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Publishers: Gorging on Authorial Hope Editorial Opinion

Friday, February 26th, 2010
William H. Coles

If you write a great literary fictional story, and if you're not famous or infamous, your chances of publication are minuscule.  Remember when writers sent their best to a publisher, waited three to six months for the usual rejection, and then sent the same work out again, and again, and again . . . always with the expectation that someone would some day believe in their talent?  There were galaxies of hope and expectations.  Besides, it didn't cost anything.  These writers believed they were being judged on quality . . . if they worked hard and learned their craft, they would be rewarded with publication and the possibility of recognition.  There were a few slicks (Atlantic, Harper's, The New Yorker, for examples) that published a new writer occasionally, and many small, usually university, presses that had a few slots, but published infrequently, and had a tenuous circulation.  But, in reality, these were at least publishing resources  available where writers had a fair chance of a fair read and a fair reliance that some threshold of quality was being applied to the possibility of acceptance.  But that life is almost gone.  Authors have been slow to realize it, but both print and online publishing have shifted; literary magazine publishing is killing it's life source–good writers with talent who write imaginative fiction–by charging fees for submission cloaked in the guise of contests.

Of course it's true that it's not just contests that kill fiction.  There is the trend to publish memoir and nonfiction as "fiction."  But the need for income from submissions has significantly changed literary fiction.    In the past, magazines that published quality fiction encouraged submissions.  Most of what they published was agented fiction, or from famous authors, friends,  or celebrities.  Still, there were always a few slots for the undiscovered writer of literary fiction.  Now, even those few slots have been diminished by dangling the carrot of possible publication before authors in undisguised manipulation for profit.  Publishers are using competitions and contests to encourage volumes of submissions, both commercial and "nonprofit" presses, to simply make money.  The contest prizes are paltry, often less than what a magazine would pay after acceptance before the contest mining of fees of  fifteen to fifty dollars per submission was instigated.

Every publisher seems to reflexively say they receive ten thousand submissions a year.  Wow.  You can make $50,000 per contest.  Let's do more contests! Have a contest for under thirties, stories about dogs, tell us about your  family, or most recently a contest for six-word stories that will cost you $15.00 bucks per submission.  If it takes less than five seconds to read six words, that's a profit of about $10,800 dollars per hour.  Why not have a six-word story contest every month?  Forget the 5000 word limit and literary fiction.  Forget about traditional literary fictional stories of quality.  To what avail?  All this bloated submission activity fills the same number of limited slots available prior to contests (which skyrockets the odds against an author winning and/or getting published).

The  impact of these new contests on the great literary fictional story are more than transitory misdirections.  Consider the multiple groups that relate to the publishing of fictional stories in general: the publishers, the readers, the submitters of work to be published, and the subscribers (and donors) that represent a source of income.  Until now, publishers covered operating costs with subscriptions and gifts from donors, and to varying degrees, advertising.  Until recently, submitters were not paying to be read.  Now operating-income sources have shifted to what  have become  more dependable  and profitable submitter fees.  Subscribers and donors to magazines that published literary fiction were diminishing in numbers anyway.  So who cares?  No one but a few of the submitters and, with less intensity, the rare careful reader.   But the readers should recognize the effect on the publication of a great fictional story.   As publishers work to increase their revenue through submissions, they are openly trying to attract any style of writing, and have been willing to publish any style as fiction.  Specifically, memoir and "creative nonfiction" writing is sought and published as fiction, along with genre-based story writing such as mystery, sci-fi, and romance, partially in the belief that this is what will attract readers, but mainly because it makes a profit.  The effect on the literary fictional story writer is severe.  Well-written literary fiction with dramatic conflict and character based plot is not valued.  And with the new ways magazines fund themselves, good fiction has little chance of competing with contest winners who have been wooed with themes that work against the creation of great literary fictional stories.

This publisher effect on literary fiction has a painful irony; there are a significant number of readers who crave literary fictional stories as an art form who are ignored.  Almost surely, publishers could make profits by maintaining standards and morality to attract writers capable of creating these stories.  Such an effort would keep people reading for enjoyment, especially the serious reader.  It seems so necessary with the tidal-wave trends for story to be delivered on TV, film, and the switch of many former readers to methods of story telling like sporting events, where conflict and resolution, as well as the unexpected injury, defeat or death–are delivered for satisfaction without the use of prose media.  Yet prose remains, for some stories, especially those with significant meaning, the superior way to deliver the story.  Isn't it reasonable to ask publishers to resist the trends that story telling are taking, and support the quality of writing and story telling that talented literary fictional writers can deliver?

With equal impact is the loss of readers seeking great fiction.   The readers of magazines who want literary fiction have realized that present day fiction is not what they seek (they have to rely on the classics) and they have stopped buying subscriptions or reading publications that claim fiction but don't deliver.  This affects writers too.  Even for a good literary fiction writer who occasionally will get a significant fiction story published, the chances the story will find a significant readership have mostly disappeared.  And so the publishing industry is in more ways than just contests is extinguishing the literary fictional story as an art form.

It's a wonder these contests that require these veiled fees for submission survive.  They blatantly mine the endless hope of a writer.  And it demeans those writers who succumb to what could really might be classified as a scam.  Writers feel foolish reading the winners of contests they've submitted to for a fee.  They feel humiliated when they discover that most contests are not anonymously read; judges are unknown and may not be consistent; there are no criteria for what is acceptable and what's not; there is no guarantee of being read, even briefly;  that there will never be oversight of the contests that should be provided by government; and that friends and  associates can (and do) win.

This is mining the lodes of hope buried in every writer.  Oh, those dreams of being interviewed on Oprah, those visions of royalty checks, those expectations of readings in Barnes and Noble with attentive listeners.  This is taking money from the addicted gambler yearning for a quick, but almost impossible,  reward  . . . money needed for food and housing, and to dress the kids warmly for school.  Fading reality.  Why is there not outrage from literary writers at this publisher behavior?

Publishers are losing any aura of altruistic professionalism.  If there were only some justice for all those writers affronted.  Certainly refusal to submit could trigger financial loss as justice for publisher's greed.  Maybe the Internet will develop ways for writers to be recognized without having to participate in lottery-like schemes.  It's the hope for the future, something that all writers should work to create–a system to connect writers with their readers without unfair financial loss to both.


Wednesday, December 3rd, 2008
William H. Coles


Beauty and the Building of Character in a Literary Story
An Empathetic Fictional Character is Multidimensional
Is it, or is it not, irony?
A Secret of Great Literary Fiction Stories as Art
Career planning for aspiring, literary-fiction-story writers.
Improve storytelling by flexiblity in writing style
What To Do for Writer's Block
A Fiction-Writer Changes Style with Image-Words
The effect of passive voice on your fiction-writing style.
Why Select Stories Succeed Best as Literary Fiction
When to use backstory in literary fiction
Action and Imagery
Are you a storyteller?
What EM Forster taught us about flat and round characters and how to use it.
Keep readers involved when writing literary fiction stories
Fictional Dream, Literary Style, and Storytelling.
How funny are you?
Mastering the Power of Literary Story
Achieve character-driven plots in literary fiction.
Genre Disses Contemporary Literary Fiction
To revise a fiction story, apply fixes judiciously and consider significant change.
Rate and Logic in Revealing Story information in Literary Fiction
A Prescription for Creating Great Literary Fiction
To be … and when not to be … in developing literary style.
Errant simile and erosion of literary style
Want to write a literary story that lasts?
Character-Based Plot: Not Easy But So Effective
How Writers “Murder Their Darlings” (and stay out of prison)
When is a fiction story a literary art form?
Mastering the Power of a Literary Fictional Story
If you're a writer and no one reads your stuff, be sure to make your openings irresistible.
What do you do to make scenes come alive in literary fiction?
What would you do if you had a chance to, right now, start your life again?
Lasting literary-story characters mature and blossom like a sturdy oak. How do you do that?
How do unsuccessful novel writers build houses?
Ferreting out MacGuffins in a literary-fiction story
Finding theme in literary stories
Excessive Pride and Self-Confidence as Motive in Storytelling: Characterization and Plot Example
Seven elements for writing fiction stories
The Seven Fundamentals for Writing Fiction Stories
Creating Scenes in Fiction: An Example Using an Historic Photo
Why is narration perspective important? Isn't understanding point of view sufficient?
Imagination and Creativity in Literary Stories: A Guide for Writers
A Wannabe's Guide to Literary Fiction Success
Creating Excellence in Fiction: a comment to a student
Eight Fundamentals for Writing Fiction Stories
Effect of Discursive Narration on Literary Story
Letter to a Student: Career Advice
Creating Effective Scenes
Frequent Failures of Contemporary Writers: Story and Character
Writing Sex Scenes in Literary Fiction
Searching for Literary Fiction
The Habit of Being by Flannery O'Connor
Victims as Characters in Literary Fiction
Graphic Novel Formatting for Online and Mobile Devices
Thoughts on Fiction and Story: Response to a Workshop Question
Story Beginnings (13): What Engages You?
Becoming an Author
Why Should a Serious Fiction Writer Use Second Person Narration?
Memoir Is Not Fiction
Workshops on the Novel: Rules for Teachers, Guidelines for Students
Authors Competing with Story for Reader's Attention in Literary Fiction
The Quest for Greatness in Literary Fiction and the Failure of Authorial Self
The Three Pillars of Literary Fiction: Engagement, Entertainment, Enlightenment
Advice for Fiction Writers Taking Creative-Writing Workshops
Student Critiquing in Workshops: Analysis and a Caution
Academic Fiction: A Distinct Genre
The Renaissance of Literary Fiction: Join the Revolution
Summer Workshops: Tips for Learning Literary Fiction
Why Contemporary Literary Fiction Fails to Achieve Excellence
Improving Dialogue
What Exactly Is a Character-Based Plot?
Genre Disses Contemporary Literary Fiction
Exposing the Dark Side of Academic Fiction Workshops
Engaging a Reader in Literary Fiction
Fertilizing Imagination
Publishers: Gorging on Authorial Hope
The Danger of Overuse of 1ST Person Narrative in Literary Fiction
Rapping on the Teaching of Creative Writing
Style of Writing and Literary Fiction
Literary Stories Must Be Significant
Meaning in the Literary Fictional Story
Imagination in Literary Fiction
Great Fiction Is Creative, Not Intuitive: Getting Started
Literary Fiction Needs Writers Who Care About Story
Creating Effective Dialogue
Reevaluating Student Critiques in Creative-Writing Workshops
Coppin' a'tude About Poetry Contests and Fees and a severe caution issued
Top-Ten Rules for Fiction Workshops
The Devil in Literary Contests
Save Literary Fiction


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