April 17, 2013

Is traditional publishing particularly bad for "high-end literary fiction"?

That's what's said by Sloan Harris, at the literary agency ICM, which is starting a self-publishing service.
For certain clients, Mr. Harris said, self-publishing “returns a degree of control to authors who have been frustrated about how their ideas for marketing and publicity fare at traditional publishers.” Both Mr. Harris and [David] Mamet said that the big publishers focused mostly on blockbuster books and fell short on other titles — by publishing too few copies, for instance, or limiting advertising to only a short period after a book was released.
Mamet, who's self-publishing his next book (a novella and 2 short stories "about war"), said:
“Basically I am doing this because I am a curmudgeon... and because publishing is like Hollywood — nobody ever does the marketing they promise.”
Traditional publishing may be bad, but that doesn't mean self-publishing will be better. Have you got some unpublished "high-end literary fiction" lying around? Do you have any idea how much of that sort of thing there is washing around on the hard drives of the world's self-appointed geniuses? What if it were all suddenly available on websites like Amazon?

You already know David Mamet. He got the NYT to write an article about the book he's self publishing next week. Here's a picture of him gesticulating (perhaps "about war"). It's got a caption telling us he's Pulitzer Prize-winning. He doesn't like the traditional publisher's marketing, and look how well he's doing his own marketing. I'm sure he'll do just fine.

And so will other people who can leverage publicity. And writers in popular genres like romance and sci-fi may succeed. But high-end literary fiction? Think you can attract the readers of that kind of material without a brand like Farrar Straus & Giroux attached? It's "high-end" and "literary" because high-end literary experts have done the filtering. Without that, all you have is pretension from an earnest soul who is self-publishing. How do you get that absurdly clunky vehicle going?

34 comments:

Mitchell the Bat said...

The high-end literary brands could retain writers like David Mamet if they granted tenure.

Broomhandle said...

"High-end fiction" is almost non-existent. Finding a Pat Barker is about like being struck by lightning.

Michael said...

Maybe it will drive more literary types into genre writing. I've read more than a few high end books where I thought, this guy needs to stop moping about relationships and be on the run for his life from a murder he didn't commit that was actually the work of a secret society of ex-Nazi Templars employing a 7-foot Chechen hit man with six nipples.

rehajm said...

Do you have any idea how much of that sort of thing there is washing around on the hard drives of the world's self-appointed geniuses? What if it were all suddenly available on websites like Amazon

Sounds like the blogosphere.

rhhardin said...

Comments are high-end literary fiction.

Tank said...

How many high end literary fiction readers are there now?

rhhardin said...

Adam was a fiction, L fingere, to mold out of clay. adamah, clay.

Ann Althouse said...

"Sounds like the blogosphere."

I'm glad you appreciate how literary this stuff is.

"Comments are high-end literary fiction."

And it's a cleverer form of getting your genius out, because there's no pretension. And you're not keeping it stopped up for years, waiting for people to find you. No wonder these stories end up being about "moping about relationships." Blogging and commenting is more like being on the run for your life.

Bob R said...

I think they are on exactly the right track. The traditional knock on the "high-end fiction" crowd is that it is a small provincial town dispersed over the world. That may not be exactly accurate, but it is a great group of people for passing around word of mouth through blogs, social media, and ... actual word of mouth. (Is that still a thing?) Drastically lower the price while increasing the author's take per book. Sounds like a good chance of success.

Ann Althouse said...

Every time I think about writing a book, which is often, it sets me off running for my life, i.e., blogging.

Nothing more deadly than a book.

Bob R said...

Another point: eBooks never (should) go out of print. Always a chance that ten years from now a stray blog comment or television mention or success of your tenth book will start a viral cascade and fill your pockets.

Bob Ellison said...

Michael, I'd buy that book!

chuck said...

Balzac, Dostoevsky, Dickens, Twain, and pretty much all the other authors of the 19'th century wrote novels that were serialized, chapter by chapter, as they came out. They were also motivated to work by the need for money and relied on popularity to sell. I don't think any of them would be considered high-end literary writers these days.

creeley23 said...

Traditional publishing worked better for high-end literary work in the early to mid-20th century because the big publishing houses accepted they would often publish such work at a loss, but that was part of their resonsibility.

However, since at least the seventies they have been rolling back that responsibility -- no one, for instance, publishes poetry anymore just because they feel an obligation to keep poetry alive.

I don't blame the big publishing houses for this. I supsect it also become impossible to deal with the deluge of lit majors and writing workshop participants writing in a literary manner without a corresponding increase in a literary audience.

mccullough said...

Althouse is a good filter. But she never recommends books. I used to like the Great Gatsby until we started dissecting all the overwrought sentences. She's the anti-Oprah.

Christy said...

So, someone is starting a self publishing service and marketing it for high-end literary fiction. Aren't most writers convinced they write high -end literary fiction? Sounds like an old way to separate fools from their money. OTOH, didn't the Brontes/ Bells self publish?

$9,000,000,000 Write Off said...

David Mamet? Haters got to hate, narrators got to narrate and I suppose gesticulators got to gesticulate.

creeley23 said...

Aren't most writers convinced they write high -end literary fiction?

Not really. Most just want to write, and write what they like to read, which is usually one genre or another. Furthermore, the advice from current writing teachers for getting published is to pick a genre and get good at it.

Of course, there are plenty of MFA's in Creative Writing who try to write high-end stuff too.

My last writing teacher said, in response to the genre advice, was to write what you want because the odds for publication are long either way.

Balfegor said...

RE: creeley32:

Traditional publishing worked better for high-end literary work in the early to mid-20th century because the big publishing houses accepted they would often publish such work at a loss, but that was part of their resonsibility.

I don't know much about the publishing history of modern classics of "high" fiction, but my impression is that a lot of them ended up self-published. Proust, for example, apparently arranged to pay the costs of publication for the first volume of Remembrance of Things Past. Joyce didn't self publish Ulysses (I think), but wikipedia tells me it was originally serialised in a niche lit fic magazine.

Balfegor said...

RE: creeley23:

However, since at least the seventies they have been rolling back that responsibility -- no one, for instance, publishes poetry anymore just because they feel an obligation to keep poetry alive.

Poetry is one of those things that shouldn't really need to be published on paper. Most poems are ideally blog-sized. And if you build an audience through your blog or poetry night or wherever, then you might as well just self-publish.

Crunchy Frog said...

And it's a cleverer form of getting your genius out, because there's no pretension.

Right, because nothing that say, Andrew Sullivan has written in the past ten years has ever been pretensious.

Robert Cook said...

"And it's a cleverer form of getting your genius out, because there's no pretension."

Why the suspicion that literary fiction is "pretentious" or is merely a means by which the writer wishes to display his or her "genius?"

That's like suggesting a commercial jingle is a "cleverer form" for composer to show off his or her genius than via the "pretentious" avenue of a symphony, or that a cook should make excellent "unpretentious" hamburgers rather than "show off" by creating "pretentious" haute cuisine.

creeley23 said...

balfegor: Sure, some classics were self-published. "Leaves of Grass" for example. Nonetheless publishing houses did publish some literary work knowing they would probably lose money.

I'm not sure where I would look this up now, but once upon a time I took writing seriously and followed the inside dope of publication, including interviews with publishers and writers.

Poetry is one of those things that shouldn't really need to be published on paper.

Come on. In the not too distant past there weren't any blogs. In the present a book of poems is much more than characters rendered to a screen. A book of poems can be a beautiful physical object to cherish and enjoy, as you must know.

There are tons of poetry websites with tons of poetry. I was just about to link to one of my favorite poets, Bill Knott, who for a while had put all his published poems on his blog. But I see that he has taken them down.

Knott lives in Boston and works, or at least used to, at Emerson College a few blocks from Monday's bombing.

Try this short one:


DEATH

Going to sleep, I cross my hands on my chest.
They will place my hands like this.
It will look as though I am flying into myself.


A longer, funnier one here plus others.

Balfegor said...

Re: creeley23:

Come on. In the not too distant past there weren't any blogs.

Sure, but I'm talking about now. I think that in the past self-publishing was much more expensive than it is today too. And books of poetry are fine, but if it's a poet I don't already know, I'm never actually going to read that book. Apart from the old schoolboy classics and whatever happened to strike the fancy of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, blogs and the internet are pretty much the only way I learn about poets.

Publishing a volume of verse before you've already developed the audience -- whether online, through occasional publications in literary magazines, or some other means -- seems to me to put the cart before the horse. And if you've already developed the audience for your poetry, it strikes me you may as well just self publish using one of those on-demand services, rather than trying to persuade a publisher to print your book.

Even if you get it published, how many people are going to read you for the first time in book form? That tiny handful of people who pick the poetry books up off the side tables of drawing rooms they visit, rather than going for the picture books like normal people?

ndspinelli said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
creeley23 said...

Of course. Almost no one picks up a book of poetry by an unknown poet and buys it, and no publisher publishes a book of poetry out of the blue.

There's a long apprenticeship of poetry magazine publications, poetry readings, poetry programs, poetry workshops, poetry contests, poetry networking, etc. Doing poetry onlline is just another avenue for establishing an audience.

Also there is a tradition of poetry chapbooks, self-published or by a small labor-of-love printing house, that was inexpensive even in pre-computer days, which poets would sell at readings or persuade local booksellers to stock in the Local Writers section.

creeley23 said...

Once upon a time mainstream Americans used to read poetry, but that tradition has been ground away to nothing by nearly a century of avant-garde, academic, and street poets who squabbled among themselves but were united in their contempt for ordinary Americans and their indifference to creating poems that anyone outside the poetry world would want to read.

So now poetry has almost no audience except other poets, and poets don't read that much poetry beyond their favorites and their friends.

Bill Knott said...

millionaire poets like Russell Edson and Louise Gluck and C.K. Williams et al make you pay cash to buy their books, but me living month to month on Social Security checks, I'm supposed to give mine away free?

creeley23 said...

I'm supposed to give mine away free?

Bill Knott: No, not at all.

A few years ago I noticed you had put up your books on your blog. I wondered at the choice but it's your blog and your poems. Now you've taken them down. Again, your blog and your poems. I'm happy to own the books I bought of your poetry.

Lovely of you to stop by. Any thoughts, while you're here, on publishing, traditional or otherwise?

Take care.

Balfegor said...

Re: Bill Knott:

millionaire poets like Russell Edson and Louise Gluck and C.K. Williams et al make you pay cash to buy their books,

What is amusing to me is that I literally have no idea who these people are (now that Donald Justice is dead there are ~0 living poets with whose work I am at all familiar). Thanks to creeley23's comments you are now more famous to me than they are.

Balfegor said...

Re: Bill Knott

I went on Amazon just now, but all your collections seem to be out of print. Any plans to move anything onto Kindle? (e.g. the CreateSpace collections)

creeley23 said...

...all your collections seem to be out of print.

Balfegor: Yeah, I checked the Bill Knott section too and it's true. It's a measure of Knott's power that his out-of-print books are expensive and sought after.

I'm particularly sad that "The Naomi Poems," his first book, is not even listed. That book hit me like a bombshell when I was a young poet who had fallen in with a group of Boston poets.

There's no one who writes like Bill Knott. It's quirky stuff, alternately funny, sad, deep, rude, self-deprecating, and accessible. I've never seen a poet who can create so much wonder by fitting odd words together and making them work in new ways.

Bill Knott said...

this is priced the lowest they allow me to set it at: (my "profit" is zero)

http://www.amazon.com/Selected-Poems-Bill-Knott/dp/1480186732/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1366395047&sr=1-3&keywords=bill+knott

creeley23 said...

Bill: Thanks for returning. I just ordered a copy.

This blog moves quickly -- most topics are dead within 12 hours -- so odds are only myself and possibly Balfegor will read your response.

Nonetheless, I wish you well. As far as I'm concerned, you are one of the most talented American poets writing since you first appeared in the sixties. I don't read poetry much anymore, but I still pick your books off the shelf to read or share with a friend.