Archive for May, 2011

The Renaissance of Literary Fiction: Join the Revolution Editorial Opinion


Wednesday, May 25th, 2011
William H. Coles

Literary fiction is barely breathing, but the Internet has critically wounded commercial print publishing and provided opportunities for literary writers never before imagined.  If you're a literary writer of real literary fiction, write well, and have a substantial body of literary work . . . you've been rejected by agents, ignored by publishers and editors as nonprofitable, relegated to nonvisiblity on booksellers' top shelves because you don't fit into memoir, romance, mystery, autobiography, or other eye-catching genres.  But the Internet has given literary writers lifesaving, thirst-quenching water on the desert of prose print publishing, and the unlimited opportunities developing will soon make the failed literary writer responsible for his or her obscurity.

Look what has happened to great literary fiction.  Teachers, especially academicians, teach "creative writing"–mainly memoir and creative nonfiction–and have neither the knowledge, inclination, nor the talent to teach the art of creating literary fiction.  What is literary fiction?  Why can't memoir be literary fiction by changing the names of the characters or the timeline of the plot?  Basically, literary fiction creates a story, and does not just describe events happened and people lived.  Literary fiction is storytelling with strong, uniquely-crafted characters with complexities that change significantly and are the core of a character-based plot that has meaning–usually revealing what it means to be human.   And the publishing industry, including agents, have greedily ignored the great literary fiction that is written today as a marginally profitable genre of prose writing at best–usually unprofitable–so that literary fiction is rejected not on quality of writing or storytelling, but because it is perceived not to have blockbuster potential.  Well, literary writers don't need print publishing any more.  Go electronic and if you desire print backup, publish on demand, where your work is available in perpetuity, inexpensive, and you have no pressure to sell a print run that if not sold out almost guarantees you'll never be published again . . . the landmine of print publishing that extinguishes many a good writer in any genre.  That's enough to sport change away from commercial, traditional, print publishing.  But it's only the beginning.

There's money.  Literary authors have never been able to make even a poverty-existence living in the print publishing world.  Voilà! The eReader!  People who have long claimed never to abandon the feel of a book cover or the sensuality of a page turn to read on an electronic screen are switching so reading on screen.  A bestselling medical-thriller writer has seen her online books go from 15% to more than 50% of total sales in a little more than a year, and with continued increases expected.  And her profits soared. Innovators are making reading on Kindle and iPad sort-of-devices amazingly enjoyable, and to boot, readers have access to hundreds of thousands of books, soon to be millions, free or modestly priced.  Why would literary writers fly to New York to fall on their knees and beg an agent to take fifteen percent of their royalties that are based on the fifteen percent returned by the publisher?  Really, electronic publishing is offering up to 90% on royalties to the author, and with no agent slicing off a chunk of the return.  And for those doing their own relatively easy Internet publishing, there are no middlemen.  And there are still reasonable-access and inexpensive ways for writers to satisfy book readers.  Haughty literary agents, and publishers, have popularized the term "vanity publishing" for publish on demand, and, in truth, there is always vanity in any publishing.  But the state of the print publishing industry today makes publish on demand, combined with electronic publishing, practical for a writer's career advancement, and for more than few good writers, financially exciting.

How long does it take to get literary fiction print-published? One to five years.   Publish on demand?  As few as forty-five days.  And electronic publishing?  Hours.  Is traditional commercial print publishing a reasonable option for literary writers?  Not really, and a resounding "no!" by the end of the decade . . . without doubt.

Electronic publishing for literary writers has bone-crushing advantages over literary and small presses too.  To start, more than a few presses have succumbed to poorly run, pay-to-submit contests to attract gullible writers.  What used to be free submissions to be considered for publication now, through contest schemes and reading fees, can cost $10.00 to $200.00 per submission.  One publisher requires $15.00 to submit a six-word story.  And your chances of being chosen are unknown, and the criteria for selection are never clearly revealed.  And repeated documentations of frank nepotism in a few contests have been documented by disgruntled writers.  Be reminded!  Publishing electronically does not cost per submission, and the availability to readers does not depend on surviving the subjective rejections by agents, editors, and publishers.  With electronics, if it's good, it can easily be read by the rapidly growing numbers of readers accepting online and mobile-device publishing, and even if the work may not be great, it's still there to possibly be discovered.

Short literary fiction, like poetry, continues to evolve and improve, but is dying because ways to reach readers are vanishing.  Eureka!  Salvation!  Imagine you're a literary short story writer and you would like recognition for your stories.  You submit to literary presses, often academically based, and the handful of commercial publishers accepting short stories.  You are rarely accepted in a process that is often nepotistic and insensitive to quality of writing of short fiction in general to favor alumni and established writers (often with inferior quality work), and prefer writing that shocks; has salacious content with memoir overtones; and caters to fatalistic, fantasy-laden fiction with voice-heavy characters instead of credible, caring characters that engage a reader.  Even if you have a single story accepted, the magazine circulation ranges from 500 to 3000, rarely 5000.  Maybe thirty percent of circulation will read the magazine cover to cover (and that's optimistic), and the chances of readers reading your story drop to maybe a few hundred at most.  Compare the Internet.  In two months, a literary short story (posted free) had more than 15,000 readers.  Another story averaged more than 500 readers a day for months, supported by advertizing.  By comparison, is there ever any reason to submit your best work to a literary magazine or small press?  Realistically, it is buried alive, and the chances of being exhumed are miniscule.  Electronically published stories are always alive, and easily accessed, often without purchase.  And there are no length restrictions!

But wait.  There is the number of readers an author can reach.  App use for eReaders by literary writers will be tested within the month.  The potential of readers for all mobile eReaders is projected to be, by the end of the year, more than forty million.  So, for a free App, say one in a hundred eReader owners are fiction readers, and one in five hundred are literary fiction readers.  That makes an author's work available to 400,000 fiction readers, 80,000 with a potential strong interest in literature.  Compare that to a collection of short stories by HarperCollins or a literary novel by Random House.  A few thousand at most!  It's staggering.

As of 2011, the great literary prose fiction of our generation will not pass to future generations through contemporary commercial print publishing, but will survive and flourish in the yet unborn minds and souls of those to come through the bestowal of electronic publishing.  Every writer, of any genre, can, and should, contribute to shaping the opportunities in electronic publishing that are evolving . . . and by shaping those opportunities can promote the ease-of-use and the benefits to all writers.  As a working writer, shaping the future will be a gift to literary writers that will elevate once again the importance of telling significant stories in literary fictional prose.  Truly a blessing from the gods.

 




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