Art belongs in murky waters.
It has been stated by some that literary fiction is dead or in trouble, especially in light of genre fiction dominating e-books. (It has been stated that only five percent of literary books are being sold in e-book format.) What do you feel is the future of literary fiction in the digital age, and how can publishers encourage digital sales of literary fiction when it seems that most people are looking for something quick and easy like a romance or crime novel to read on their e-readers? Can literary publishers learn something from the success of genre fiction?
All categories of publishers need to think a lot more differently about how they conduct business. It has less to do with genre and more to do with understanding consumer behaviors and exploiting the technology at our fingertips.
As successful as genre fiction may appear, the best sellers are the exception (indeed, the distracting outliers) to any strategies that should be formed around operating a viable publishing house. Consider the piles of schlock that get published every day. You may say it’s a matter of cultural tastes (high-brow and low-brow) and that some publishers are bent on profit while others are focused on literary merit (both true), but the game isn’t going to be won by trying to hit the lottery with a runaway bestseller. The game is won by building a compelling and addictive product that people keep returning to the well to experience.
When you’re dealing with a concrete product deliverable like a book (or e-book, for that matter), the 80-20 marketing rule still applies (roughly speaking, 20 percent of your inventory brings in 80 percent of your gross revenue). But as a publisher you don’t need to be held captive to that theory if you: (1) throw out the old playbook; (2) blow up the distribution model; and (3) build your audience by developing a brand that differentiates you from the competition.
It’s not that literary publishing is dead; it’s that publishing itself has fundamentally changed. Literary publishers need to help embrace and drive that change and steer its readers to the next exit on the information highway. The music and gaming industries have circled us on the track but instead of leaving us in the dust, they’ve picked up our pieces and sold us off for parts. Now that we’re tarnished and disassembled, it’s time for indie publishers to reinvent the wheel. The beauty of this meandering metaphor is that we can still define a book as a contoured box of words with meaning under its hood. Now it’s our job to refurbish the vehicle. What shape is it? Who’s opening it and why? How do we deliver it?
Do you think the label “literary” deters people? As it is sometimes unclear what this actually means, do you think the label needs to be reconsidered?
All labels need to be reconsidered. I didn’t know I admired literary journals until I noticed that I tend to gravitate to them whenever I was in a bookstore. I didn’t know that I favored literary fiction over genre fiction until I noticed that most of the books in my private library weren’t showing up on the New York Times bestseller lists. I didn’t intend for my publishing house to specialize in literary fiction. I call what we produce “good writing.” Does that mean that genre fiction is bad writing? Heavens, no.
I suppose we all need to put a label on things so we can speak to them and communicate in a semi-intelligent manner. Should we retire the label “literary” to help us sell more books? Would calling a Persian cat an alley cat make the alley cat more attractive to some people? I don’t know. How about we all just refer to what we read as “literature” and call it a day.