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Why Literary Writers Have Not Yet Made the Transition to Self-Publishing

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Reader asleep - drawing by Claude (2007)

Reader asleep – drawing by Claude (2007)

Recently, the observation was made that literary writers still hold self-publishing in contempt. In a widely read and commented article (see here), Chris Meadows concluded: “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?”

Indeed. We all know that genre writers have been brilliant at self-publishing, making millions, from Amanda Hocking to Bella Andre and Hugh Howey. These are the new best-selling breed of “hybrid” authors who take from the traditional publishing world only what they need and leave the rest behind – in short, they have the best of both worlds.

But is there something to the contention that traditional publishers are still the gatekeepers of literary taste?Difficult to say. They are so opaque and cliquey that no one knows really how they select writers for publication and why they decide to “push” this one rather than that one. So let’s assume that after some number of rejections of your marvelous manuscript, you’ve decided to turn to self-publishing. After all, the digital revolution has taken the aura of shame away, so you might as well try.

But wait. Think twice. Your chances of emerging and hitting success in the kind of “genre” market created by Amazon are practically nil. Why?

There are two problems with that market and it is best to be aware of them:

(1) It’s a tsunami of books: Sure, the digital revolution has made it a level playing field; your book is up on its digital shelf forever and it has as many chances as the next one to emerge from the bottom. But to emerge, you need to hang on to something that will make you float upwards, and that something is “genre.”  Lucky for genre writers, it so happens that genre readers are insatiable. If you can make your book look like one of the best-selling titles in that genre, sooner or later they’ll get to yours. Not so if you’re a “literary” writer.

(2) It’s strictly a genre market: It really isn’t Amazon’s fault, it’s simply the organic result of so many genre authors rising to the opportunity of self-publishing using the KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing platform) and CreateSpace tools Amazon has put at their disposal – and why not? Both are superbly user-friendly and the results are good quality. Add to the mix Smashwords, and you’ve got the full explanation of why the market looks the way it does. In addition to newbies, it is packed with midlist authors self-publishing their long backlists, starting with Joe Konrath who was a trailblazer with his successful informative blog. All these people are nothing if not “genre” authors by definition. Otherwise they wouldn’t have been classified by traditional publishers as “midlist” authors with a “backlist” that they won’t consider for reprinting. Why not? Hard to say; maybe they see them as “shopworn.”

But if you’re thinking of self-publishing, it is important to realize that you’re going to face deep disappointment if you don’t fit into a genre, and better yet, into a genre that is known to sell well in the digital market, like romance or science fiction. The worst case is if your book is “cross-genre”: You don’t really fit anywhere because you are a nonconformist and a rebel, and there really isn’t any bestselling book similar to yours that you could latch onto. And if you’re literary, forget it!

In short, be prepared for a long haul.

If you’re wondering why this should be so, I think that the answer can be found in the major difference between habitual readers of genre literature and literary readers.

Genre readers want to get away from the real world. Literary readers want to read stories about the real world. They don’t look for mere entertainment. They get titillated by a read that lets them explore reality, that throws an unusual light on it, that tells them something more or different, something they had never noticed before. They are entertained by intellectual discovery; they are carried away by poetry, by meditation that deepens their sense of living and transcends the boredom of daily life. By contrast, genre readers want suspense, fear, horror, passion so that they can forget their daily lives. Theirs is an escapist literature.

The solution?

Author David Gaughran recently blogged about it (see here), suggesting that literary readers were simply late to turn digital. What he calls the “book blog ecostructure” is currently not geared to literary and historical genres the way it is to romance and science fiction/fantasy. There are no big reviewers on Goodreads that will generate a spike in sales. But, he claims, a change is in the offing, prodded by Amazon that has recently made “life easy” for literary readers to find the kind of book they like to read. How?

He reports on the savvy use of “Amazon spotlights”: “Last summer, a backlist book from Iris Murdoch – not the most commercial of writers – hit #5 in the overall Kindle Store, on the back of a price promotion by its publisher (Open Road) allied with a Kindle Daily Deal.” Which proves that there’s a market for literary reads on Amazon.

So with proper marketing, it can be tapped. To help tap it, Amazon has recently instituted sub-categories that point to this kind of book: 16 subcategories for literary fiction and 25 for historical fiction (they appear in the left-hand sidebar). Plus they’ve added additional filters for the Popularity list. Sub-categories are important because they each have their own Top 100 list, Hot New Releases list, Popularity list and Top Rated list, and remember, that’s the primary way the Amazon market is organized: it sells through “top 100” lists. Reviews are important, but lists are even more important to boost up a title.

Now, these changes were introduced last fall and it is probably too early to gauge results. But that is the way ahead, no doubt about it: It’s the way it was done for every genre that became a commercial success on e-platforms and there’s no reason why it can’t happen for literary fiction.

So literary writers of the world, unite and go digital!

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About Claude Nougat

Claude Nougat is a writer, economist, painter and poet. A graduate of Columbia University, she has dabbled in a wide variety of jobs before starting a 25 year career at the United Nations (Food and Agriculture) where she ended as Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia. Now happily retired, she dedicates herself to her two lifelong passions, writing and painting. She is the author of seven books of fiction and a prime exponent of Boomer literature, a new genre focused on the “second act” in life. Her novel, Crimson Clouds, has been hailed as “quintessential boomer lit”. Her most recent book (published April 2013) is a science fiction serial novel Forever Young, that takes a hard look at our world 200 years from now when the benefits of technological advances all go to the ultra rich, the One Percent. Her poetry has been included in Freeze Frame, an international poetry anthology curated by British poet Oscar Sparrow, published by Gallo Romano Media in 2012. She is married and lives in Italy.
  • The key is to know your target audience. Like you said, the literary readers haven’t yet made the move to the digital format. Slowly but surely all types of readers are making the jump.

    • Thanks Kristen for the comment. I hope it will happen but for now, it certainly doesn’t look like it. Just yesterday, they’ve removed a state poet from her position – nobody know for sure why but the fact that she was self-publihed didn’t help!