I just happened to sit down and read the Robert McCrum article on struggling literary fiction authors that Paul covered earlier this month. It was interesting enough, and I’m don’t think I have substantively anything more to say about the content of the article itself than Paul did. But I was intrigued by a couple of the comments.
Paul Bowes suggests that the reason literary writers can’t or don’t want to self-publish is a genre thing.
Guardian Books, and the literary world generally, have a tendency to conflate ‘writing’ with literary fiction: or at least, with literary fiction and the kind of serious non-fiction that is aimed at the same readership. I don’t think it’s possible to exaggerate the contempt with which these people regard self-publication. To other people, working in other genres, it looks like a reasonable option: but to someone who expects to be reviewed in the LRB or the TLS and the daily ‘heavies’, self-publication is an up-front admission that nobody who matters thought your stuff was good enough to publish.
In a follow-up, someone going by the handle “400pages” writes that traditional publishers are still seen as the “gatekeepers” of literary fiction to a greater extent than in other genres.
Unfortunately (as so many commentators have pointed out), this gatekeeping system is extremely elitist and cliquey, totally opaque to outsiders, and is biased towards a certain particular model of “writing” and “writers.” Self-publishing is to reject that system entirely – it is to throw a big “**** you” to the whole literary establishment and walk off on your own. That shuts a lot of doors, and means a lot of influential opinion-forming people will not bother to read your book. Perhaps you’ll get a good number of readers and even earn some money that way, but call yourself a “writer” in the hearing of the guardians of literary fiction and most of them will quietly sneer. As I mentioned in another comment, things are rather different in the music business, with glorious traditions like indie shoestring labels and unsigned bands with early cult followings making it rather the done thing to despise major record companies, encouraging experimentation with new models (it may also help that listening to a song is rather less of a time investment than reading a new novel). If self-publishing were to become sexy, with the rebellious down-at-heal classiness of good indie music, that would be the greatest revenge it could have on the traditional literary publishers. Is it going to? I don’t know. Frankly, I rather hope so: it would be fun to see.
I must confess to enjoying a bit of schadenfreude here. After years and years of looking down their snooty noses at genre fiction, literary fiction writers are now looking at something akin to an apocalypse. Traditional publishers just aren’t able to pay them as much money anymore, and they place too much of a value on traditional gatekeepers to let themselves dip a toe into the self-publishing water.
(Do the people who read literary fiction place the same emphasis on gatekeepers, I wonder? It’s a truism in the blogs I read that readers don’t care where the book comes from as long as it’s a good book, but given that so many self-pub books are genre and so few are “literary” fiction, maybe that only applies to readers of genre and is a false generalization when it comes to “literary” fiction. Maybe literary fiction readers are snooty enough to want their books to have the imprimatur of some well-known traditional publisher, just like rich folks want their mustard to be Grey Poupon. (“But of course.”))
Meanwhile, genre fiction writers, who don’t take themselves nearly so seriously, are able to get off the dying horse of traditional publishing and take their work directly to the readers. I don’t imagine that traditional publishers in genre pay any better than the ones in literary fiction. Heck, even Salon Magazine just noticed that the major publishers have been paying paltry royalties on e-books—which is a bit of a shock given how prone they have been to claim the major publishers and Apple could have done no wrong in the agency pricing anti-trust case.
It’s gotten to the point where bloggers like April Line complain that literary fiction doesn’t get enough attention anymore. (Which is kind of funny when you consider that one popular synonym for literary fiction is “mainstream” fiction. Looks like that main stream has narrowed to a trickle, while genre has become a mighty rushing river.)
Genre authors are more likely to score five-figure advances (or more) and are almost certain to see royalties. Literary authors clamor after $5,000 advances if they don’t just give up and self pub—and if they see royalties, they’re spare.
Literary authors do book tours, signings, appear at academic conferences, speak on concerns of craft and the academic writing world. They have agents, but their agents don’t interface with their publishers to make sure the books are on end caps in Target or the equivalent.
Why the hell not?
Maybe because, I dunno, nobody wants to read them? I read to get away from the real world. I don’t want to read more stories about the real world.
Anyway, I come to wonder: after all these years of sneering at genre’s low-brow nature, is literary fiction about to die off because its writers couldn’t make the same transition to self-publishing that genre’s writers could? That would be pretty amusing in my book.
Update: This article is also discussed at The Passive Voice.