Genre lines: Why literary writers won’t self-publish

jetpackI 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.

About Chris Meadows (4149 Articles)
TeleRead Editor Chris Meadows has been writing for us--except for a brief interruption--since 2006. Son of two librarians, he has worked on a third-party help line for Best Buy and holds degrees in computer science and communications. He clearly personifies TeleRead's motto: "For geeks who love books--and book-lovers who love gadgets." Chris lives in Indianapolis and is active in the gamer community.

7 Comments on Genre lines: Why literary writers won’t self-publish

  1. Interestingly enough, Amazon just reclassified my book, “Beyond All Price,” as literary fiction instead of historical fiction or creative biography. Why? Maybe because it has sold over 47,000 copies and is still selling more than any of my other titles, despite the fact that it was self-published in 2010. Times may be achangin’ after all!

  2. So if we consider this bit from Wikipedia “To be considered literary, a work usually must be “critically acclaimed” and “serious”.[1] In practice, works of literary fiction often are “complex, literate, multilayered novels that wrestle with universal dilemmas”.[2]” then of course literary fiction needs a system of gate keepers by its very definition. A person cannot just go out and write literary fiction, it must be selected for inclusion into the that type through a process of outside recognition. The traditional publishing route can almost be considered a free pass since the publisher has enough chops to confer instant “literary” status on people.

    It’s like getting onto the PGA tour by placing high in an open competition vs going up through Q School with Q School being akin to self publishing.

  3. I read literary fiction, genre fiction, and non-fiction. I suppose that makes me an odd duck – I don’t have a thing and stick with it whereas a lot of readers tend to stick on one subset of books.

    I don’t know if literary fiction will go the way of poetry – i.e. Obscurity – or not; browsing Eliot Bay Books this morning had a plethora of literary fiction – old and new – and lots of genre fiction too. For now it seems like it has future – even if an individual titles only sell 5000 copies each and fail to get optioned by Hollywood machine.

    As for the reason literary fiction has such a poor showing in self publishing, I can only hazard a guess. The quality of self published genre authors is a best mediocre and at worst incompetent. Why would authors who want to be taken seriously as writers want to stick their toes in sewer over flowing with other peoples turds?

    Maybe if there is a sea change in the self publishing “industry” and the crap gets washed away, more than just genre authors will give it a try.

    As for me, I’m just a reader, and I look upon self published books as if they were – in an automotive metaphor – a Yugo, only not as reliable.

  4. I’m a writer who has published through traditional venues; I’ve had two works published via Harcourt and Hachette, respectively. I am classified as a literary writer, though some of my writing has been published as mystery–and I’ve had one story anthologized in Best American Mystery Stories. I teach creative writing as a professor, and have seen several students publish through traditional outlets as well.

    Last year I taught a publishing class that interviewed a number of people intimately involved in the current discussions about the state of publishing, not least among them Hugh Howey. I respect Hugh; though I’m not always sure he’s right, he’s a good writer who works very hard, and he has changed my perspective on many issues.

    Before doing all of this, I was a bookseller for six years.

    At any rate: I’m a writer of literature and some genre, and a lifelong reader of both. I’m certainly not alone. I learned to write by emulating people like Stephen King and Clive Barker and Anne Rice and Tolkien and Stephen Donaldson, and a great many writers of my generation have the same story. As a professor I am a fan of, and advocate for, writers like John LeCarre and Martin Cruz Smith. (Gorky Park is one of the great novels of the last fifty years.) I also love writers like David Mitchell and Sarah Waters, who play with traditional genres while writing masterpieces.

    The original post refers to a kind of snobbery perpetuated by lit readers and writers and publishers. It is not mythical, but it’s not really that pervasive, either–not as much as it pleases genre writers and readers to believe. The part of the post that made me laugh hardest was the line about genre writers “not taking themselves that seriously.” Oh lordy. I have taught hundreds of aspiring writers, and met (and sold books to) hundreds of readers, and by FAR the most self-important, self-aggrandizing, sure-of-persecution subset is comprised of the folks who love genre. Yeah, sure, I meet the occasional deluded Bukowski wannabe, or someone who rolls her eyes when I mention Stephen King, but I can talk to those folks, and prefer those interactions to someone who wants ONLY STORIES ABOUT SUPERNATURAL ROMANCE AND WHO WILL SHUT DOWN ENTIRELY WHEN SOMEONE SUGGESTS OTHER BOOKS MIGHT BE GOOD AND DON’T I KNOW THAT GENRE WRITING CAN BE GOOD TOO?

    Every reader of lit fiction I know also reads genre, and usually doesn’t like to distinguish between the two. Get two novelists of my generation together, and we have usually both read MISERY and SONG OF ICE AND FIRE, and can talk shop about why those books are good. But ask a reader of fantasy epics about whether he’ll ever read some contemporary psychological realism, and almost always you’ll get defensiveness and eye rolls in some combination.

    As far as self-publishing goes: Readers of genre fiction consume a lot more books than readers of lit fiction, I’m pretty sure. I think it’s a supply-demand situation: readers of genre have more capacity to consume (especially at low ebook pricing) than publishers have traditionally supplied. Lit readers may read a book a month, and publishers tend to provide enough for them to consume. I say all of that with no aspersions cast upon quality. That said, by definition genre writing provides some element of familiarity, and I am not sure that a genre reader gobbling through twelve books a month is stopping to consider whatever a writer might be doing with prose or theme. Lit writing may or may not be trying to challenge a reader in some way, but the perception among many genre readers is that having to focus on anything other than plot is an imposition. What self-publishing may be teaching us is that a certain type of reader wants plot even at the exclusion of, say, good copyediting.

    I am not saying that traditional publishing assures a certain level of quality in a book. But as a reader I know that I am MOST LIKELY to find what I value in traditionally published material. I like plot-plus. I want a good story, but I also want good characters, and a writer who knows the difference between a clumsy sentence and an elegant one. I want a little bit of a challenge, and good literary fiction (and I include works by writers like Lev Grossman and Patrick Rothfuss and China Mieville in that category) gives me that challenge. These works have been selected and edited and edited again, and I like that level of care. Many readers do.

    At any rate, I don’t “look down my snooty nose” at any writer who finds an audience. What I will do–and what I suspect has been mistaken for snootiness in the past–is point out to someone who wants feedback on their work that said work is derivative and poorly written. I will point out that a market exists for work like that–c.f. Dan Brown–and remind them that if someone asks a writer with training and literary ambition for feedback, those are the standards that he might apply. Likewise, an aspiring novelist who feels snooted at by a publisher or agent is probably being held to similar standards. These folks are wrong, sometimes, but a lot of the time they’re right. (And sometimes they’re publishing E.L. James.) There’s great writing that never gets published. There’s also a metric ton of poorly-written crap produced every year that publishers rightly turn down.

    At any rate, if anyone genre fan reading this feels belittled–well, how often do you cross the street to read work by literary writers, the vast majority of whom don’t make much money? How often do you take a chance on work your friends look down upon? Hell, go read my stuff. I sell fewer copies than Hugh Howey and Dan Brown and E.L. James. And if your gut reaction to that question is, no, I’m not gonna like it–well, then, who’s snooting who?

  5. @Chris, I read between 15 and 16 books a month, many of them genre, though not all. I certainly do consider prose and theme, both as a reader who enjoys a great turn of phrase and as a writer who continues to hone her craft. However, I do prefer some types of writing over others, and no, contemporary psychological realism isn’t one I enjoy. Nor is anything involving metafiction elements. As an English major, I’ve been exposed to lots of different styles of writing, and genre remains my preference. (Though I’ve never read E.L. James and Dan Brown was, at best, okay, in my opinion.)

    I used to think that I was most likely to get good material from traditional publishers, and I do continue to read traditionally published books, but I’ve discovered excellent writing from other places as well. What I find refreshing about self-published books is the level of experimentation. The better self-published authors seem to worry less about the type of novels which sold yesterday (e.g. the traditional publishers’ search for the next Hunger Games or 50 Shades) and more about what appeals to them as writers. I find that refreshing.

    Lately, the only reason I’ve been paying attention to the publisher of a book is so I can figure out if it’s something I can read through Scribd or Unlimited. Other than that, it’s becoming unimportant as a criteria to me.

  6. @Juli, “contemporary psychological realism isn’t one I enjoy” is the sort of thing I’m talking about. That’s a statement that dismisses an entire subsection of writing because of its defining characteristics. Do you continue to try reading that type of writing? Has anyone writing in that area ever moved you? I assure you that very many of those of us who practice it are also trying write about what appeals to us as writers, and not be beholden to what was successfully published last year. I mean, I believe you, and I understand in part–I’m a lot less likely to shop in the supernatural romance section than elsewhere–but that’s mostly because I’m afraid of derivative writing, and not because I won’t read a good love story involving a vampire. (And in fact I’m a huge fan of Barbra Hambly’s vampire series, which has strong elements of romance.)

    If you want to list some recommendations, I’d be interested in knowing about some of the self-published writers you like who are pushing the envelope somehow. In exchange I’ll recommend Paolo Bacigalupi and Hannu Rajeneimi, two sci-fi writers who I think are doing wonderful things via traditional publishing, and my friend Michael Kardos, whose literary mystery The Three-Day Affair is terrific.

    And in re-reading my earlier post, it’s clear that I am snooty about Dan Brown and E.L. James. But in my defense, their sentence-by-sentence writing is really bad.

  7. @Chris, I also don’t enjoy military fiction, cozy mysteries or most romance. I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong with dismissing a subsection of writing once you know what you like and what you don’t. I’m not saying that it’s bad writing or not deserving of publication, just that I choose not to read it. I have to make choices because there’s far more available to read than I have time to read. Why not gravitate to what I find most rewarding? Not that I won’t take chances or add genres. I used to read almost exclusively fantasy/sci-fi, but there came a time when I couldn’t find anything that felt fresh, so I switched to mysteries and thrillers.

    As to authors. Okay, ironic that I just said I don’t like most romance because the latest self-published book I read and loved was a romance: Widdershins by Jordan Hawk. I don’t think many publishers would have picked up a romance with a Lovecraftian theme. I wasn’t sure she could pull it off, but she did. Good character development too. I’ll be reading the rest of the series. B.V. Larson’s Technomancer does some interesting things with urban fantasy. His magic system felt fresh to me, and considering how much fantasy I’ve read, that’s saying something. I didn’t like the second book in the series, but I really enjoyed the first. Kathleen Kelley Reardon’s Shadow Campus, which I reviewed here, had some top-notch character development, as I said in my review. Although it’s called a mystery/thriller, it felt more like literary fiction, and I enjoyed it.

    I don’t look down my nose at anyone. I’m glad there’s a wide variety of literature to read because it means there’s something for just about everyone. But I know what I like and what I don’t, and I make choices based on that, while still being willing to try something different which comes highly recommended.

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