Literary Fiction and eBooks

Good question from the Guardian: “Can literary fiction survive the ebook age?” And if it can (it will, by the way), what does literary fiction have going for it that other genres don’t …?

“Literary fiction can be about anything, so long as it’s beautifully, intriguingly, surprisingly, gorgeously written, so long as it’s brilliantly constructed — from the word, to the sentence, the paragraph, the chapter, the novel and beyond.

What is unique about literary fiction? Basically, it has to be good”.

Good fiction will always have its place, but that isn’t to ignore that it has its work cut out for it when it comes to getting recognized in a very, very crowded ebook marketplace.

From the literary fiction writer’s perspective, it ain’t easy. Check out this semi-recent article from the Wall Street Journal: “Authors Feel Pinch in Age of E-Books” —

“It has always been tough for literary fiction writers to get their work published by the top publishing houses. But the digital revolution that is disrupting the economic model of the book industry is having an outsize impact on the careers of literary writers.

Priced much lower than hardcovers, many e-books generate less income for publishers. And big retailers are buying fewer titles. As a result, the publishers who nurtured generations of America’s top literary-fiction writers are approving fewer book deals and signing fewer new writers. Most of those getting published are receiving smaller advances.”

In other words, quitting one’s day job for writing is sadly becoming less and less viable an economic reality for many. WSJ shares some useful shorthand dollars and sense figures:

“In some cases, independent publishers are picking up the slack by signing promising literary-fiction writers. But they offer, on average, $1,000 to $5,000 for advances, a fraction of the $50,000 to $100,000 advances that established publishers typically paid in the past for debut literary fiction.

The new economics of the e-book make the author’s quandary painfully clear: A new $28 hardcover book returns half, or $14, to the publisher, and 15%, or $4.20, to the author. Under many e-book deals currently, a digital book sells for $12.99, returning 70%, or $9.09, to the publisher and typically 25% of that, or $2.27, to the author.”

Conversely, some survival of the fittest could be the natural order of things when it comes to a flooded fiction market, according to E.L. Doctorow —

“Novelist E.L. Doctorow … says the industry may be transforming away from big corporate-owned publishers back to a cottage industry like it was many years ago. The shakeout could help prune an overcrowded market.

“Writers come up from nowhere, from the ground up, and nobody is looking for them or asking for them, but there they are,” says Mr. Doctorow. “If there is a weeding out that’s going to occur because of such difficulties, it may be all to the good.”

Of course, such sentiments are easier to say, when you actually are E.L. Doctorow … but, point taken.


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

tyler shores cambridge

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