Fortiter et fideliter—
Things are not looking good for literary fiction. As the New York Times notes, the big-time booksellers (the national accounts like Barnes & Noble and the mass merchandisers like Costco) are driving sales, and due to a combination of the consumers' preference for brand name authors (rather than new voices) and the retailers' desire to see immediate large sales, literary fiction is forever playing second banana to its more popular and mainstream-attractive friend, genre fiction. (Think Velma and Daphne, respectively.) The big houses, of course, also want to optimize sales, and so they're in no hurry to alter this system of subsidizing a few literary titles with the sales of their Da Vinci Codes and Twilights. Yet more disturbing:
Indeed, in 2005, almost half of all sales in the literary fiction category came from the top 20 best-selling books, according to Nielsen Bookscan, which tracks sales in 70 percent to 80 percent of the domestic retail market. The three top sellers in literary fiction were "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," by Mark Haddon (640,000 copies in Bookscan's sampling); "Memoirs of a Geisha," by Arthur Golden (560,000 copies, including the movie tie-in); and "The Known World," by Edward P. Jones (274,000 copies).So even if your literary novel is picked up for publication—and, to be honest, it most likely won't be—it's got to compete well enough with the others to become one of those very rare literary bestsellers if you ever want a prayer of quitting your day job. Once again, sales are soft, and though certain genres (e.g. fantasy, romance) are up, literary fiction is not one of them. In order to get bestseller-level results:
"You need 15 things to happen in the right order on time," said Bill Thomas, the editor in chief of Doubleday-Broadway, whose recent successes include "The Curious Incident," as well as Jonathan Lethem's "Fortress of Solitude" and, yes, "The Da Vinci Code." Those things include drumming up enthusiasm inside the publishing house, spreading the word to booksellers and reviewers by sending out manuscripts months before publication, and securing a front-of-store display at Barnes & Noble and Borders and prominent placement on Amazon.com. To show booksellers you're serious, Thomas said, you have to ship a minimum of 20,000 copies to stores at the time of publication.That's no small order; it's not enough for you to win over a literary agent and for him or her to win over an editor. That editor has to win over... well, not me per se, but my bosses and other people in my department. And, in a few years, that will probably include me, as well.
But literary novels rarely sell that many copies in hardcover, and the need for a high print run sets up expectations that can be difficult to meet. Printing 20,000 copies off the bat also requires the commitment of the entire publishing apparatus. To get "in-house support" for a book, editors vie against one another to win over the marketing and art departments so the book gets advertising dollars and the best jacket possible.
In case you were curious, this phenomenon isn't confined to the here-and-now. Over in jolly old England (and roughly two years in the past), Blake Morrison bemoans the state of literary fiction. You should find this especially disconcerting, since England is clearly much more refined/proper/intelligent/&c than us Uh-MAY-ree-kans, and if they're not reading literary fiction, I'm confident in saying that nobody is. And this coming from yours truly, a major reader of literary fiction. Alack.
Morrison quotes 2,000 hardcover copies and 8,000 paperback copies as being a realistic estimate of the average literary novel's sales; I think that's a bit on the optimistic side, and it seems our friend Moonrat agrees (at least as recently as last September). She says that 1,500 copies sold or fewer will probably disappoint your publisher, 2,000 - 4,000 is strong, 4,000 - 7,000 is great, and 7,000+ is fan-friggin'-tastic (I may have paraphrased a little). These numbers are pretty small when you consider the larger publishing environment, in which the average agented book sells around 12,000 copies (according to the Book Industry Study Group and RR Bowker, both quite reputable).
So, is literary fiction dying? Well, yes and no. Yes in the sense that it constitutes a very small percentage of the market; no in the sense that this is anything new.
Finally, what kind of advance can you expect for your literary novel? This is somewhat tricky, since I don't think the data have been compiled yet (at least, not anywhere that I can find) and I don't have much experience with the average literary advance vs. the average advance for an author these days, but I'd be comfortable with this LA Times article from 2002. As I've said before, yes, a lot of these data are a few (or in this case, several) years old, but to be honest, the average advance hasn't crept up all that much in the past few years, and with publishing houses slashing costs wherever possible, advances for debut authors have been falling. You'll probably fall in the $5,000 - $7,000 range.
Now, you'll notice in that same article (as well as according to our One True God Wikipedia) that Michael Chabon got an advance of $155,000 for his debut novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. And this is true.
This is also true, and please say it with me: I am not Michael Chabon. You cannot, cannot, cannot pin your hopes on a six figure advance for your debut novel, because the chances are astronomically against you. You are not Michael Chabon. Unless, of course, you are, in which case: hey Mike! Loved The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.
So, in summary:
• Literary fiction is not selling well. This is not news.
• The average sales and average advance(s) are lower than usual. You can probably expect an advance in the $5,000 - $7,500 range.
• If you're not a seriously brilliant writer and/or do not have an MFA from Columbia, Iowa, or the like, you might want to reconsider writing literary fiction. That is, if you plan on selling it.
I'm sorry, folks, it breaks my heart. I'm a poet and a consumer of/dabbler in literary fiction; how do you think I feel?