Why do so many debut literary novels sell for big money?

There is a website called Publisher's Marketplace, where agents report the book deals they make on behalf of their authors. And if you pay $25 a month (which you should never do, unless you're doing research on agents), you can browse those deals. And in browsing those deals, you will sometimes see novels selling for huge advances. It's not common, but it does happen. In the case of genre fiction, this is understandable. Publishers are hoping they've got a hit on their hands, so they're willing to pay for it.

But there are also lots of big deals done in literary fiction. Which seems a bit crazy. Are they really selling so many copies of these books? For instance, I read that Aimee Bender (a great story writer) sold a novel + story collection for more than five hundred thousand dollars. Now, with that kind of advance, she'd need to sell at least 200,00+ copies to recoup the investment. Now is that really going to happen? For Aimee Bender? She's going to hit bestseller levels?

I mean...it's possible (I'm fully open to being told I know nothing), but it seems unlikely.

Anyway, for many years I was a bit perplexed by this phenomenon, but then two things happened. The first was that I talked to a hot young literary author who'd gotten a big advance, and he was like, "It's all about prestige. These books are a loss for the company, but they want to have critically acclaimed authors because it feeds their ego and makes them look good."

And the second was that I read Ashley Mears' book Pricing Beauty, which is a sociological study of the modelling industry. And in that book, she talks about the difference between editorial models and commercial models.


Commercial models are the ones who sell clothes for big companies. You see them in catalogues. You see them on TV. They're conventionally beautiful and have a girl-next-door look. And they make, on average, way more money. A commercial model can work for years (she cited one who was still working at age 40) and earns way more per shoot.

Editorial models, on the other hand, work in runway fashion shows and for magazines. They're not conventionally attractive. Some of Mears' interviewees called them 'ugly, but distinctive.' They're women who have a weird, striking look. They get paid far less, and they have much shorter careers (usually only a few years). In fact, editorial models are usually a net loss for the modeling company that finds them, pays them for a few years, and then never recoups the investment.

The accountants at the modeling agencies were incredibly perplexed by this. They kept saying, "Why do we have any editorial models at all? Let's get them all off our books and start going with just commercial models," since the latter were the entire source of the modeling agency's profits.

Nonetheless, modeling agents were dismissive of commercial models. They put little effort into finding or developing their careers (treating them as interchangeable commodities) and put most of their work into finding editorial models who might have that striking new look that would make them the defining face of a season or two. That, in their minds, was their real business. Commercial models were merely a profitable sideline. They tried to justify it by saying that the modeling agency needed editorial models in order to maintain its prestige--no one would want to work with them on the commercial side if they weren't on the cutting edge w/ the editorial models. But I'm not sure they really made that case. If anything, it seemed like commercial models (and the people who hired them) didn't particularly care what was going on in the editorial side (aside from a mild resentment at the lack of prestige for their work).

Does this sound like anything?

What's important here is to realize that companies are full of people. And those people have their own individual motives. Lots of people get into editing with the dream of being the next Gordon Lish or Jonathan Galossi or Maxwell Perkins. And as soon as those people get any kind of power within their company, they start diverting resources towards authors who will further their editors' own career goals. The company might theoretically want to make money, but the people high up on the editorial side want to create reputations for themselves. And it's much easier to do that with literary fiction than with genre fiction.

I assume some reason for this is also what drives the creation of loss-leading 'prestige' imprints (i.e. FSG, Knopf, Henry Holt, etc). These imprints pay serious money to acquire serious books, but my impression is that the bets don't usually pay off and the imprints aren't particularly profitable. However, that's not the point. The point is that the high-ups at Macmillan (FSG, Henry Holt), for instance, can feel good about the fact that they publish big-name (if not big sale) writers.

I think this is very common knowledge in publishing circles, but I haven't heard it bandied around much on the net, so there you go.

Did lots of thinking today

Just been thinking about the kind of books that I want to write, and why I'm having so much trouble writing. Realized that part of the problem is with my skillset. Because of my background in genre fiction, I'm most used to books that have both an internal arc and an external arc. For instance, Dune's internal arc is about Paul growing up and coming into his power, while its external arc is about surviving and f***ing up the Emperor and the Harkonnen.

Although the internal arc is an integral part of the structure of most genre novels (i.e. Paul cannot defeat the Emperor until he's grown up), it usually doesn't take center stage. It's the nature of genre fiction to spend most of its time on the external arc.

However, I've begun to find that the external arc interests me less and less. When I read a fight scene or a heist scene or a magic-casting scene, my eyes instantly glaze over. Like, what's the point? What exactly is happening? Who cares how well someone shoots a fictional deathray at a fictional robot? What does that have to do with anything?

My problem, though, is that I'm still programmed to write books where the external arc takes center stage.

So far, I've managed to get around this through a series of shortcuts and dodges. Basically, I write books that're full of knavery and manipulation (i.e. where the external arc is stuff that I can enjoy).

However, I've recently come up against the limits of that technique. I've embarked upon several stories in a row where there really is no good external arc. Stories where the internal arc really needs to be the main thing going on. And each time I start writing one of these stories, my characters eventually flail around, because I'm not quite sure how to dramatize their internal struggle.

Anyway, not sure about the solution to this, but now that I've diagnosed it, I'm sure I'll figure it out soon enough.

How to get your novels marketed as ‘literary fiction’ rather than ‘young adult / fantasy / romance / women’s / science fiction / etc’

51I6k+NGMTL._SY300_Because I write young adult books, I sometimes field inquiries from people who've written books with age 13-19 protagonists and want to make it clear to potential agents and publishers that their book is not a young adult novel.

This is a problem that particularly affects women writers, because there are entire genres whose purpose is, basically, to cordon off women's stories and stop them from being taken seriously (e.g. a girl's coming-of-age is YA, whereas a boy's is literature; a woman struggling to find love in her 20s is chicklit, whereas a man doing so is literature; a woman trying to deal with raising a family and with her incipient mortality is women's fiction, whereas when a man does it, that's literature). So many female writers seem particularly concerned with trying to ward off any suggestion that they are writing commercial fiction.

Now, I know that many of my readers will instinctively scoff and dismiss this as snobbishness, but I spent a portion of yesterday's drive thinking about the non-snobbish reasons why a person might not want to have their novel published within a commercial fiction category. And I thought of four.

  • This is the only novel of this sort that you plan to write -- Commercial genres are more restrictive than literary fiction. You can publish a novel w/ spaceships as literary fiction, but you can't publish a novel with no speculative element in the science fiction section. Furthermore, a person who finds an author through a given channel of commercial fiction is, rightly, going to expect that their future work will be somewhat of a piece with what they've read. If you don't plan on writing any future novels that could be called young adult, then you really should avoid being put into that category.
  • You believe your novel would appeal more to literary readers than to readers of that marketing category -- I believe it's very possible to write a novel with a young protagonist that is, nonetheless, of little interest to teens. Similarly, I think that some novels w/ speculative elements would be unlikely to be embraced by a speculative readership. For instance, does anyone think that Vladimir Nabokov's Ada would have won a large readership amongst science fiction fans? These novels might use tools and tropes from a commercial genre's box of tricks, but they don't fit within that genre because they fail to be pleasurable in the ways that this genre generally expects (for instance, Ada is a science fiction novel that does not contain much of a sense of a wonder)
  • You want to become a professor and/or win awards -- Most creative writing departments won't hire you on the basis of a novel published as commercial fiction. And most major literary awards won't go to commercial fiction either. I think that becoming
  • You can't handle the marketing- and productivity- requirements of a career in commercial fiction -- In literary fiction, there are mechanisms that keep authors' reputations alive during the long interval between books. Whereas in commercial fiction, you're supposed to keep yourself alive by being productive and staying on shelves. If you can't write lots of books, then maybe literary fiction is the place for you.

(On a sidenote, I do think that some authors do just want to avoid commercial fiction because they are snobbish. These are the writers who don't want the label simply because they think their novel is too complex to be published within a commercial category. I know that some blog readers get whipped into a froth over this issue, so let me be clear here, when I talk about 'commercial fiction' I am only talking about a set of marketing categories. These categories do not have rigid boundaries. They are discursively created through the individual decisions of thousands of agents, writers, publishers, book-buyers, publishers, and sales people. A book is commercial fiction because people say it is. Books slip into and out of commercial fiction all the time (for instance, Gone With The Wind was once literary fiction and is now commercial fiction). The label 'commercial fiction' does, in the minds of many people, connote something that is of lower quality. And the label does affect the way that it is marketed to readers. But I, personally, am not saying that commercial fiction is of lower quality. What I am talking about in this post is not some grand structural thing, I am talking about the ways that you--as an author--might want to influence the way your book is marketed.)


Anyway, the answer here is really simple. Authors underestimate the degree of control that they have over how their book is pitched. They think that they will put their delicate coming-of-age story into the world and then publishers and agents will yank it away from them and turn them into young adult writers. And the truth is that there might be some pressure to do this. It's easier to sell young adult novels. And my impression is that advances and print runs are often higher for YA novels than for literary novels.

However, the simple fact is that the book literally belongs to you. You, on a legal level, own it. And if you remain firm, then you should be able to make sure that it's marketed in the way that you want.

The thing to do here is to not just be agreeable. If you know what you want, then you've got to be clear and upfront about your expectations. The very first thing to do is to just make it clear to agents, in your query letter and other communications, that you see your work as a literary novel. Then, when you speak to an agent on the phone before accepting their offer of representation, you should ask how they plan to market it. And if they don't plan on marketing it exclusively to editors who handle literary fiction, then you need to tell them that doesn't work for you. And if you still can't come to an agreement, then you have to refuse their offer of representation. Conversations like this are the reason that agents and authors talk on the phone before signing an agency agreement.

What many beginning authors fail to realize is that an editor doesn't buy a book and then decide how to publish it. No, usually it's pitched to an editor as a certain kind of book. And it's pitched to an editor and to an imprint that only (or at least mostly) handles that kind of work. If your book is presented to potential publishers in a certain way and they acquire it on the basis of that representation, then that's how they're going to present it to the public.

So if you want your book to be literary fiction, here's the simple three-step process:

  1. Be clear about this expectation when you query and communicate with potential agents and editors
  2. Confirm, before accepting an offer of representation or publication, that the other party shares your conception of the book.
  3. Be prepared to walk away from agents or publication offers if their answers on point 2 are not satisfactory.

The key here is just to have an agent who agrees with your conception of the book. The agent will then go and find an editor who shares that conception. And, in the end, your book will end up in the place where you want it to be.


Or not.

The scary thing about this advice is that it might entail turning people down. You might lose an offer of representation because the agent wants to market it as a young adult book and you don't agree. And you might fail to sell a book that otherwise would've sold.

But that's exactly what's at stake here. If there wasn't anything to be gained by going commercial, then there'd be no pressure to do it. If you really believe that one path is right for you, then you need to be willing to refuse to go down the other path.

Sometimes I think that what new writers are really asking is, "How can my book be marketed as literary fiction without losing any of the excitement and opportunities that it might have if it was marketed as commercial fiction?"

Many commercial writers have the inverse question. They want to know how their books can have all the possibility of literary acclaim that comes from being published as literary fiction without losing the chance at a larger readership that comes from being published within commercial fiction.

There's a plaintiveness embedded inside both of these questions: a rage at the ways that genre categories enfold and constrict and limit the work. But that's a whole nother post.


Finally, in my very last caveat, I want to say that beginning writers underestimate the degree to which agents understand and are familiar with this problem. If I, a debut author of no particular name or reputation for wisdom, have encountered this question on more than one occasion, then every agent must've encountered it hundreds of times. Agents are well aware of the reasons why a writer might want to be in one category or another. Furthermore, authors also underestimate the amount of leverage that they have in talking with agents who are interested in their book. I'm not saying you can throw your weight around, but if an agent has read your entire book and wants to represent you, then they are fairly invested in you and in the work. If you've pitched the book to the agent as a literary fiction novel and the agent handles literary fiction and they've read the book and liked it, then I would honestly be surprised if the agent was unwilling to market it as a literary novel.

I feel like it shouldn’t be controversial to say this, but…plenty of literary fiction is pretty good.

Gustave_Courbet_-_Man_with_Pipe_-_WGA5499Every time I write anything about the world of academic creative writing, people will post comments that are all like, "Yeah, right on, Rahul! Those guys only write awful books about old white male professors who want to fuck their students!* You need to stick it to all that boringness!"

Whereas, I'm like...ehh...that's not really what I was talking about. What I object to with regards to the world of literary fiction is the careerism of it all. Being a literary writer is a profession: it has education requirements and career rungs and entry-level positions and all those other professional accouterments. And none of that really feels like it has anything to do with writing good fiction.

However, I do think that plenty of literary fiction is pretty good. For instance, I've enjoyed books by Aimee Bender, David Foster Wallace, Junot Diaz, Meg Wolitzer, Michael Chabon, Claire Messud, Jhumpa Lahiri, Chimamanda Adichie Ngozi, T.C. Boyle, Adelle Waldman, Flannery O'Connor, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, and plenty of other products of the MFA system. If you write a certain kind of fiction in the United States, then you're probably going to end up getting an MFA. Most literary fiction is bad, of course, but I just don't read the bad stuff.

And, on the other hand, it's not like the genre shelves are chock-a-block with original and exciting work. If you went to Barnes and Noble and pulled a random volume off the shelf, it'd be pretty depressing. Most genre novels consist of an extremely tiny variation on some other successful novel: "Instead of making kids fight to the death in an arena, my book  makes them have spellcasting duels to the death" or "Instead of being torn between a vampire boyfriend and a werewolf boyfriend, my protagonist is torn between a mermaid boyfriend and a wereshark boyfriend" or "Instead of having to fight against an evil, tyrannical empire of space-Communists, my heroic space-captain has to fight off a caliphate of space-Islamicists!"**

I mean, this stuff is hardly the promised land.

Also, if you don't like literary fiction, then what are you saying? That you don't like realist narratives that are about peoples' ordinary lives? That seems odd. I feel like I shouldn't even need to say this, but...there are things that realism can do that non-realism cannot do. And if you never read any realism, then you will never encounter those very awesome things. (For instance, no secondary-world setting is ever going to be as detailed or evocative as the Burma in Orwell's Burmese Days, because secondary world settings always feel so...constructed. There's nothing in a secondary world setting that doesn't mean something.)

Actually, I've recently had a revelation with regards to genre fiction. About five years ago, I made a purposeful decision to mostly read non-SFF work. I reasoned that I was already very well-versed in the genre and that I needed to catch up with everything else. But I've always sort of wondered if I was maybe forcing myself to like literary fiction. I mean, I liked Proust, but isn't it possible that I'd like the newest Neal Stephenson even more? In that case, my whole reading life would be a lie!

But then I read ten highly-acclaimed recently-published genre novels over the break over the Christmas break. And half of them were pretty mediocre. Of the ones that were good, only three (The MagiciansDrowning Girl, and Redemption In Indigo) really hit what I'd call my quality threshold: the minimum level of awesomeness that I am looking for in fiction.

Immediately after finishing this project, I started reading Junichiro Tanizaki's The Makioka Sisters, which is super 'literary'***: it's a family epic about four sisters in 1930s Japan. And I'm liking it at least as much as I enjoyed any of the genre novels (well, okay, not as much as I liked The Magicians).

So there, my preferences are at least somewhat real.



*One of my favorite novels of all time, Stoner, is a sad-professor-sleeps-with-student story.

**Actually, if "Horatio Hornblower fights Islamic fundamentalists in space" has not been written yet, then someone needs to write it and pitch it to Baen immediately!

***I will say one thing. I do feel bad about saying that classic or foreign work is part of "literary fiction." It's extremely unfair how modern writers of "literary fiction" have positioned themselves as the inheritors of Chekhov and Tolstoy and Hemingway and Cervantes and everybody else who wrote fiction that we still read. Because those authors didn't really have anything to do with modern academic creative writing. Tolstoy did not go to the Iowa Writers' Workshop. And it's also a bit insulting to assume that genre writers haven't read Tolstoy. Still, I sometimes think that critics of literary fiction do also mean to criticize Tolstoy, because a lot of the criticisms that they make of literary fiction (it is self-indulgent, overwritten, meandering) are criticisms that unsophisticated readers might make of Tolstoy. If, however, you are only criticizing the modern genre of literary fiction and not the entire canon of classic fiction, then you have my apologies. Because I do think that literary fiction (the modern genre) is no more likely to be good than genre fiction.

Thinking about moving away from writing novel-length adult science fiction and fantasy

Me, after I go literary

So, the thing that I didn’t mention in my post about getting an agent is that Greenhouse Literary specializes in children’s lit. At one point, that would’ve given me pause. During my initial rounds of querying, I only considered authors that repped adult science fiction as well as YA. However, my next adult SF novel didn’t really work for me. I lost interest in it halfway through the revision process. And the one after that (the novel draft that I completed a few months ago) was another YA novel, this time a contemporary (i.e. non-speculative) YA novel. For a YA writer, that’s fine—it’s totally normal to move between the subgenres of YA. But if I’m an adult SF writer who dabbles in YA, then that’s a bit off: it doesn’t really fit the narrative.

So I more and more like the idea of being a YA writer. The field feels a bit more active (although these things can change pretty quickly). But it also feels a bit more accepting. YA novels can have a number of different structures and plots and types of conflict.

SF, on the other hand, feels like it’s very limited to the standard adventure plot. Even very sophisticated and high-concept SF (stuff like the work of Brian Francis Slattery or Jeff Vandermeer or Cory Doctorow) kind of has these adventure plots. And I feel like I’m a bit over that. The part of the story that I’m most interested in is the rest of it: the situations, the characters, the settings—I resent every page that I have to waste on action scenes.

Of course, action is not mandatory in adult SF. Some of my favorite SF novels (Beggars in Spain, Speed of Dark, Farthing, A Scanner Darkly, 334, Flowers for Algernon, Stand on Zanzibar) have no action. Actually, Stand on Zanzibar might have some. I can’t remember, since I still have no idea what the actual plot of the book was.

So you can write non action-oriented adult SF. But…you’re kind of a marginal figure. I realized this when I was looking for books to review for Strange Horizons. The vast majority of books that come out in SF are series fiction: trilogies about fantasy heroes; never-ending series’ about paranormal detectives; books about spaceships shooting at each other with lasers. And all of those things are great! But if you don’t write those things, then you’re kind of at the fringes of the SF world.

In YA, that’s not true. Although dystopian / SF / Fantasy novels are popular, they don’t necessarily need to have these adventure-hero plots. And, furthermore, there’s the whole contemporary subgenre, where you pretty much never have that kind of plot. It’s not that there’s more freedom, it’s just that there’s more of a possibility that the thing you produce while being free might actually, you know, sell some copies. In SF, the most sophisticated writers either settle down to writing (very sophisticated) fantasy trilogies or detective novels or space operas, or they accustom themselves to being left out.

And that’s not what I want for myself.

The problem with YA is that, even though I like writing it, I don’t want to spend the rest of my life writing entirely about the lives and problems of 15-19 year olds. I do, at some point, want to write about adults.

But I’m seriously considering going all literary. Literary fiction isn’t a very big sector, but (in terms of sales) it’s about equal with SF (both are about 6% of the total book market; and both are dwarfed by mysteries, which are, in turn, dwarfed by romance). It feels like in literary fiction, just like in SF, people are primarily looking for more commercial stuff, but their definition of “more-commercial” is way different. They just want some high-concept lit-fic that actually has a plot. And I can do that. Plot is in my DNA. I’m never gonna write a novel that doesn’t move.

So yeah, I have an idea for a literary fiction novel (i.e. no speculative elements at all). I already produced a novella (27,000 word) version of it, and I am seriously pondering how to expand it to 60-70,000 words. I can’t speak to where my sense inspiration will take me, but I’ve found that my sense of inspiration tends to be very closely aligned with my professional self-interest. And, professionally, I think it’d be a pretty good career move to polish that thing up and try to make it my first-published adult novel. That way, even if I wrote more-speculative work later on, I’d be firmly established as a literary writer.

And yes, part of this is just I sort of just want to test out the correctness of my theory re: how one can get into the New Yorker =)

But of course, all of this is just dreaming. Generally speaking, it’s pretty difficult (for a number of reasons) to plan this sort of stuff out.


Oh, and as a final note, none of this will affect my short fiction output, of course. I love the SF short fiction market. It’s way more fun and vibrant than the literary fiction market. I honestly think I’d rather publish in F&SF than in McSweeney’s.

Lessons from AWP: There’s really no pot of gold on the other side of the wall

AWP was very revelatory. I went to a bunch of the popular fiction themed panels, just because that’s a place where I have a hand in. And at a few of them, I heard genre-affiliated people rail about how they don’t get any respect and how the literary establishment should let them in. That’s not a new song, obviously. One hears it all the time on the blogs of SF writers and critics.

But at the conference, I also started to get a sense of what the literary fiction world is like. It was very interesting. There was a palpable sense of desperation hanging over the place. This was not a fan convention. Everyone there was a writer. Everyone was on the make. Everyone was hustling. Everyone was networking. And there was a very real sense that almost no one was going to “make it.” I wouldn’t say that the rhetoric was downbeat, but you just felt in the peoples’ body language and in the tenor of their conversation and in the panel titles* just how desperate people were.

And that’s the literary establishment, people. Genre fiction people rail about the “genre ghetto” as if there’s some beautiful golden metropolis on the other side of those ghetto walls. But there’s not. Literary fiction is just another slum. Overall, I wouldn’t say it’s less healthy than SF. Both sectors sell roughly the same value of books every year (as I recall, they’re both about 6% of the total publishing market…and that’s 1/3rd of the share commanded by romance novels).

Yes, literary fiction controls many of the engines that give cultural prestige to authors and works. And it does feel good to get that prestige. But it's not everything. I mean, what does literary fiction really have that genre fiction doesn’t have? I can only name a few prizes:

  • 50ish slots each year for short stories in the New Yorker and a few more slots in the Atlantic. These magazines reach literally one hundred times as many people as most of the top literary journals (the Paris Review, Tin House, McSweeney’s, etc) and science fiction magazines (Asimov’s, Analog, Clarkesworld, etc.) Being published in them is pretty much the only way that a short story writer can get their work in front of the eyes of someone who doesn’t normally read short stories.
  • Roughly 25 openings, per year, for entry-level fiction professorships (and a few more unadvertised or mid/senior-level openings).
  • The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
  • The National Book Award for Fiction
  • And then a few other bonus awards—NEA grants, post-graduate fellowships, etc.
  • The ability to foist a person’s novels onto high school and college kids.

All that stuff is great. And it’s real and concrete and wonderful, if you can get it. But who does get it? All those things go to maybe 50-100 authors a year. Everyone else has to scrabble around in the dirt, either relying on their book sales (just like genre authors) or working a day job.

I think it absolutely would be nice if some of genre fiction’s less-commercial writers were more competitive for professorships, because god knows they’re not earning a living by selling their books. And that’s a fight worth having. To a large extent, it’s a fight that’s been had. A fair number of genre writers (John Crowley, Kij Johnson, John Kessel, Nalo Hopkinson, Brian Evenson, Samuel Delany, Kit Reed) are sitting inside creative writing departments and that number will probably increase a bit in the coming decades.

But I don’t think this is a fight that’s worth getting so frothing angry about. I mean, so you’ll find it a bit harder get published in the New Yorker? So what? Most literary fiction writers will never get in there either. So you’ll find it very difficult to win major literary awards. So what? Most literary writers won’t win them either. People talk about the literary/genre divide as if there were numerous lives and livelihoods at stake. They call it a matter of segregation and ghettoization, but it’s not. Those things affected millions of people. This thing affects maybe 50 people a year. Yes, it’s sad that Cat Rambo is not competitive for professorships and that we’ll never see a Ted Chiang story in the New Yorker. But it’s also not really that big a deal**. And correcting this injustice is definitely not worth my time.

*Examples (all of these are just from Thursday morning)

  • Landing the Tenure-Track Job without a Book: What to Expect in the Job Market
  • Getting That First University Teaching Job.
  • Only Half as Crazy as We Seem: Exploring Unconventional Strategies for Indie Lit Startups
  • Literary Writers Writing Popular Fiction: What’s Up With That
  • What I Wish I Had Known in Grad School About the Two-Year College – (A panel about teaching in community colleges)

**Also, as I noted last year, genre fiction does have _some_ rewards that are denied to literary fiction

Sidenote: Literary authors are also guilty of this same sin. Many seem to think that all commercial fiction authors are rolling in the dough. Not true. I guarantee you that for every Tom Clancy, there are a thousand extremely frustrated military history buffs who are toiling away as insurance adjustors because their novels tanked (and for every one of those thousand, there are another thousand military history buffs who couldn't even get their novels published)