Monday, August 17, 2009

Genre-Specific Sales, Part 5 of 8: Literary Fiction

So, I almost didn't want to write this one, because it makes me a little, well, barfy, but I've been straight with you all thus far, and I don't intend to change that anytime soon.

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 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.

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.
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.

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?


  1. Thanks so much for this very honest and in depth post.

    well, I think the one thing literary fiction writers have on their side is passion, and passion does not require money to fuel it... readers though, that would be nice. I do wonder how long it will take before literature of this kind becomes, like public sculpture, poetry on the subway etc - supported by grants and councils and distrubted free to the populace, as a way of preserving the form and brightening the (inner) urban landscape.

  2. Discouraging! But if we (writers/lovers of literary fiction) must go down this path, at least we shall do it with eyes open. I am consoling myself with the "if it's worth doing, it's worth doing well" mantra and hoping I can be content to write something great, even if it doesn't sell--also looking for a job. Know of any?! Thanks for collecting all this data for us!

  3. Makes me glad that I write YA books. I think I have a much better shot of making a go of this writing thing than if I was writing literary fiction (which makes you wonder if the rest of adult fiction is unliterary, but I digress.)

  4. "Literary fiction is not selling well. This is not news."

    Yeah. At the beginning of this I was thinking about famous literary authors of the past and how, for many of them, their books only became bestsellers after they died. It may be best to think of literary fiction as an investment in one's children.

  5. GOODNESS! If I hadn't already realized I'm better suited to Young Adult and Chick Lit, this post would probably have been enough to make me jump ship.

    That said, I think you're doing writers everywhere a service by being honest. Thank you.

  6. The moral of the story? Write the best book you can and have a plan B.

    Mine is foolproof. I plan to win a Powerball lottery.

    WVS: siplog-a blog that leads to excessive consumption of alcohol after reading.

  7. Big Pimpin':
    Thanks for the post. Question: do you include novels such as The Historian and The Rule of Four (just two broad examples) as literary fiction, or as genre? In my mind there is also the classification of mainstream fiction, sort of in-between literary and genre. However, my mind is often wrong, and I'm interested in your professional opinion on that. Thanks---

  8. I used to be embarrassed to say that I was writing "commercial fiction." But insights like this reassure me that I'm doing okay.

  9. Nonfiction will take over the world!!!
    *insert maniacal laughter here*

  10. Now of course the next response is "but I could be the NEXT Michael Chabon! Right? Right?" Optimism is good and all, but yeah...

    This actually quite surprised me, though I'm not sure why. I've always been firmly a F/SF reader - while I do read some literary fiction I don't seek it out - and the conception that I've always heard is that lit fic is "mainstream" and genre is something slightly embarassing. Of course this doesn't mean that I'm glad to hear lit fic isn't doing well. I'd be happier if all forms of fiction did well, personally, because variety is the spice of life!

  11. This doesn't surprise me. But to see it in stark text is still painful. Time to start a support group?

  12. Great - but painful - post. You've given me some great stats. I love me some stats!!

    When I first queried my novel I queried it as commercial lit, or women's lit. To which agents who read it wrote back, "Ummmm... this is literary fiction."

    I was both honored and horrified.

    Now that it's being published, it's good to have some idea of what decent sales mean. I like to have a goal - even if it has to be a realistic one.

  13. I agree with Precie - while this heads-up re: the dire situation for lit fiction doesn't surprise me, it breaks my heart nonetheless.

    So, I have a question, Pimp Daddy-o, if I've been saying that my novel is literary/mainstream, would I be better off just calling it mainstream? Don't want to give agents another reason to turn tail and run!

    Thanks for your insights, as always!

  14. Ummm, yeah. I really, really, REALLY want to write literary fiction, but, I'll relent to mainstream fiction if there is a slight difference. I've wanted to be a writer my entire life and, if I have to write mainstream fiction than so be it. I'm originally a poet but look how that sells! I think I'm the only person on earth who still reads poetry. The stark reality of my writing life is definitely pointing me to the bar at 3:24 in the afternoon, for perhaps a binge of solitude.

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  16. I wonder if this also applies to "commercial/mainstream literary fiction" or "Book Club" fiction as Nathan Bransford calls it on his blog. If so, my countenance falls at the thought.

  17. Thank you bold and faithful one.

    This is why I shelved my mainstream/possibly literary, fiction for detective. I'm fine with both but, yes, I feel the diminishing of literary fiction a great loss.

    But, as always, things change. So we must take heart.

  18. This has just made me really, really sad. The world will miss out on so much if this is how we start to live *sigh*

    Now, back to my day job. Inspiring people that 'you can be anything you want in the world'.

  19. Great post, we need these kinds of round-ups more often. The more informed writers are, the better. (And if you're a really talented literary fiction writer, is the consolation of university teaching really that bad?)

  20. Considering how prevalent the Powerball backup plan is, I think it's time to start a literary-fiction-writer Powerball pool. You know how you always hear about a group of nurses or teachers or factory workers who contribute to buy a ton of tickets and then split the winnings? Let's get this organized, writers.

  21. As hard as this is to hear, I still think you have to write what's in your heart, even if you know it won't sell. The vast majority of us write not for the money, but for the craft.

  22. I'm not sure what makes a book literary fiction, unless you use sales as part of the definition. In which case, anything that sells well is automatically not literary, but commercial.

    What I do know is that when I read manuscripts by writers who say "my novel is literary fiction," it often ends up being pretentious, plotless, and self-indulgent/ semi-autobiographical. No wonder these books don't sell.

    As for your examples, I wouldn't call "Curious Incident of the Dog..." or "Memoirs of a Geisha" literary. The first was a YA mystery novel (at least to my eyes) and Memoirs struck me as exotic women's fiction. Which may be why they both sold so well.

  23. I've also heard the term "Book Club Fiction" batted around. I feel this tends to be literary but and intelligently readable subset rather than broad literary which also extends beyond to more intellectual or academic literary aspects. What do you think of that term and does it bear up better than the lit fiction label?

    (Oh and...'since England is clearly much more refined/proper/intelligent/&c than us Uh-MAY-ree-kans' had me in stitches...thank you!)

  24. Just an irrelevant footnote... Americans is pronounced "MEH-rickans", as our French exchange student noted.

  25. LitFic til I die (starving author in a garrat if this sooth(e)saying post proves 100% on the mark). I've got a tattoo to prove it, next to the one of a feather quill and inkpot...

    Look people, we'll just have to go out there and publish ourselves and market it ourselves. And we call ourselves creative? Let's do this thing

  26. If at some point you decide that you actually do have a unique voice and something to say and all that matters is the work, then you can get just self market, self promote and if necessary start to declaim your work in the streets. It may actually feel good like running into the ocean naked.

  27. Anonymous said: "I'm not sure what makes a book literary fiction, unless you use sales as part of the definition. In which case, anything that sells well is automatically not literary, but commercial.

    What I do know is that when I read manuscripts by writers who say "my novel is literary fiction," it often ends up being pretentious, plotless, and self-indulgent/ semi-autobiographical. No wonder these books don't sell."

    This was spot-on. My third book is literary science fiction, and I doubt it will ever be published for the reasons stated above, but mostly the "pretentious and plotless" part. My fourth book is middle-grade fantasy. Still fun to write, and a lot easier for other people to read.

  28. Something tells me people never change very deeply, and I wonder if the thoughtful stuff has simply moved from novels over to TV and film, where the balance between frivolous and serious stories seems much fairer.

    This is a little heart-breaking for me, as I'm trying to publish a literary novel (, but perhaps heartening in general.

    What do you think?

  29. After reading this, I think someone should call a whaaambulance for me. Seriously, I want to cry. It seems that even IF I get my literary novel published, it might still collect dust.

  30. I have always wanted to write literary fiction, but recently I have been reflecting on how no one reads literary fiction with the exception of other writers, and thus no one buys it. Now that I've read this I am starting to think I should just forget about it rather than spend a life struggling poor. I'm a pretty good writer but I do not have an MFA and no way in hell would I go to school for that. Its a useless degree that would land me in about 60k of student debt. I'd rather take engineering because at least then I could make a six figure salary. I'm a big believer that you don't need to go to school to be a writer.

    However, the novel I'm working on now is what I would classify as a YA urban fiction. It's about the rave scene... so, maybe not really that literary after all. Doesn't mean I cant use literary language in the telling of the story though!

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