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Why Literary Fiction Should Embrace Digital Publishing

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Kassia Kroszer of Booksquare fame posted on Friday an article addressing the publishing industry’s failure to recognize its own money making potential. Publishing views itself on the decline. Print newspaper book review sections have gone the way of the dinosaur. According to the article in NY Magazine, “serious readers” numbered around 120,000 fifteen years ago and have dropped by half nearly every decade which means that we are a nation of about 45,000 serious readers. Serious readers are defined by those who read every night. (It’s not clear whether “read every night” means reads a book every night or merely “reads” every night).

Kroszer points out that the decline in publishing is really a decline in the literary fiction arm of the publishing industry or the one that interests those at the National Books Critic Circle. This is likely true. Literary fiction is suffering. For example, while Oprah has revived interest in serious fiction, interest is not sustainable. Oprah does not sustain reading in general, but reading of the books that she recommends.

Change is slow for publishing.

Publishing is at a crossroads.   It is an industry that has foreseen very little change in the last century.   Mass markets were introduced in the late thirties.   According to one source, Rosemary Roger’s Wicked Loving Lies published in early 1970s was the first genre book to be put out in trade.   The most recent innovation in publishing is (notwithstanding the dreaded super mass market) is digitization.

In arguing against the long tail, Anita Elberse finds that the existing state of publishing does not support the theory that the internet can produce profitable publishing venture without relying on major titles.    Elberse urges publishers to stick with the blockbuster strategy.   The problem, as Kassia Kroszer notes, is that this strategy is primarily responsible for the broken nature of publishing.

I think publishing is fundamentally broken, mostly because a business that relies on mega-hits to justify its existence -‘ when those mega-hits are reliant upon capturing the imagination of a broad spectrum of the nation’s citizens -‘ cannot sustain itself as it exists today.

The publisher 2007 financials seem to support this.   Penguin  ended 2007 with an increase of 7% in sales  (pdf) with “seventeen #1 New York Times bestsellers, an industry best. Our mass market division achieved a record 46 New York Times bestsellers, up a record 92%.” Random House, who posted a  5.6% decline in sales in 2007, had only two #1 NYT bestsellers. (Source:

Epublishing as the new publishing business model.

When I first read Elberse’s article, I tended to agree with her.   Publishing is grounded on the hits and dragged down by the misses.   Of course, misses are anything but the hits.     The problem is that there is an existing model of publishing that defies Elberse’s thesis that publishing can only be profitable with the “big” book.   It’s done everyday in epublishing.   There are well known authors within epublishing (some who’ve gone on to successful mainstream print publishing careers) but few could be considered a blockbuster author in mainstream publishing terms.   

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I do think that epublishing is stagnating right now, focused too greatly on erotic romance.   However, digital publishing will allow niches to exist and flourish.   Those areas of publishing that are stagnating could find new life in digital publishing where sales of a book need only to be in the thousands instead of the tens of thousands to be measured a success.   Unfortunately literary fiction, a genre that needs revitalization, seems straightjacketed by its devotion to paper, as if a book loses its fundamental nature as a book without print and ink to provide its basis.   

It seems to me that literary fiction should take a look at erotic romance ditigal publishers and try to emulate its success.   E publishing is more than just another medium of publishing.   It is, in fact, an entirely new business model for publishing itself.   E publishing started the psuedo profit sharing that the new arm of HarperCollins is testing: no advances, higher royalties.   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.

The benefit of digital publishing for literary fiction.

Literary fiction should start trumpeting the value of ereaders, start urging publishers to digitize its backlists and frontlists.   Literary fiction critics, authors, and publishers, should look for ways to capture the attention of busy individuals through serialization, free ebook giveaways, and lower prices for new   titles.   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.   

This paradigm shift would benefit readers as well.   If more fiction, beyond romance, would find success in digital publishing it would increase the quality and variety of original e published fiction.   This increase of quality and variety could also increase the number of individuals who read in the digital format.   

Publishing should not be defined in terms of medium.   Books are books, no matter whether they exist in ink or bytes.   And readers, serious readers, are readers no matter the genre.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She self publishes NA and contemporaries (and publishes with Berkley and Montlake) and spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com


  1. carolyn Jean
    Sep 21, 2008 @ 09:07:54

    Great analysis. This is really thoughtful and I totally agree. I never thought about experimental fiction being able to benefit from epublishing as erotic fiction does, but it certainly seems a natural venue.

  2. Lynne Connolly
    Sep 21, 2008 @ 09:38:25

    Nice work!
    But – some of the e-publishing leaders are initiating changes, not stagnating. Erotic romance is all over the place, sex is everywhere, but there are new ventures and new approaches. it’s obvious that since the e-book market is growing, it has to be stimulated and reinvented from time to time and while they won’t be a revolution, changes are around. I’ve certainly rethought some of my work recently, and my editors have approved it.

  3. Kimber An
    Sep 21, 2008 @ 10:04:35

    Traditional and ePublishing have the same problem. They both need to diversify, only in different ways. Specialists go extinct while Generalists keep pest control in business forever.

  4. Eugene
    Sep 21, 2008 @ 11:20:25

    Chris Anderson answers Elberse here. I find it comical that people at the HBR seem to think that publishing a best-seller is a mechanical process than anybody can do if they put their minds to it. Like there’s a “best-seller” mine out there and if they just keep digging, they’ll be rich, rich, rich!

    Also via Chris Anderson, David Heinemeier Hansson brilliantly explains the problem with this approach. His conclusions apply precisely to the publishing world.

  5. Teddypig
    Sep 21, 2008 @ 11:23:34

    I think the main thrust of that article was best summed up by a friend of mine. Who said in so many words… When your whole business model is “selling boring” (Literature with a capital “L”) why are you surprised that it fails?

    Most of the “Great” Literature that I like was past contemporary pop culture works that have simply proved their reading value over time.

  6. veinglory
    Sep 21, 2008 @ 14:59:16

    I think all of the commentators are missing the blindingly obvious point that erotic romance epublishing *is* digital long tail in action–are they simply unaware of it? The publishers have block busters but several are thriving catering to niche needs like werewolf DBDSM and BBW threeways.

  7. MS Jones
    Sep 21, 2008 @ 16:01:52

    A great idea.

    I'm reminded of Bujold's theory on how the intertubes facilitated an end-run around print publishing's bottlenecks. E-publishers “have an economical way of getting the word out to the excluded people in this process, the actual book readers, of their books' existences -‘ totally jumping over the unfortunate book-blocking nature of the distribution system.” Bujold's argument is that the distribution gatekeepers (which include brick and mortar bookstores) have lost control of the gates, leaving readers more in control.

    But here's what I see as a problem: all the major NY companies rely on literary agents to person the slush barricades. While there are no doubt some literary agents who will fight to get “literary fiction”* considered by a publisher, the sad fact is that they all work on commission, and it is their best interest to represent popular blockbusters and negotiate huge advances. And who can blame them? It's not a cost-effective use of their time to represent an unknown author who's not going to be offered an advance and whose books may not sell more than 1,000 copies.

    So for “literary fiction” publishers to emulate the success of e-publishing they would have to do as Baen, Samhain, Ellora's Cave, Loose ID, and Liquid Silver Books do, and look at unagented material.

    It could work! It wasn't a literary agent who got Annie Proulx's career on a fast track after decades of obscurity – it was her editor.

    On the other hand, it might not work! Because most people (and I include myself, a Proulx fan) don't want to read novels that are “Huckleberry Finn without the laughter and The Grapes of Wrath without the hope” (aka Postcards, the novel that made Proulx the first female recipient of the PEN/Faulkner award).

    Mike Cane has an entertaining rant on this subject.

    * I don't agree that “literary fiction” should be defined as something that excludes specfic, mystery, or romance, but that's another issue.

  8. Mary Winter
    Sep 21, 2008 @ 19:42:02

    I think articles like this will help the change happen. It’s an excellent, well thought out piece. Thanks so much for posting it!

    Of course, when I read it, I wonder if “literary” publishing will ever change, especially when I’m reminded of the attitudes I encountered one weekend at the Iowa Writing Festival when I took a class on short stories and ended up the only genre person in the room. Sadly, the roasting was not as funny as the ones on Comedy Central. Oh well…

  9. MoJo
    Sep 21, 2008 @ 21:02:16

    When I took a class on short stories and ended up the only genre person in the room. Sadly, the roasting was not as funny as the ones on Comedy Central.

    Yeah, it’s not any funner going through a whole creative writing program that way. (Also got sneered at for being a novelist in a playwriting class.) Fortunately, I ended up writing my senior paper for a Latin professor who was fascinated with my creative process. She didn’t want a story, she wanted a how-to.

  10. SonomaLass
    Sep 22, 2008 @ 01:21:54

    Jane, you’ve got some excellent points here. I had a lesson in this area myself this weekend.

    I spent part of the weekend with my daughter’s BF, who is a tech-geek of major proportions (iPod Touch, fancy QWERTY-keyboard phone, the works). Know which gadget he whipped out the most? His Kindle! He went on and on about it, and I started to realize the power of this device to reconnect young people with reading. I also realized that what he is reading is dictated by what is available for his Kindle — he won’t even think about reading anything but e-ink. In a very short time, I can already see that his reading taste is being shaped by the choices of certain publishers about whether or not to make a book available in electronic format.

    Any publisher who spurns this market is going to be sorry, in both the short and long terms.

  11. DS
    Sep 22, 2008 @ 12:51:04

    I was browsing the Kindle selections the other day and I ended up downloading a book of poetry by Djuna Barnes. It was 15 cents and I could probably have got it for free from one of the web sites that publish public domain books, but it was there and I had a moment of nostalgia and next thing I know it was on my Kindle. I love my Kindle.

  12. RfP
    Sep 23, 2008 @ 11:22:09

    Interesting points, Jane. Literary fiction is a long-tail taste, whether or not that term is used explicitly. From the blogs I read, I think the lit fic world *is* aware of the long-tail theory, but applying that radically is a scary thing. It doesn’t help that some people hope for a magical golden period of literature to change the penny-pinching reality. (And I say this as a lit fic reader, not as someone keen to take lit fic down a peg.) You’re absolutely right, though, that lit fic doesn’t need any extra barriers for the reader: they should be all over e-book technologies.

  13. Jane
    Sep 23, 2008 @ 12:23:03

    Literary fiction is a long-tail taste, whether or not that term is used explicitly.

    Such a good observation. It does seem the literary fiction, almost more than any other area of publishing, could really benefit from the digital long tail.

  14. RfP
    Sep 23, 2008 @ 17:01:20

    It does seem the literary fiction, almost more than any other area of publishing, could really benefit from the digital long tail.

    For that matter, some of the most challenging lit fic could benefit from a digital format with hyperlinks. James Joyce, I’m looking at you. Look what people do to study Finnegan’s Wake. They’ve taken Roland McHugh’s page-by-page companion book, Annotations to Finnegans Wake, and put it all online. Pretty smartly, too, but I’m not about to read 700 pages (plus 700 of notes) online.

    Also, reading in foreign languages would be fab with in-text notes and selected translations available. Some of that can be done on paper, but what about pronunciation? I’d have loved an on-demand pronunciation guide when I read The Canterbury Tales in Middle English.

    I hope the Sony Reader/Penn State U study will be able to assess this kind of usage, though I’m not aware that there’s a major publisher involved in the study, so I assume they’re looking primarily at static documents.

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