Thoughts on Publishing and the Plight of the Writer of Literary Fiction

Lot of good ideas by V.N. Alexander, in her recent post on publishing; co-op publishing may be the future. For me the great innovation in book publishing is POD. V.N. Alexander’s article makes it crystal clear why pre-printing an entire run of books–I have, largely, literary fiction in mind–makes absolutely no sense anymore.

“Other roles of the traditional publisher have been effectively eliminated by technology.” Right. Then again, the author, through social media, is now expected to do all, or practically all, publicizing of the book. Who needs a publisher, then?

“The two most valuable services that traditional publishers provide are editing and proofreading,” but, as V.N. asserts, finding competent people to proofread or copy edit books is not that difficult.

Actually, there is one big thing that traditional publishers can do for a writer of literary fiction. They can get the writer IN with the literary establishment. This, ultimately, is the only thing that really counts. Once you are IN, your books get reviewed by Kirkus, Library Journal, Publishers Weekly and Booklist. If you never get IN nobody ever knows you exist. And the huge majority of all writers who publish literary fiction will remain, egregiously, OUT.

Once you are really really IN, you get advance editorial reviews in periodicals such as The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The Atlantic, etc. Furthermore, it does not really matter how good the subsequent books of the IN writer are; they will always be reviewed favorably.

Here is an example. Several years back, the writer Tea Obreht came out with a very good first novel, “The Tiger’s Wife.” She published it with Random House, sold a lot of books, and immediately she was IN. The book, mind you, is well deserving of all the praise it received, all the sales it made.

As of this week (August, 2019), Obreht’s second novel is out. Titled “Inland,” the book has already received advance reviews all over the place, nice friendly hugs and encomiums. I began reading it yesterday. I’ve now read 100 pages, and I find the book vastly deficient to “The Tiger’s Wife.” In fact, I find it, largely, boring.

But, in terms of publishing mores, does it make any difference that the second novel is far inferior to the first? No. So far I have seen only one review, in “The New Yorker.” This review, while not raving positive, makes “Inland” sound like a good read. Soon all the other editorial reviews will be out, and, mark my words, there will not be a negative one among them. Why? Because that’s the way the game is played, for the already IN writer.

Of course, like everything else in the U.S.A., and probably in the world, it all comes down to money, so that if “Inland” does not sell well (and, on its merits, I see no reason why it should), publishers may be less eager to put out the next book by Obreht. If she has two non-sellers in a row, she could already be in trouble.

But even if she writes for fifty more years and never comes up again to the high standard set by “The Tiger’s Wife,” she will never be OUT as a writer; once you’re IN, you’re forever IN. Why can this be important? Because most American writers of fiction make their living teaching in creative writing programs, and being IN gets you a good job.

So, for the OUT writers, the big problem remains: if 250,000 books are published each year, only a minuscule few will get any notice, and those will be the ones of the IN writers. Even if you’re in a co-op and you have solved all the other problems inherent in publishing, if nobody ever hears of you, what does it matter?

U.R. Bowie, author of Sama Seeker in the Time of the End Times (forthcoming)

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Publishing and the Plight of the Writer of Literary Fiction

  1. Unfortunately being “IN” with the literary establishment does not mean poor sales of subsequent work will not relegate one to the “OUT” category. If a book doesn’t sell well within a relatively short time-frame, the author, often regardless of the work’s literary merit, may find that they are “OUT”.

  2. I think the day is fast approaching when everyone will turn away from the mainstream news outlets to get book recommendations and news. Many a Gen X and Boomer may still read the NYT and New Yorker but only out of habit. No so for Millennials or Gen Zs who could care less about cable TV and print (now online) news. But do they read? The most popular YouTuber and millennial PewDiePie, who won his fame by playing video games live online, has grown up, and now he does an occasional book review. Here is his rather impressive list, (put together by a fan who speaks English as a second language). I see a ray of hope here for alternative media and a fairer, smarter, decentralized world. I hope that being IN in the mainstream media world soon becomes a meaningless distinction.

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