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Commodity Publishing, Self-Publishing, and The Future of Fiction

9 January 2013

From Jane Friedman:

My question is: Is self-publishing going to become the predominant, preferred, or recommended means for authors to launch their careers? While we might all agree there are more paths than ever to get published and be a successful author, some advocates of self-publishing—primarily those (perhaps exclusively those) who write genre fiction go a step further: Don’t evenbother getting traditionally published. Self-publish first.

Usually the model or formula is expressed like this:

  1. Write a ton of material.
  2. Publish it yourself on all the digital platforms.
  3. Repeat as quickly as possible.
  4. Make a living as a writer.

For those unfamiliar with this emerging model of authorship, you may think I’m oversimplifying. Not by much. This model doesn’t care about quality. It says: You will get better as you write more, and besides, everyone knows that quality is subjective. It says: Don’t waste your time perfecting something that you can’t be sure makes a difference to your readers or your sales.

Nor does this model rely on marketing and promotion. According to its rules, the author is better off producing more salable product, which, over time, snowballs into more and more sales, and people discovering and buying your books. Do you need a website? Of course, like any author does. Do you need to market yourself or your work? As little as possible, the model says. Focus on writing your next book.

. . . .

1. This model relies on a readership that consumes books like candy, or readers mostly interested in finding a next read as quickly and cheaply as possible. (We’re starting to see the impact of this cheap-read behavior: agents asking publishers to reduce prices because it’s inhibiting the greater volume needed to reach maximum profits.)

If you’ve ever walked into certain kinds of used bookshops (especially back before e-books became prevalent), you’ve seen the racks and racks of mass-market romances and other genre fiction, sold for 25 cents each. A customer might walk in, buy a grocery bag full, walk out, then return the following week for a refill.

The new era of self-publishing authors are, by and large, serving these customers.

I call it commodity publishing. It’s not about art; it’s about product.

But isn’t that what traditional publishing has been about all along? Isn’t it also commodity publishing? It is a business, yes?

Funny, it’s the business that no one gets into for business reasons. It’s the business that, if you asked its individual participants, would likely prefer to talk about the art or culture of the business, would prefer to make the argument that it focuses on quality work that deserves publication. Yet those with trade experience know how the decisions really get made: based on a profit-and-loss analysis (P&L) and for the benefit of the bottom line.

. . . .

I’m now on the edge of a longstanding argument: whether genre fiction is as “good” as so-called literary fiction. I’ve had more than one person challenge me on the definition of “literary” fiction on the premise that it’s an elitist, exclusionary term that implies that other types of fiction can’t be as intelligent or complex. That is to say, it is possible for literary romance, literary thriller, etc., to exist, and that “literary” should not exist except as an adjective to some other genre category.

That’s a sensible argument. But I do think it’s relevant to talk about how readers self-identify, or how they decide what to read next, and you can be certain there’s a class of reader who considers themselves devoted to the consumption of, at the very least, serious fiction. Serious fiction means: you don’t read it or skim it in an afternoon, and you don’t go through an entire grocery bag of them in a week. A lot of people enjoy both types of fiction. Yet you don’t often find authors who are switching off between writing beach reads and next year’s critically acclaimed novel. Further, authors tend to get pigeon-holed and marketed in a particular way to the same audience over years, since that’s how commercial success works best (see: James Patterson), and even if we find this constricting from a creative standpoint, it’s a sound marketing strategy.

All this to say: I don’t think it wise to recommend self-publishing as the first strategy for writers outside of the genres.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman and thanks to Ant for the tip.

Self-Publishing, Self-Publishing Warnings

57 Comments to “Commodity Publishing, Self-Publishing, and The Future of Fiction”

  1. I love literary fiction, but it bugs me when people try to separate it out from ‘product’. Yes, they are different. But no matter how many times you separate it out, you can’t really change the fact that ‘product’ sells and ‘literary fiction’ often doesn’t sell very well. It sucks. I wish it were different. I’m sure many writers wish it were different, but that’s the reality of the marketplace.

    Maybe we can change it in the future as more writers actually are able to support themselves from their ‘product’ work. Maybe then they will be able to sustain those writers who do ‘literary’ work. But until then…’product’ is what writers will have to go with until the market signifies something different.

    • I like literary fiction that is about the characters or the story. I dislike it when it’s a vehicle for becoming famous or well-liked by critics, which usually ends up being very transparent in the text. Even some of the commenters in that article made it clear that was their goal in writing lit fic. I don’t want to see the author in the book. Write it if your heart is in the story, but not just to be a NYT darling.

      Art movies have the same problem…

    • It’s a niche product, but still product. And you’ll definitely see more royalties in the long run from self-publishing your niche product.

  2. She raises an interesting question in her footnotes.

    “Some have suggested that the high royalty rates that indie authors now enjoy from retailers like Amazon will be yanked down to much lower numbers once the e-reading/e-publishing gold rush has concluded. Who knows if that will come to pass, but if so, it would be smart for authors currently enjoying indie success to start building their online presence and e-mail lists to ensure they can reach their readership and sell direct in the future. Plan for the worst, hope for the best.”

    I’d be curious to know how many of the gang here sell their books on their websites? Does that include print? How many sell in hardcover?

    • My website(s) have bookstore sections but they contain links to the e-tailer sites where the books are available. I don’t sell direct.

      Smashwords has an affiliate program I need to set up, but I can’t use Amazon’s (I live in a non-eligible state) and none of the other sites have any way for me to track how many purchasers of my books found them through my websites.

      I sell two collections and my novel (I have only one published novel) in trade paper through CreateSpace. Sales are not brisk. I sell e-books, not paper books.

      • Form an LLC in an eligible state–problem solved. I hear Wyoming is a popular venue for LLC’s nowadays. I’ve been contemplating NH myself because I have family there.

        • Wyoming is a great state for an LLC because it allows single-member LLCs to take on the same legal protections of multi-member LLCs (though not all states recognize this, so the protections are not absolute). It is also very tax friendly for LLCs… though if you live outside of Wyoming you may still have to register your LLC as a foreign entity in the state you live in.

        • I’m an attorney: I could form an LLC pretty cheaply. :) I don’t sell direct because I don’t want the hassle, not because I don’t want to deal with risks. I have a day job. Obviously a reasonably accommodating day job, but a day job nonetheless.

    • I don’t sell direct due to cost/time ratio. Right now, my time is more valuable writing (which I should be doing right now instead reading through TPV :lol: ). That may change down the road. But I’m sure as hell not going to panic over something Amazon “might” do.

  3. Interesting analysis.

    I know this isn’t a popular indie opinion, but I agree with her that the casual approach to quality in the indie publishing community is a huge mistake. It is damaging to indie reputations, and I wish people would re-think it.

    I don’t agree with two points:

    a. Non-fiction is better served going through traditional publishing. Actually, non-fiction is much better served by going independent. Non-fiction authors that would be picked up by Traditional already have a huge platform (or Traditional wouldn’t be interested) and they could make much more money going digital only. If they were able to get a print only deal, for decent royalties and terms, then maybe a deal with Traditional would work.

    b. I don’t agree that literary fiction authors both need and are entitled to be subsidized financially. I have absolutely no issue with those who write literary fiction, and I think the fact that Publishers are dumping them is horrible. But, they are writers, and I don’t believe they are deserving of anything not given to all writers.

    However, one thing that is given to all writers is to seek sponsorship – through private and corporate donations, and organizations like Kickstarter. And I think Literary authors will have an easier time finding sponsors.

    I also think the Awards will still focus on Literary fiction, which will bring prestige, readership and sponsorship.

    • I’m not so sure that non-fiction is better going independent. I have read many non-fiction books by traditional publishers where I had never heard of the author. I didn’t find that book because of the author, I found it because of the subject–BUT, I bought it partly based on the assumption (which, granted, may not be correct) that someone who spent some significant money on making the book vetted the author’s credentials. When I buy non-fiction, I want to know I’m not getting a book that was just scraped from Wikipedia. I don’t have this concern with fiction, because taste in fiction is subjective. Facts should not be subjective. (We’ll ignore bias for right now. I can usually spot bias and adjust for it.)

      I’m not saying I need my non-fiction to come from a Major NY Publisher. I actually prefer it from university presses: more info, less commercialism. (Not that I don’t love a good narrative non-fiction.) But if I find an article or book on a topic, I want to be able to look at the author’s CV and see some publication credits from sources I trust.

      Perhaps all this applies mostly to academic non-fiction, but that is the majority of the non-fiction I read.

      • @ Mercy,

        Well, I think my point is that a non-fiction author has to have a huge platform for a Publisher to take them on. If the author has that huge platform, they really don’t need the Publisher, because they already have a built-in audience who will buy the books. Why bring a ready-made audience and give up all those royalties and rights to a Publisher? Why not keep those rights and the income for themselves?

        I see your point that there are readers, like yourself, who might check to see who published a non-fiction author. But I think many readers might not. They might look at the credentials of the writer, but mostly, they would probably read the reviews, or see the book was on the bestseller list and that would be enough.

        So, I’m not saying the non-fiction author wouldn’t lose some readers, but they would keep alot of them, and they would make ALOT more money overall, and keep their rights, which seems like a good road to take.

  4. You MUST read the original article. This excerpt sounds more antagonistic toward the whole self-publishing model than it is as a whole. Really, this is about how Jane Friedman’s favorite books won’t ever do well under the self-pub tip of the day.

    I don’t know about Jane, but I can pop narrative non-fiction like candy. Just because it’s 300 pages doesn’t make it less pop-able. In fact, I think the fact that it’s narrative makes it a faster read. I know the last one I read took me a mere two days to read, which was less than the time it took to read Cassandra Claire’s City of Bones.

    If you enjoy the book, I don’t think the quality changes the rate of consumption. Which is the main argument she has in this article. No one is going to argue that your average Harlequin is the same ‘quality’, in the sense of that over-arching knowledge that most of us develop about what is ‘good,’ as The Life of Pi. But if that same book took longer to write or was twice as long, it would only take twice as long to read. If the author upped the ‘quality’, it wouldn’t automatically make the reader slow down. Even if it did, so what? Those women would go to the used book store every other week instead. Voracious readers of any kind of book can go to the used bookstore for their weekly dose. This is what B&N’s Free Fridays come from.

    Sure, no one who reads narrative non-fiction wants to read a book that was put together on the self-publishing model she says is the main suggestion. Hell, I don’t think anyone wants to think that their favorite book was put out the same way McDonalds makes Big Macs. And even the most prolific of writers probably doesn’t think of their books that way. I think Chuck Wendig, who works in both traditional and self-pub, and is churning out books like he’s the next Steven King, would disagree with her evaluation.

    The model she puts out looks like an angry response. If you go to both of the bloggers she lists, they don’t suggest you publish every crappy novel you finish, they just say that writing more is how you learn, and more books in the store gives you more opportunity to make a sale. I think Dean Wesley Smith’s various “how authors shoot themselves in the foot” posts all say that publishing bad work is at least partial career suicide.

    The new publishing world is still turning into what it will be. The Literary and Non-fiction worlds will figure in somewhere, as they are a lot of the best-sellers. There is enough need for non-fiction that I don’t see it going away. It may simply have to change, either in form or marketing or delivery. Literary fiction will need the same. If that just means that you can’t spend years on every book, or that you can’t break out with only one great book, then so be it.

  5. This model doesn’t care about quality.

    This statement does serious injustice to what Smith and Rusch are saying. Their point – an important one, I think – is that a new writer’s storytelling abilities are always stronger than his or her editing abilities.

    Write to the best of your ability. Always strive to improve. Keep learning. Lean on your first reader for perspective in creating your final draft.

    How is that advice antagonistic to quality? Friedman obviously disagrees with: “Don’t rewrite it to death.” But she distorts that detail into a misleading interpretation about the whole write-a-lot approach.

    • Most readers don’t care about ‘quality’ in the English teacher sense. They just want a good story that’s told in a readable manner.

      I was skimming through a book excerpt the other day and thinking how badly the words were put together, but it’s a fast-selling book from a writer who’s been on the NYT best-seller list numerous times. Readers don’t care about the words, because he tells great stories that keep them entertained.

      • Most readers don’t care about ‘quality’ in the English teacher sense. They just want a good story that’s told in a readable manner.

        Which is to say that they are very picky indeed about actual quality. It’s just that the quality of a story as a story is not the sort of thing that English teachers are well equipped to analyse; so they pick and pick at relatively unimportant details of prose technique.

        The trouble with publishing first drafts, for most writers, is that we very seldom get all our best ideas on the first draft. Right now, for instance, I am (shirking) revising the second book in a series that I am bringing out — an important structural revision. I realized a while ago that the pacing wasn’t holding up well in the earlier part of the book; and in the course of figuring out why, I came up with a much better way of getting the plot from point A to point B, in such a way that all the elements of the story would come together at point B with a bang, instead of making little popping noises one by one along the way.

        In a video that PG linked back in December, John Cleese talks about how one of his fellow Pythons, though more talented than Cleese as a writer, never wrote scripts as original as Cleese’s. This (said Cleese) is because the colleague would go with the first workable idea he thought of, and knock off at 5:00, whilst Cleese would stay for an extra hour and a quarter, trying different ideas until he came up with something better. A lot of writers do this kind of work in the second draft. They’ve built the skeleton of the story, and have a working route from beginning to end; now they can make structural revisions to come up with the best route.

        Readers will never consciously notice that all this work has been done, but they have a very shrewd way of being able to tell when it hasn’t.

  6. As far as the ongoing need or demand for traditional publishers, it’s tough to imagine their demise when it comes to non-commodity authors…

    And…

    And if traditional publishing declines, will the big corporate houses have the same ability to publish those titles that aren’t destined to be commercial successes, but critical successes?

    She implies that traditional publishers are necessary to support writers of literary fiction. I would argue that some writers of lit fic are supported by big publishing, but that most rely on a day job to pay their bills. Those relying on the day job might experience significant benefit from trying self-publishing. Friedman’s counsel to avoid it seems unnecessarily limiting.

  7. “I don’t think it wise to recommend self-publishing as the first strategy for writers outside of the genres.”
    This is so “back looking” advice. As in write a book, submit, get rejected, write another book, get rejected, but you’re getting better, write another book, submit, get rejected, until finally you give up or die and never get published. When other people (publishers) take the financial risks rejection is part of the game, and used to be the only way to get published.
    Not anymore, when you take the financial risk, you have the right to self-publish. Being self-published trumps not being published any day. I realize that extremely sensitive eyes of the literary fiction persuasion object to this approach. But it is your money and you self-publish for your gratification not anyone else’s. (Not the reader or critics as we are told.) If you write badly, you won’t sell books, but as you write and publish again you’ll get better, and better.
    Now here is the new paradigm, you can pull back the earlier book(s) and scrap, revise, polish, re-write, re-edit, and re-publish. Books are no longer casted in concrete (printed on paper in large quantity once.) The books nowadays are POD or virtual books as eBooks. Think outside the box, and write and publish and write and publish, until you get very good at it or give up. You are in charge of your destiny as a writer, and no one else. Today, you have the freedom to write and self-publish. May you write, publish, flourish and prosper.

    • While one can pull books back and revise them… I think that if one should not depend on that model.

      1: It cuts into the more important job of writing new fiction, and risks the trap of “it’s never done.”

      2: It walks on a tightrope of your readers feeling like they’re being listened to (which may make them fans), or feeling like you were using them as your beta-reader group, which will likely make them angry.

      3: If you had any nascent fans who actually liked the thing, you will probably lose them if you do more than copy-edit.

      So while you can continue to re-polish something even after releasing it into the wild, I don’t think it’s a good idea to think of that as anything but a last ditch “…dear pantheon, I did not realize how badly I sucked, and also, my sales rank on this book is in the multi-millions” resort. Only keep the option in mind if it is vital to one’s personal process of publishing at all.

  8. One problem I have with Friedman’s post was that she insisted on an artificial distinction between “literary fiction” — I’m guessing she means fiction that is written well but is not bestseller material — & “genre” fiction (e.g., romance, mystery, action, science fiction): until a few decades ago, any fiction writer published with the hope her/his book would get on the bestseller lists, that everyone would want to read the book. (I bet even Herman Melville wanted Moby Dick to be a best seller, & was disappointed when it sold poorly.) A work is classed as literature long after the author is dead in most cases, anyway.

    It has only been in the last a few decades that some writers want to forget about appealing to as many readers as possible & write a work of art that only the elite will appreciate — & perhaps not even enjoy. I find this a self-destructive attitude to have.

    So what is the harm of resorting to self-publishing, even for “literary fiction”? As long as a writer knows how to market the work — which nowadays is part of the job, even if the book is published by a “proper” house — if it is good, it will eventually find an audience.

    • I keep asking for a consistent definition of literary fiction, and I keep not getting one. So far as I can see the best definition is somewhere around Twain’s assertion that “A classic is something everybody wants to have read but nobody wants to read.” Literary fiction appears to be fiction which critics think everybody should read but nobody wants to pay for.

      • I saw your comments on Friedman’s site and really appreciated your presence there, gently urging her and her readers to examine their preconceptions about genre. Good job!

      • I suspect there’s more truth than you suspect in that statement, Marc. It seems that no one is willing to call a book, or other writing a “classic” until it has fallen out of copyright.

        Consider that, for example, neither “Citizen Kane” nor “A Wonderful Life” were critically acclaimed until after they had fallen into the bargain bin of movie rentals. Or that Rimbaud started receiving critical praise long after he stopped writing poetry, when his former acquaintances assumed he was dead. (He was actually living in Africa as a trader & gun runner.) People are willing to be seriously praise works only when they are either very cheap or free.

        Maybe someone ought to mention that requirement for elevation in status to the folks who insist their genre — literary fiction — is the best one.

        P.S. For those who haven’t looked at the comments on Jane Friedman’s site, Kris Rusch posted a response 45 minutes ago.

      • I always thought literary fiction was fairly easy to define: A contemporary, character-driven novel dealing with ordinary people in, often, extraordinary situations, that tries to articulate a facet of the human condition.

        At least that’s my definition. Maybe it’s overly broad. To me, literary fiction is its own genre, one I usually make fun of because of the seriousness that afficionados take it. My wife pretty much reads the stuff exclusively. I never liked reading much of it myself because it always felt like slogging through a homework assignment. :-)

        • Extraordinary situations are required?

          (Also, I think you just encompassed modern romances with that definition. Contemporary, check. Character-driven, should be check if it’s a good one. Ordinary people, check; they’re not all princes or CEOs. Extraordinary situations… well, if we count love at first sight, probably a check. Facet of the human condition? Relationships, yup.)

          • By “extraordinary” I mean “out of the ordinary”, but yes, I think they are required.

            Yes, the definition seems to be overly broad. Romances do require happily ever after, which isn’t an element of literary fiction. Not to be critical of romance in any way, but the topic is probably a bit too mundane for literary fiction, which tends to be directed more to the darker side of human nature.

    • Actually, the ‘literary fiction’ racket has been going for over a century, and it is, indeed, a racket. It is based not on quality of writing (though, to keep its rights to the moniker ‘literary’, it does tend to insist obsessively on fine details of prose technique at the sentence level), but on exclusion. That is, it is intentionally designed to exclude anything exotic, anything highly dramatic, anything that might, for instance, excite a young reader or send one on an imaginative journey.

      Dave Wolverton, a.k.a. David Farland, traces this movement back to a deliberate decision made by William Dean Howells. In a very interesting essay. ‘On Writing as a Fantasist’, he describes Howells’ definition of ‘literary’ work in these terms:

      [Howells] claimed that authors had gone astray by being imitators of one another rather than of nature. He proscribed writing about “interesting” characters–such as famous historical figures or creatures of myth. He decried exotic settings—places such as Rome or Pompeii, and he denounced tales that told of uncommon events. He praised stories that dealt with the everyday, where “nobody murders or debauches anybody else; there is no arson or pillage of any sort; there is no ghost, or a ravening beast, or a hair-breadth escape, or a shipwreck, or a monster of self-sacrifice, or a lady five thousand years old in the course of the whole story.” He denounced tales with sexual innuendo. He said that instead he wanted to publish stories about the plight of the “common man,” just living an ordinary existence. Because Howells was the editor of the largest and most powerful magazine of the time (and because of its fabulous payment rates, a short story sale to that magazine could support a writer for a year or two), his views had a tremendous influence on American writers.

      But as a writer of fantastic literature, I immediately have to question Howells’s dictates on a number of grounds.

      Howells contended that good literature could only be written if we did three things: 1) Restrict the kinds of settings we deal with. 2) Restrict the kinds of characters we deal with. 3) Restrict the scope of conflicts we deal with.

      Oscar Wilde, whose plays are not often staged these days but whose fairy tales may live on for ever, had the good sense to laugh at Howells’ strictures and at the stories he liked to publish. He called them ‘teacup tragedies’. They might be called (for Howells was a good Socialist of the 19th-century type) ‘Socialist Realism for the bourgeoisie’. Like the Russian type of Socialist Realism, most of the stuff that fits in this narrow category is rubbish; but it is often very well-executed rubbish, and if you execute it skilfully enough, you can make a thundering reputation among the tiny circle of People That Matter, whilst being entirely ignored by the general public — whom you can then look down on as illiterate cretins.

      The American branch of the Modernist movement, and the tight claque of highbrow publishers and reviews that constitute the so-called New York Literary Establishment, can all be traced back to Howells’ circle of influence. If you pressed me to name a date at which the Howells school definitely became an Establishment, I would probably name 10 October 1896, the date on which the New York Times inaugurated its book-review section. Once the most prestigious paper in the United States began reviewing books on a large scale, that was a citadel worth capturing; and the Howells school duly captured it.

      From that time on, the Times has exerted its influence consistently on the side of the Modernists and their successors, and against works and authors that follow the much larger tradition of adventurous and imaginative fiction. Whole classes of books, for instance, have been systematically excluded from the Times bestseller list because the Times did not approve of their subject-matter. Whatever is left — whatever subjects the Times and kindred publications, in their awful and austere prestige, think Real Writers should be permitted to write about — constitutes ‘literary fiction’ in the technical sense. I am afraid that is an unflattering definition — but then, a definition arrived at by such a process is hardly deserving of flattery.

      In all this, the N.Y.L.E. and the Times have played the role of Benjamin Jowett in the satirical quatrain:

      Here come I, my name is Jowett.
      All there is to know I know it.
      I am Master of this College,
      What I don’t know isn’t knowledge!

  9. “It’s also the only area where I see authors without qualms about quality, or without any hesitation to produce as much material as possible, with the only limitation the amount of time you can keep your butt in the chair writing.

    Most literary authors and nonfiction writers I know are not able to pursue this model. They either cannot produce—or would not want to produce—multiple volumes in a few years’ time.”

    Seems like she’s also conflating producing work quickly with lack of quality. Because one has to ANGST about the writing, not just sit down and produce words like a professional.

    Seriously. If you write 1,000 words a day, 5 days a week (which should take a writer, at most, 2 hours) then you end up with 250k words a year (with two weeks off). Let’s say you do only a THIRD of that, and spend the other 8 months researching and revising and polishing and angsting up in your literary garret — an author still would be able to produce a solid book a year. Even ‘multiple volumes in a few year’s time.’

    What planet is she living on?

    • which should take a writer, at most, 2 hours

      I wish!

      (The currency emulating an accretion rather than something sensible like metric was a nice world-building touch. Then I needed to have a couple characters bargain in it, taking advantage of those little touches to offer confusing deals to favor themselves… I had to break out pen and paper, reduce everything to the “penny” equivalent, and scale upwards! *sob*

      All for a scene considerably under 2,000 words, since it’s mostly dialogue.)

  10. “This model doesn’t care about quality.”

    I suspect this model doesn’t care about Jane.

  11. A few quick comments, I’m working on my second 500k words and these won’t be the best due to the dash:

    -literary fiction is the fancy wine of the publishing world. The grapes have to struggle against chalky soil and harsh hot days with chilly nights. And then there is the two-buck-chuck blind taste off and what do we have? Or the incident where French and American wines were blind taste tested by French reviewers and the American wines won.

    -I have yet to see a definition of “Quality”, everyone “knows it when they sees it” but how do you measure it? Because without a measurement there can be no improvement.

    -Because of the vast number of new authors entering the ‘workforce’ now .. we will see the next famous literary work in the genres. There is so much experimentation and modified cross-overs (I wrote a romance-thriller trilogy) that something is going to be amazing. Monkeys and Shakespeare. It takes a sufficient population to field a basketball team of tall people.

    -Literary fiction seems to be the output of MFA program taught people, which is very hard to also have earned an Engineering degree to do things like write Hard or High Tech SF. Not impossible but difficult to get the numbers of authors. But then again .. what does it take to have a Literary novel? What are the rules (like Romance has to have an HEA)? Where can I look up those rules?

    -Traditional publishing cannot guess what will be popular until after it sells well. Authors cannot tell what will be popular. Hugh Howey (may my sales go up after typing his name) wrote his “Wool” short story not expecting much of any sales and here a year later he’s just completed fending off several publishers for that story.

    So in the end all of that causes a need for vast quantities to sift through for the best “I know it when I see it” gems.

    How to make all that content at high quality literary levels? I haven’t seen that solution yet. Does it exist?

    • -literary fiction is the fancy wine of the publishing world. The grapes have to struggle against chalky soil and harsh hot days with chilly nights. And then there is the two-buck-chuck blind taste off and what do we have? Or the incident where French and American wines were blind taste tested by French reviewers and the American wines won.

      A wonderful analogy, that.

    • To further the analogy, is the stuff you write orange drink fermented under a radiator?

  12. Again, we have the fundamental mistake of thinking that publishing is an industry, “books” is a product category, and “authors” are competitors. Nowhere but publishing would someone think that E. L. James and Katherine Boo are in the same business. E.L. James and James Patterson, sure, they are in the same business.

    Publishing is many different industries and each will be affected differently by the digital transition. What works for genre writers isn’t going to work for literary fiction writers. It had nothing to with quality and everything to with differing network diffusion models.

  13. I think the mistake she makes is assuming a flat level of quality within a genre. SF has both john ringo and china mieville. One is laughable pulp fodder (caveat: i assume; his covers have dinosaurs and lasers, what else could they be?) and one is a literary darling. The two can exist side by side on a genre rack. Sure some genre is “brain candy” but some is as complex, high brow, high concept, and lyrical as what the literary crowd gets wet over. To me the lit fic idea is shorthand for saying “serious book about serious issues, without the window dressing of genre.” It has nothin to do with what will be remembered from our time in 50 years.

    • SF has both john ringo and china mieville. One is laughable pulp fodder (caveat: i assume; his covers have dinosaurs and lasers, what else could they be?) and one is a literary darling.

      You’re quite right, but not, perhaps, in the way you think. Writing ‘laughable pulp fodder’, and doing it well enough to make a living, is much more difficult than writing to be a ‘literary darling’. There is, of course, only a limited number of berths for literary darlings, which is why the competition for those berths is so toxic, and why success in that field depends so very much more on connections and influence than on skill.

      Aristotle observed over 2,000 years ago, and it remains true today, that mastery of style is the easiest skill for a writer to acquire; making up an original story that will entertain an audience is by far the hardest. It was to this fact, chiefly, that Aristotle attributed the consistent dependence of the best Greek authors on a narrow little circle of myths and legends for their source material. That way, they wouldn’t have to learn how to make up their own material.

      So yes, science fiction does have a wide range of quality. It has both the geniuses who have learnt the immensely difficult of entertaining a reader, like John Ringo, and the idiot savants who haven’t mastered much more than the art of stringing pretty words together, and consequently have little appeal for anyone but the critics. (I absolve Mr. Mieville of falling into that particular category, but I am sure you can think of other suitable candidates.)

      P.S. Don’t be such a fool as to assume that you know what is in an SF book based on the cover. You know perfectly well that no author below the perennial-bestseller level has any say in what his covers look like. You also know, or should, that different publishers and different countries have different styles in book covers. Ringo has been published chiefly by Baen, a house that puts cheesy pulp art on everything. Mieville has been published chiefly by Macmillan, whose art department has a much more staid and conventional house style. You can’t tell anything about quality from that.

      • You’re absolutely right – figuring out how to write a ton of great stories that people want to read is harder than learning how to write in a style that pleases people who judge books on style. The latter can actually be taught; the former…I hesitate to say can’t, but not nearly as easily. I think it could be mentored, but not taught from a book the way style can be.

        Regarding the cover art – true, pulp cover doesn’t necessarily equal pulp content. However, with Ringo I have also read back summaries (come on, who WOULDN’T read the summary of book with laser guns and a T-rex on the cover?!) and they seem pretty pulpy. I didn’t mean to imply anything about the quality of his books so much as the perception of their quality by someone who likes “literary” books. Thanks for clarifying my point for me! I was too lazy to type all my caveats on the smartphone….

        • I’m glad to find that we largely agree.

          Also that you judged Ringo by the back covers as well as the front. (I mean that seriously, though it tickles me to put it in an unserious way.) But then, when I look back on some of the most enduringly popular writers of all time, what do I find? Arthur Conan Doyle, whose most famous creation is pure pulp. Charles Dickens, who wrote an early equivalent of pulp fiction in the form of newspaper serials. Shakespeare, who had a theatre to fill and always made sure that the groundlings were entertained — and whom Tolstoy could not abide for that reason.

          Will John Ringo eventually be mentioned in the same breath with those giants? Probably not; but not certainly not. At any rate he has bought a ticket in the right lottery, unlike the people who write exquisitely well-crafted books about nothing to be praised in the fashionable reviews.

          By the way, I quite sympathize about the smartphone. I never type anything on my phone if I can help it, being afflicted with hands like a gorilla’s. My right index finger is slightly withered from an old accident, and has a hard, pointy tip; that’s the only one small enough for me to type with on my phone. So I stick to my laptop and its full-sized keyboard, and tend to forget that others are working with less robust tools.

      • I think China Mieville has more sales per book than Ringo does. And somehow I doubt Ringo’s books have been translated into 20 different languages.

        • I’ll take you up on that bet. I’m pretty sure the Russians, the Polish, the Germans, the Spanish, the Dutch, etc, etc, also like to read space opera.

        • On the other hand, Mieville has been hugely hyped by both the New York and London reviewers, and has abundant connections with the Right Sort of Literary People. Ringo doesn’t have those advantages, and moreover, is published by a house whose very name is anathema to the R.S.L.P.

          • For good reasons.

            Both of them.

            • Yes, indeed. The good reason why China Mieville is hugely hyped, of course, is that he is a card-carrying Socialist and spouts all the correct propaganda lines. The good reason why Baen are anathema to the R.S.L.P. is that they are willing to publish writers with right-wing views.

              Or did you have some other reasons in mind?

              • I had other reasons, most of which were related to Mieville’s writing ability and Ringo’s lack of writing talent. But you probably don’t care about that.

                • Really? Ringo’s (alleged) lack of writing talent justifies people in looking down on Baen Books as a whole? I’d like to see you justify that one.

                  On the other hand, I don’t want to see you justify your claim that China Mieville deserves to be hugely hyped and to have connections with the R.S.L.P. Justifications of influence-peddling and snobbery are revolting at the best of times.

                • I don’t mean to brag… but, actually, I’m going to.

                  I’m very smart, very well educated, and very well read.

                  I find Ringo’s books fun to read and a nice way to pass the time when I don’t feel like reading patents, law review articles, contracts, or psychology texts, which are the bulk of my “serious” reading. The characters are fun and interact entertainingly, the over-the-topness of the plots is in the best tradition of James Bond and the author is clearly aware of just how silly the things are *and uses that as part of the entertainment.*

                  I’ve read two of Mieville’s books and found them pretentious, predictable, boring and full of dumb characters doing dumb things because if they did anything smart the very dumb plot would immediately implode.

                  Am I the last word as to which of the two is the better author? The more talented author? The more likely to become an eternal star in the literary sky?

                  Of course not.

                  But neither are the NYT, the RSLP, or you. Implying that which is which is obvious doesn’t tell us anything about them, but it might tell us something about you. And, as the esteemed Mr. Simon points out, Ringo has bought a ticket in the proper lottery.

  14. All some of these folks are claiming is that lit fic is Art; what I write is cans of chili on a shelf.

    And you can’t assume that because a writer produces a lot of content, or seeks publication down a certain path, that they “don’t care about quality.” That’s a very broad statement to make in the absence of proof.

    • Yup, yup.

      The only caveat I would add is that for any given writer, there is a point beyond which, if you push yourself to increase your output, your quality is bound to suffer. What that point is, of course, varies widely; one can only generalize about the extremes. If a writer averages ten words a day, we can say pretty safely that he could increase his output without damaging anything. On the other hand, I have heard of a few writers who put out 10,000 words a day for long periods; but most of those words were rubbish, as even the writers themselves, more often than not, cheerfully admitted.

      • “For any given writer, there is a point beyond which, if you push yourself to increase your output, your quality is bound to suffer.”

        This probably ties in with what numerous studies have shown: forcing people to work excessive overtime (i.e. over 50 hours a week) for extended periods results in decreased productivity; in some cases, less is accomplished than if the person had worked only 40 hours a week.

        Unless there is a significant personal motivator to the person (e.g. Anthony Burgess’s well-known story of being told he had one year to live & proceeding to write 6-8 books in that time), this is the case for practically everyone. I figure that another proven fact — that some people are more productive than others (on the order of 3x to 10x as productive) — only serves to obscure the truth of your observation, Tom.

      • Walter Gibson (known for The Shadow pulp stories, among many other things) famously had multiple stories going at once on multiple typewriters, so he could add sentences to any story in progress without bothering to change paper.

        ATW, he was cranking out about 1.6 million words per year at his peak.

        One can only imagine him with a modern word processor with multiple document windows.


    • I am the entertainer,
      The idol of my age.
      I make all kinds of money,
      When I go on the stage.
      Ah, you’ve seen me in the papers,
      I’ve been in the magazines.
      But if I go cold,
      I won’t get sold.
      I’ll get put in the back
      In the discount rack,
      Like another can of beans.

      Billy Joel, The Entertainer

  15. The critics berated a certain English writer for his ‘penny dreadfuls’ he’d publish as serials in the newsapers. He was one of those *dreadful* popular writers in the 1800s. Why even the poor would read his stories and dared say he was a great talent. The nerve!

    Today his work is studied as CLASSIC Literature in every English dept the world over.

    The Dickens you say!

    • LOL! And well said!

    • It’s interesting to go back fifty years or so and look at the writers who were the critical darlings du jour.

      Many of them aren’t even in print any more, but the Heinleins, the Asimovs, and the Raymond Chandlers are still in print and still selling.

      I agree with Kristine Rusch that literary fiction is just another genre. Bad literary fiction has its hackneyed plots (e.g., “young English professor having an affair with one of his students” — those always seem like they should begin with “Dear Penthouse” to me) and has some stunningly bad writing. It’s just that the bad writing takes the form of tortured figures of speech rather than (e.g.) the meaningless technobabble found in bad science fiction.

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