The Death of Literary Fiction?

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There seems to be a consensus in publishing that literary fiction is in trouble, that it’s something in need of nourishment and protection, and that the digital era is going to condemn it to oblivion.

Books, Featured, Homepage Sub  •  Sep 18, 2012


There seems to be a consensus in publishing that literary fiction is in trouble, that it’s something in need of nourishment and protection, and that the digital era is going to condemn it to oblivion.

Often we see pieces such as this one from the GuardianCan literary fiction survive the e-book age? – leading to declarations from writers of literary fiction (like this from The Millions) that, as such, the siren call of self-publishing is less alluring.

Indeed, when I check the rankings of the best literary novels I’ve read over the last few years, the genre seems to be underperforming. This is an inherently idiosyncratic list – as it is composed of my favorites – but I think it works as an experiment. (Note: In the interest of fairness, I wrote out this list of books prior to checking their rankings.)

 

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides is a startling achievement – a historical novel with a hermaphrodite narrator which, through a series of historical flashbacks taking in war-torn Greece, prohibition-era America and 1960s Detroit, slowly reveals generations-worth of a family’s secrets. At the time of writing, despite this book winning the Pulitzer and Eugenides having released a new book to great fanfare late last year, it’s only #38,990 in the Kindle Store.

 

 

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon is another Pulitzer – wonderful, lyrical novel detailing a fictionalized account of the birth of the comic book era in America depicting a vibrant, pre-war New York. No e-book version is available.

 

 

 

 

Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernières is, quite simply, a masterpiece. He takes the vivid characterizations and weaving narrative strands of Corelli’s Mandolin and paints it on an even bigger canvas – the harrowing Greek/Turkish war following the First World War. It’s possibly my favorite book of all time, but struggling to stay afloat at #59,118 in the Kindle Store.

 

 

 

 

De Niro’s Game by Rawi Hage is a fantastic, powerful, visceral read, and was the winner of one of the richest literary prizes in the world – the IMPAC award – garnering the author €100,000 (approx $125,000). This one isn’t available as an e-book either.

 

 

 

 

 

This Book Will Save Your Life by AM Homes achieves a rare enough feat for a literary work, hooking you right from the opening lines and never letting go. It’s ranked an abysmal #365,176 in the Kindle Store!

I don’t think my taste in literary fiction is that unusual. All of these books were released to critical acclaim (and did well commercially). Is this clear evidence that literary fiction can’t do well in the digital age? Or is it indicative of something else, namely, that publishers aren’t very good at marketing literary e-books (or backlist e-books)?

Let’s examine the assumption that literary fiction is somehow under threat from the digital revolution or self-publishing. It seems to be based on the relative absence of literary writers from the Top 100 of the Kindle Store, and the “genre” bent of all self-publishing success stories. While this is true – to an extent – I think it’s a grave mistake to assume that things will always be this way, or that literary fiction will therefore fare worse in a digital world.

Literary fiction has never been the biggest seller and has always been dwarfed by romances or thrillers. However, even if literary fiction is doing relatively worse in e-book form than in print, I still don’t think that’s any reason for dismay.

There is nothing special about literary fiction readers – they are switching to e-books, and will do so in greater numbers – they just started a little after the romance, thriller, and science-fiction readers. They are coming through, though, and there are enough of them there to push a backlist book by Iris Murdoch up to #5 in the Kindle Store at the start of August.

What was the reason for the jump? Why is Murdoch performing better than the other writers listed above? For starters, that e-book was published by Open Road – a small, digitally focused publisher who has nabbed some pretty big names (including Lawrence Block).

Open Road aren’t afraid to play with price – during Murdoch’s run at the charts, they dropped the price to $1.99. They raised the price back to $9.99 as soon as the sales spike had peaked, and the book made a hell of a lot of money on the way back down the rankings, settling higher than it had been before. This is a smart strategy, and one pioneered by self-publishers.

Pricing experiments are less likely to be employed by the larger publishers, and it’s not surprising to see much of their backlist doing poorly – when they publish it; two of the five literary titles I listed above aren’t available as e-books.

Interestingly, Chabon held onto his e-rights for several of backlist titles; last year he struck a deal with Open Road. Aside from using smart digital marketing strategies to breathe life into backlist books, they also pay higher digital royalty rates than the large publishers.

In a December interview with the Los Angeles Times, Chabon referred to the digital royalty on offer from the large publishers as “criminally low.” Open Road are paying him twice as much.

What of self-published literary writers? A few months ago I profiled George Berger, whose unabashedly literary tale about an apple-loving goat stormed the charts (that piece is worth reading for George’s query letter to Amazon alone). And, last week, Joanne Penn interviewed Terri Giuliano Long, who is doing even better again.

It’s not just about sales. Freed from the constraining economics of print, literary writers are no longer restricted to an ever-decreasing market for short stories and novellas. Serialized pieces are making a re-appearance too, now clearly influenced by the television age (and often for the better).

But more exciting experiments are afoot. I stumbled across an intriguing work called The Most Boring Book Ever Written – which is a Choose Your Own Adventure-style literary piece for adults (and currently free on Amazon US). The story isn’t simply experimental in form – with several distinct narrative strands, all resolving quite differently depending on the choices the reader makes along the way – but experimental in technique too, with the authors using virtually no transitions (to interesting effect).

All of this is a sign, surely, that even if the worst fears of some literary writers are realized – e-books become dominant, physical bookstores disappear, and publishers fold en masse – the long tradition of literary fiction will flourish in the digital age. However, it’s also clear that publishers can’t simply throw backlist literary novels out there and hope for the best.

I attended a writing conference in York at the weekend. It was interesting to note that as the market in the UK almost exactly tracks that of the US (it’s about a year-and-a-half behind), the conversation does the same thing. They were arguing about the same topics we were eighteen months ago.

One common gripe from the traditional side of the fence is that self-publishers are devaluing books by pricing at 99c. Leaving aside the (demonstrably false) assumption that all self-publishers price their work at that level, it’s clear to me that such contentions are confusing price and value.

Innumerable classics are available at low or free prices, but I don’t see any campaign to have Dickens or Austen removed from the canon. Libraries have been providing free books for generations, and that hasn’t demeaned books or literature in the eyes of readers. And rather than Iris Murdoch’s $1.99 price tag devaluing her work, it introduced her to thousands of new readers.

Indeed, the argument could be made that over-pricing backlist titles from authors such as Eugenides and Homes – and doing little to market them – devalues their work far more.

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David Gaughran is an Irish author, living in London, who has released several self-published titles and blogs more regularly at Let’s Get Digital.

26 Responses to “The Death of Literary Fiction?”

  1. David,

    Splendid piece!!

    Right now literary fiction does have one major disadvantage–whether in print or ebook–compared to genre fiction because it is a large category without any subcategories on Amazon.com, and therefore it is much harder for any book to gain visibility if literary fiction is its chief identifier.

    I would suspect that most books that do well in this category either have had gigantic publicity campaigns driving people to look for the book, or show up in another category where the book has a fighting chance getting seen (and sales in that category will drive it up the ranks of literary fiction.) Or, as you point out, has a publisher (including a self-publisher) who is willing to play with price, do free promotions, to get the book a wider audience and a higher visibility.

    When these books were just being found in bookstores they had the same difficulty (being shelved with under the all-incompassing “literature” designation–which I never browsed), unless their publisher paid the bookstore to feature them in their front windows, or the front tables. Once publishers realize that they need to be willing to do what is necessary to gain that sort of “visibility” in on-line bookstores, I think literary fiction will start to really take off in the new world of ebooks.

    Mary Louisa

  2. Reports of the death of literary fiction are exaggerated. I write what I like to call accessible literary fiction, as well as more commercial stuff and it sells, indy-published on Kindle. I can’t prove why it sells, but I think it’s because I put commercial-looking covers on my product page and write commercial-sounding blurbs. Apart from the Chabon, I don’t think any of the covers pictured above would stand out as ebook thumbnails. Are traditional publishers prepared to re-design for the e-book market where the main selling tool is a thumbnail cover? Are they prepared to price ebooks to sell when they have warehouses of hardbacks and paperbacks to clear? If literary fiction is languishing, publishers could be partly to blame.

    On another point: self-publishers are not devaluing books by selling them “cheaply”. (They might be devaluing the services of publishers & retailers.) This was the price breakdown of my traditionally published novels a few years ago: if a £7.99 pb sold full-price in Waterstones, I got approx 50p. Waterstones got £4, my publisher got the rest. When my pbs were sold discounted on Amazon I got even less. I never bothered to work out exactly how much. It would have been too depressing.

    Since I went indy, I sell backlist & new novels as Kindle ebooks at £1.95/$2.99. Thanks to the 70% royalty, I make £1.25 per download. How can I be devaluing books by making more than double the profit I made when traditionally published? Those who claim indy authors are devaluing books do so confident that most readers have no idea how little authors earn.

    The ebook revolution has changed that. Along with many indy authors, I’m finally making a living (and surely being able to make a living has to be good for authors of literary fiction?)

    • avatar Joni Rodgers says:

      Just wanted to chime in with an amen here. Linda Gillard is brilliant about this biz. I’ve employed a different pricing strategy, but I don’t necessarily disagree with hers, and I heartily agree with her overall philosophy.

      The beauty of digital publishing is that the business model is totally malleable. What works is what works for this book in this moment. Agility is one of the greatest gifts of indie publishing.

    • Hi Linda,

      I think writing something that’s accessible (or readable) is always a smart approach – the only segment of the market you will be excluding are the tiny minority self-flagellating readers who believe that (whatever *they* define as) literature should be hard work, that prose should be as purple as possible, and that reading it should be like wading through treacle! That’s my personal prejudice, of course, but I’ve never understood the view that making it hard work for the reader automatically equates to the book being important or good in some objective sense.

      I also fully agree that pricing books cheaply doesn’t devalue anything – sorry if that wasn’t 100% clear above. As I said “such contentions are confusing price and value” and classics being available for free hasn’t devalued their content one bit.

      I take a very pragmatic view on pricing my own work – I price at the level that maximizes income.

      Dave

  3. avatar T. Greenwood says:

    I thought it would be interesting to take a peek at the bestsellers that came out around the same time as one of your picks and see how they matched up. Here’s what I found this morning: Middlesex is actually now ranked at 2,108th in the Kindle store on amazon.com. (Perhaps your article gave it a boost?) The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (also published in 2002) is ranked at 3,936th. Nights in Rodanthe (Nicholas Sparks): 10,054th. The Summons (Grisham, 2002): 15,146th. Red Rabbit (Clancy): 15,588th. It seems to me that while literary novels may not share the same ephemeral popularity that commercial fiction does, in the long-run, these more serious novels (the award-winners, the rare literary best seller) do enjoy a certain longevity compared with their more pulpy brothers and sisters. (Also please note that Kavalier and Clay IS available on Kindle, and it’s ranked 2,414th as of today.)

    • I don’t know if you could say certain literary novels have *more* longevity than genre work. I think a lot of it boils down to marketing. Ed McBain’s crime series sold sold millions and millions of books forty years ago and then fell out-of-print. Amazon snapped up the backlist and it has sold very strongly in digital format – because it was backed by the publisher. I think some genres and some books may date quicker (certainly topical non-fiction, certain elements of romance, and perhaps near-future SF) but Iris Murdoch’s run at the charts shows that even the most non-obviously commercial literary work can sell well in the hands of the right person (with the right price-tag and clever marketing).

  4. I’m in complete agreement with Linda Gillard, above. I’ve been a professional playwright and novelist for many years, and have never had any problems being taken seriously as a playwright – one of my plays is even a set text on the Scottish Higher Drama syllabus – but my novels were deemed too ‘accessible’ to be truly literary – nor did they fit neatly into any single genre – which I assume means that publishers increasingly divide novels (and their authors) into genre fiction and wildly experimentally literary, with nothing in between. After a few traditionally published novels that crept under the wire, my agent and I collected ‘rave rejections’ by the dozen. ‘I loved this, but the marketing department didn’t think they would be able to sell it.’ I can’t put the origins of this kind of division better than John Carey in his fine piece of analysis: The Intellectuals and The Masses. Just because something is accessible – and may even be popular, just not of ‘blockbuster’ status – doesn’t mean that it isn’t also literary. Or perhaps we need a different word! Intelligent? Well written? Open to analysis? I don’t know, because all these terms seem to be exclusive, and that’s not what we’re aiming for. But I do know that many successful eBook publishers are older writers, like myself, with a decent track record and a good backlist. We are unashamedly mid-list authors – but that means that we are writing thought provoking, well constructed, accessible fiction. I would also agree that we aren’t devaluing anything. For perhaps the first time in our working lives, we are beginning to make a reasonable living from our fiction. And finding that readers actually like what we write, are willing to take it seriously – and are asking for more.

    • I fully accept that the labels “literary” and “genre” are problematic. I don’t agree with the assumption indicated by those labels that one automatically has greater literary merit than the other. Some of my favorite writers are “genre” writers (such as Dick and Vonnegut) and I would put their writing up against anyone’s. However, there is no doubt that there are often commonalities in style or execution between books shelved under “literary fiction.” So I do think we need *a* label, but perhaps not this one (and certainly one without the pejorative connotations). I’ve read plenty “literary” fiction which had zero literary merit, and I’ve read plenty of “genre” books which contained finer writing than their supposedly more literary cousins.

      • I agree, David, that genre fiction is written by some of our best writers. Dorothy Dunnett & Patrick O’Brian wrote better than most authors of “literary fiction”, but they’ve been undervalued because they chose to write historical novels. Readers made no such distinction and both authors have armies of devoted followers who recognised rattling good yarns, superbly and intelligently told. (That’s the new genre label we need though something more succinct would be more marketable!)

      • You’re right, David. Nothing wrong with genre and yes, some of our best writers do write genre fiction – or (like China Mieville, who’s brilliant The City & The City I’m reading at the moment) play around with genre in a big way. Maybe the problem is that traditional publishers have narrowed the definitions all the time – or should that be ‘polarised’ them. Readers don’t seem to have much trouble but marketing departments do!

  5. avatar William Ockham says:

    One minor correction. Chabon’s book is available on the Kindle. I know, because I bought it last month. Here’s the link:

    http://www.amazon.com/Amazing-Adventures-Kavalier-content-ebook/dp/B0070O5F4U/ref=kinw_dp_ke

  6. avatar Paul Dillon says:

    Linda and M. Loiusa bring up great points. I can’t see any reason literary fiction should be disadvantaged because of format . There are lit fic titles in the Kindle Book Bestseller list though I guess War Brides by Helen Bryan is currently the highest at 18.

    Linda, I’m encouraged that you are doing well – thanks for sharing – I noticed several of your titles in my also-boughts on Kindle UK

  7. avatar Henry Baum says:

    Shouldn’t literary fiction always have a lower rank than commercial fiction? Back in the pre-e days, this was the case with print, so why not now? I agree that lowering the price of Chabon would help him sell better, but maybe not even better than a self-published thriller. That’s just the way of the world. More people will see “Resident Evil 5″ than “The Master.”

    Beyond that – the first buyers of e-readers seem mostly to be readers who care less about the book as an artform. Not just the writing, but the whole thing: cover, feel of the pages, and displaying that book on a shelf. Literary readers are book materialists, for better or worse. Those people are slow to adopt ereading, but they’ll come around once they realize how amazing it is to have most any book you want instantly.

    • It has never been the biggest genre, but I do think that some publishers don’t help with exorbitant prices for backlist, (often) shoddy formatting through using poor conversion tools and not checking afterwards, and little or no marketing.

  8. avatar David Biddle says:

    These are all good insights. One thing on the indie side of the equation is that it’s awfully hard to promote serious literary fiction. There are few book bloggers interested in it and a lot of promotions sites just bury that category. Also, with AMazon at least, if you look at the list of literary fiction titles they’re absolutely NOT literary fiction.

    This is more and more true in the traditional world and kind of worse since the genre side is easier to make money with.

    But what I really wanted to say is that to me it seems that literary writing in general just doesn’t get the marketing or the buzz it could on any grand or comprehensive scale. It seems like the industry chooses 5-10 novels to really promote a year and that’s it. All other literary fiction falls away like wheat chaff. I recall several years ago here in the states when Welcome to the Goon Squad and Freedom just flooded everything. Last year all I remember was The Art of Fielding. This year it’s Bring Up the Bodies and Gone Girl. Not that other stuff doesn’t get a bit of light, it’s just that the marketing dollars are clearly focused on a tight group of “winners.”

    But maybe that’s the way it’s always been…

    • avatar Jens says:

      David, nice post.

      I agree that serious literary fiction is ignored / buried in the blogging world. IndieReader and similar sites are mostly focused on genre works. Even when these sites feature a ‘literary’ work, so often that work turns out to be general fiction and not very literary. Just like what you say about the Amazon ‘literary’ category, which is abused in KDP by people writing general fiction but who want to stand out in the much smaller Literary category, not the huge Commercial Fiction category.

      There are ony a small handful of book bloggers who read and talk about literary fiction, classics, or serious literature. And among them, many are completely biased against indie and self-published titles.

      Who is out there to help indie literary authors? What can indie literary authors do to get noticed? It’s not like JA Konrath is doing to help them. Or IndieReader, really. But who is interested?

  9. avatar David Biddle says:

    It’s kind of like classical music. It’s not literary fiction that’s dying…just readers (and really good writers).

    • I think the good writers are still out there, David, but they just aren’t finding traditional publishers. I’ve lost count of how many good indie novels I’ve read thinking, “I can’t believe this author couldn’t find a publisher!” When I’ve contacted them, they’ve all told the same story – sheaves of rave rejections written by occasionally broken-hearted editors who couldn’t get the book past the acquisitions meeting at which the marketing dept said they didn’t see how they could sell the book to retailers.

      And that’s what it’s about now, in the UK at least. Publishers aren’t selling to readers any more, but retailers (which increasingly means supermarkets.)

  10. avatar Emily says:

    One problem is that places like Indiereader ignore indie literary authors. They don’t even acknowledge them, won’t interview or review them, and so on. How can we find an audience if even the “indie” world won’t have anything to do with it?

  11. avatar Alex Bridgeway says:

    We are at a time of unprecedented opportunity for writers. With the sea change of digital publishing, we now have the opportunity to publish our work in the most massive retail outlets on earth. Yes, there is much confusion about how to best proceed, how to be noticed, how to get our work purchased. The pace will be fast with rapid changes in what works and what doesn’t. Jump in and swim! The water is beautiful!

  12. avatar Dan Holloway says:

    “they just started a little after the romance, thriller, and science-fiction readers.”

    I really feel the opposite is true, as I’ve written several times in the last couple of years. When I started self-epublishing in the very early days of Smashwords and before Kindle, the ground belonged to innovative literary fiction. The burst in genre fiction came along largely with Kindle (OK, romance was there before Kindle too). There were self-published literary writers genuinely trying to change readers’ literary landscape, and we were attracting attention. Back at the end of 2009, when one of my literary books was in the top 10 drm-free ebooks of the year on a major ebook recommendation site, most of the books on the list were literary. 3:am was the highest profile source of online literature. It was a time of literary innovation. Those writers are still there, but people are now surprised when they find them because the media would have us believe the “indie” phenomenon is about high sales for genre fiction.

  13. avatar Fran says:

    Question. Why doesn’t David Gaughran / IndieReader start to “promote” some indie literary fiction? Instead of just saying it’s dead? That would lead us readers to where it’s at.

    • avatar Amy Edelman says:

      Hi Fran, well David/IR didn’t say Lit Fiction was dead, we just questioned whether or not it was. Truth is you can find many great Lit Fic titles on the IR site, just go to the Book Reviews tab and look for the Lit Fiction category. Happy Reading!

  14. avatar Sam says:

    I used to believe that this generation is becoming more shallow, hence the death of serious literature and music. But with the success of the likes of Adele in music or Tree of Life in movies or The Wire in television, I think there’s still audience left for serious literature. By the way, literary fiction is not just about style or lyricism. It’s about stirring the emotions in the reader that sets it apart from other fiction genres.

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