Things Are Always Dire for Literary Fiction

I’m obviously not a specialist on the fortunes of the midlist UK literary author, but I’d be surprised if there were ever really a time of Waterstone’s-fueled abundance.

The state of publishing – in particular of the kind of fiction which is politely called ‘literary’, meaning not ‘easy reading’ as in ‘easy listening’, or necessarily story-led, not bestselling before it is published – is dire. I understand that as financial concerns publishers are supposed to make a profit. Further assumptions mysteriously follow this one. I’ve been told quite often, by readers and literature students and some writers, that if a book sells well, it is by definition good. Until recently, there was another model: literary fiction was subsidised by blockbusters. Independent publishers took on writers they knew wouldn’t sell in large quantities because they thought their books ought to be read. They made their money out of the big hitters and felt good about publishing the other stuff. There was a very short period in the 1980s and 1990s when ‘literary’ fiction thrived thanks to the arrival of Waterstone’s, which treated literary fiction like popular fiction, piled it high and sold it in large enough numbers to enable writers to pay their gas bills. Then global businesses started buying up independent publishers, the net book agreement was ditched, and the word was ‘market’ – or ‘supermarket’. Editors might admire a fine book, but are overridden by marketing and accounting departments who now have the final say. I know of a novel that wasn’t accepted by one publisher after the manuscript was first submitted to W.H. Smith, who said that it wouldn’t sell enough.

Certainly you can argue that editors had more free reign in past decades, but I don’t think “literary author” was ever that great of a career path . . . Perhaps someone out there can offer a convincing explanation of why we persist in the belief that whereas painters, poets, musicians, etc, etc, generally aren’t going to live off of their art, literary authors by definition should fare differently. Different publishing models can make it easier for the talented people to be able to work with other talented people and publish great stuff, but I doubt if technology will soon usher in the age of the living wage literary novelist.

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What’s interesting to me is the number of literary authors who remain on the lists for long stretches of time, well after the blockbusters disappear. One of my favorites, Richard Powers, who never sells great numbers of copies within his first few months on the shelves, nonetheless, still sells enough copies of books he wrote 30 years ago to have his whole oeuvre on Amazon in hard cover and soft. I would suspect that the mid-list sustains the firms over time, but the blockbusters let them hit their numbers in the quarterly reports, and thereby manage investor expectations, which is all business is about today.


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