing: the future of literary fiction

Do you remember in the nineties, when those enemies of progress decried the big box booksellers nudging independent stores out of business? They claimed chainstore dominance would ultimately decrease the diversity of titles sold. We might have listened. They were right. Once there were thousands of thoughtful, eccentric, and qualified people choosing which books should go on shelves, but that number shot down to just dozens, and the decisions went to people with marketing degrees, not elbow patches. But—I am first to admit it—at the time I was happy to have a cozy library-ish place to sip my espresso, and, even though there was nothing on the shelves for me other than the classics I already owned, I rationalized that I could always order the books I wanted. I sold out, I now realize. I sold my literary fiction down the river.

It wasn’t long before the size and number of book reviews dwindled. Without much product to keep literary fiction audiences alive they starved and disappeared. Publishing house executives decidedly axed literary fiction editors, as if that would help. Instead of coddling the loyal, dedicated reader and giving him the ten great books he might read in a year, publishers dropped him like a hot potato and focused instead upon supplying chick lit to office girls and thrillers that “transcended the genre” to financiers, simply because there are more of them than there are real readers. And that’s what Borders and B&N wanted.

The big presses just stopped doing literary fiction, unless it wasn’t really literary fiction but you could somehow say that it was, like for instance, if it was about dying or friendship or a small town. In 2001, when I told the publisher of my first novel that I planned to shop around for a bigger press for my second, he said ominously, “You’ll be back.” I asked why. He said, “Because it’s a good book, and the big houses won’t want it.” He was right. They all had “literary fiction” departments but what was coming out of those departments was just everything that wouldn’t fit under some other genre heading. Finally last year, traditional big publishing and big bookselling, locked in desperate embrace, went through final death throes. Doors closed. Companies folded. Good riddance.

It’s time now to dust ourselves off and ask, what’s next? Sometimes a good catastrophe is just what’s needed before new life can emerge. I predict that things will get better, for they can’t possibly get worse. Let’s take stock. First the bad news: “literary fiction” has been high-jacked by Oprah and other such readers who don’t understand the difference between thought and sentimentality, poetry and the use of adjectives. So that’s not good. Literary fiction readers no longer trust the label, having been burned too many times by an Updike novel or an Amy Tan. Can the genre (oddly so-called for, in theory, it’s a genre without conventions) be reclaimed? Possibly, and I will continue with the term unless something better presents itself.

Is there any good news? Yes. A number of small presses have survived and are flourishing now more than ever. When major publishers turned their backs on literary fiction they left the niche open to be exploited by small presses. But what does phoenix-from-the ashes success in the small press world mean? My own publisher, for example, now has a very high-quality slush pile, filled with decent authors working without agents. Their sales have increased three-fold in the past year since the big guys tanked, and their books win awards. Their secret to success is that they publish few books, only a dozen or so each year. Their print runs are small. They don’t spend money on advertising, and they rely on their excellent reputation for consistent quality to attract book reviewers. They almost never fail to get a title mentioned in Kirkus or Publishers Weekly.

What does success mean for the small press literary fiction author these days? For me it means being encouraged artistically as well as given solid editorial advice, getting plenty of good reviews and helpful publicity. Unfortunately, perhaps, it doesn’t mean selling a lot of books. This isn’t the fault of the press, the writer, or the writing; it’s the nature of the genre. A literary fiction work simply isn’t the kind of title that finds itself in the hands of .002% of people on your train. It may get recognized, but only slowly, over years. At any given time there are only so many people alive who will  want to read your literary fiction.  To want bigger audiences may be to want to write something else. Literary fiction writers have to be content with a small readership.  However, it’s perfectly reasonable and feasible these days to want to reach more of that audience that does exist. It’s also not unreasonable to want to create a few new readers.

We know that literary fiction readers make up a tiny portion of the already small population of readers in the U.S., and so it takes time for books to find them. We can also see that the publishing system, big or small, simply isn’t designed to accommodate late bloomers. A new book, which may have taken years to write, gets about six months in front of a handful of judges. After that, it’s kicked out of the nest, for a new brood’s already in the making. No one ever reviews a book that has been out for two years. Book stores, even the independent ones, put the new titles in the window.

What kind of book is the market designed for? An new book. Any new book. The commercial market in general of course works this way and most books are products like any other.  The pace of book marketing is out of sync with the pace of good writing. As a literary fiction reader looking to discover some good contemporary writing, I am happy to consider anything written in this or the last century.  What I don’t want to do is risk wasting time reading a book that was heralded as “superbly adroit” and “devastatingly apt” by the New York Times Book Review this month.  I would rather wait for word from one of those yet unknown masterpieces to reach me, through a friend, through and an association with another great writer. It’s time to reimagine the profession of writing literary fiction.

In subsequent posts I will be looking at various difficulties facing small presses and authors and will consider alternative approaches. In the next post, I discuss the issue of the used book market, which, however much I may advocate recycling, is terrible for author and press. Authors may need to rethink their goals, not just their approaches, because the kind of success that you can reasonably hope for, that is, slow steady sales of a quality-bound hardcover over the years, is actually what you want the least. In my third post on this topic, I discuss how the publisher’s role has drastically changed. The publisher as an important go-between reviewers and authors may not be what authors need right now. Rather what they need is a more direct connection to their readers. Small presses and self-published authors alike are finding that the grass-roots approach to book selling is the only way to go these days. We may smile ironically as the few remaining big publishing houses try to take a grass-rootsy approach with their latest movie-tie-in edition. Fortunately, for the literary writer, the bottom-up approach can’t be done from the top down, and so we have chances that aren’t open to others with more staff, funds, and connections. I take a close look at the print-on-demand self-publishing industry, e-books and Internet communities.

And one more thing. We have to face the fact that audiences aren’t just hard to reach, they’re gone. A new generation is coming into the market now who has never heard of Saul Bellow—and who think that a literary fiction novel might begin this way, “He’d lost his magic. The impulse was spent. He’d never failed in the theater, everything he had done had been strong and successful, and then…” Literary fiction is more challenging and, I suppose, it takes some exposure before one develops a taste for it.

And finally, in the last (bottom) post in this series, I will be investigating what I can do, as the director of a NYC arts foundation, to improve the state of literary fiction in the US.  For the past twelve years with the Dactyl Foundation, I have worked to support visual artists, poets, scientists and scholars, but very few novelists, mostly because they’re hard to find and don’t tend to form communities.  In an effort to remedy this situation, Dactyl will be developing an award for undersung writers and will try to encourage various grass roots organizations that are already in place.

What I say in these posts is about literary fiction and will have nothing to do with other kinds of writing and publishing. I am only addressing the concerns of narratives that are poetic both in word and overall form and that show how humans are unique among animals in the way we live in language.

These posts, by the way, are reverse dated because people tend to read top down rather than bottom up.

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