Jun 14 2009
Last September I blogged that Literary Fiction should embrace digital publishing because “the psuedo profit sharing that the new arm of HarperCollins is testing: no advances, higher royalties” made sense for the embattled publishing industry.
E publishing, with its low overhead, provides a safety net for experimental fiction, the bailiwick of literary fiction. E publishing can provide success for more authors with lower numbers of sales. Those who have success in digital format are then pushed into the more expensive, but broader retail base of print publishing.
I argued that “Literary fiction should lead the way in redefining publishing so that those who write feel just as accomplished being published digitally as they do being publishing in print.” My belief that digital publishing could save literary fiction continues unbated. After reading Liza Daly’s report of Book Camp Toronto, I am even more convinced:
So by the end of the day at BookCamp I felt a little worn down by the amount of fear and negativity that arose in some of the sessions. Particularly dispiriting is that some of the most vocal dissenters were small presses and independent authors, the groups that are most likely to benefit from these transformations in digital publishing.
Let me reassert the argument once again. The lede for the 2006 article in the NY Times entitled “Promotional Intelligence” is this:
The pride and joy of publishing, literary fiction has always been wonderfully ill suited to the very industry that sustains it. Like an elegant but impoverished aristocrat married to a nouveau riche spouse, it has long been subsidized by mass-market fiction and by nonfiction ripped from the headlines. One supplies the cachet, the others the cash.
The Times article identifies how the literary fiction market is failed by the then current book business ecosystem:
- “The whole system is set up for impatience,” said Drenka Willen, an editor at Harcourt
- Familiar voices are in greater demand than new writers
- You have to ship a minimum of 20,000 copies according to Bill Thomas, then editor in chief at Doubleday
- Only so many titles can be pushed per season per Eric Simonoff, a literary agent at Janklow & Nesbit
To some extent, these issues exist in digital publishing as well. Name recognition sells books in epublishing as much as it does in print publishing. Witness the success of Ilona Andrews’ Silent Blade published by Samhain and currently at No. 6 on the Samhain Bestseller list (right hand side). Only so many titles can be pushed effectively by publishers and editors otherwise it is just white noise even in the digital industry. There are still editing, cover art, formatting issues that are not removed simply when you move from print to digital.
However, you do not need to ship 20,000 copies of a particular title. There are no returns. There are no shipping, warehousing, remaindering costs. In sum, a literary fiction book such as Deidre Knight’s fabulous genre bending Butterfly Tattoo does not need to sell 20,000 copies to be shared with the public. A digital publishing house can take a risk and put forth this type of book with a print version to follow later.
Yet, the literary fiction crowd remains wedded to form giving cachet rather than the product itself. At the end of 2007, Pan Macmillan announced that it would be releasing virtually all of its books in trade paperback. This was like a body blow to the literary fiction crowd.
Kirsty Dunseath, publishing director of Weidenfield & Nicholson, said the move could lessen the prestige of the novels. “Coming out in hardback is a statement of confidence in a novel and gets the reviews,” she said. “It doesn’t say much for your confidence coming out in paperback. Anyway, £12.99 isn’t such a high price to pay – you’d happily pay that for a CD.”
What a disservice this notion, this ideology, is to the authors and readers of literary fiction! Does the binding and the paper render the novel prestigious or does the content speak for its quality? This notion that only literary works that have cardboard covers and animal adhesives are worthy of consideration is nonsensical and terribly harmful. It’s impossible for me to grasp why being publishing in a nudie magazine is more prestigious than being published in digital format.
Hardcovers exist, in my opinion, for the sole purpose of publishers maximizing price discrimination whereby businesses provide variable pricing to individuals based on the individuals’ willingness and ability to purchase. For example, those who simply cannot wait for the next Nora Roberts title, Black Hills, due out in July will pay the hardcover price. Those who are unwilling to pay the price will wait. The publisher is putting out the identical content, with slightly different packaging, but at different time periods and thus maximizing the consumer’s willingness to pay. Hardcovers should not impart value of the content. I think we can all agree we’ve read shitty books published in hardcover and fabulous books published in paperback and vice versa.
Of all the genres, literary fiction is supposed to be above the concepts of commercialism, the idea of writing for filthy lucre. Literary fiction writers are compelled to write, not for the money, but because the story inside their being simply cannot be contained in their corporeal self.
Literary fiction has the power of perception on its side. It is the hallowed field of publishing. If literary fiction would embrace digital publishing as a model and work to find new voices and release them to the reading public, digital publishing would take on the imprimatur of respectability. What’s stopping you, literary fiction?