I've got fifty-two successful scenarios to my credit, added to which my father's a policeman.

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"In 2002, I decided to self-publish my debut novel For Fucks Sake…"

With this unpromising phrase, author/publisher Robert Lasner launches into the umpteenth lamentation about the state of literary publishing, in this case, the extreme difficulty of selling "literary" first novels:

To even have a chance of selling, a first novel has to classifiable, meaning it has to fit neatly into a genre or niche—mystery, thriller, crime, etc. A one sentence selling line also helps. However, literary fiction often cannot be easily classified or described. Try boiling Ulysses or Crime & Punishment down to one sentence.

"Homer's Odyssey is retold as a highly stylized day-in-the-life comedy in a twentieth-century city." "An intelligent, disaffected former student is haunted by a murder he committed." All the Great Books are high concept. Besides, why shouldn't buyers have some idea of how to classify the book they're spending money on? They do with music, movies, etc.

Lasner's bitter experiences in the business give him some insight, however, and one of his suggestions—that the alt weeklies (and for that matter, the so-called book blogs) should live up to their name by reviewing stuff that isn't covered in The New York Times—seems sensible. He's also got an accurate read on the book business:

[B]ig publishers can help literary first fiction by not paying for it. Huge advances to first novelists creates the "one and done" phenomena, where an author is dropped by a big house when their book doesn't earn out its ridiculously high advance. One of the worst things about the swallowing of big publishing by international media conglomerates is that big houses have completely lost the concept of building an author's career. They just go for the big hit—or, in most cases, miss. I am willing to bet that the bottom line of many publishers would be improved if they stopped throwing money away on advances that will never be earned back, and instead tried to nurture author's careers.

Too true. A writer I know with a (nonfiction) book from a major New York publisher has just sold through his first and only printing, but the book hasn't earned back his advance. Since the publisher doesn't plan on doing a second printing, that means the book will sell out its entire inventory without ever justifying the advance they paid to the writer. It's hard to imagine a writer doing better than selling every copy that the publisher prints, but even so, the money they paid him is now down the drain. Essentially, he ripped them off fair and square, because the publishers made a deal in which they couldn't possibly make money. There's clearly something wrong with a business that operates this way.

But Lasner shows his weak hand when he concludes with a call to "increase the appetite for literary reading." Sorry, but if people don't want to come, nothin's gonna stop them. Why is there always this assumption that the poor market for literary fiction is due to reader ignorance rather than hostility? The problem isn't that people don't know about the product; it's that they don't want it.

A faster solution would be to do away with "first novels" completely. For my money, "first novel" is right up there with "Amount entered exceeds available balance" (and of course "I decided to self-publish my debut novel For Fucks Sake") among the most disheartening phrases in the language. From now on, all writers should start out with their second novel. That way you can be sure you're reading somebody with a track record.

NEXT: To Anacreon in Heaven

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  1. I heard For Fuck’s Sake makes a great gift for your grandmother (or other ailing relative) to put on her coffee table.

  2. –For my money, “first novel” is right up there with “Amount entered exceeds available balance” (and of course “I decided to self-publish my debut novel For Fucks Sake”) among the most disheartening phrases in the language.

    I think “first screenplay” trumps that.

  3. works for me! I did it on saving my first million dollars. Couldn’t seem to get it so I give up on it and started working on my second million.

  4. Tim,

    I love your wit.

  5. “The problem isn’t that people don’t know about the product; it’s that they don’t want it. ”

    Ding, ding!

    If I have to read one more whiny, self-absorbed, psuedo-biographical novel with a “point” to make, I’m just going to stop reading altogether. As a good friend of mine recently observed, “Have you noticed how many novels have pink backgrounds and pictures of cute shoes on the cover?”

    For my part, I’ve completley rejected the idea of “art”. Now I focus solely on craftsmanship. I don’t care how “serious” you are, you’d better write good, ;), and you’d better keep me entertained. After all, I’m just gonna project my own meaning on it anyway, so if it ain’t really interesting, you might as well just give me a blank page.

  6. I’d start by saying that all these self-publisher guys could do so much better for themselves if they just sat down for five minutes with an old school ebay powerseller. Further it by adding any time someone lambasts a supposed failing of their customer base, you just know their product’s gonna suck.

    That said, there is something that could be done to increase, at least slightly, the market for fiction (literary, what’s that? Chicks who write, poorly, about sleeping with their dad?):

    Give the boys incarcerated in our public schools books to read that they might actually enjoy, or at least not claw themselves while suffering through.

    Currently, something like 2/3rds of public school libraries have not a single book in stacks of interest to boys, (imagine what that says about the curriculum), and of course, while women can watch Spike TV; guys won’t do Lifetime.

    There’s a smidge of NEA research into this, but they’re talking five-year studies for an obvious problem for which the solution is at hand (and you gotta wonder, are the school boards so stupid they think little Timmy’s gonna sit there through 12 years of life on Prince Edward Island, or is the ritalin makers that are funding the reading lists).

    Whatever. Guy’s a dork; but I started my second site on a bet… after I realized mainstream publishing houses weren’t even printing male-interest porn anymore.

    David Moynihan
    Disruptive Publishing*
    http://www.blackmask.com
    http://www.olympiapress.com
    http://www.silkagoda.com (forthcoming)

    *The disruptive part is best explained by the way I’ve been in the black for six years now.

  7. “An intelligent, disaffected former student is haunted by a murder he committed.”

    I think I can improve on that:
    “After murdering his landlady, 19th century russian student plays mouse to police detective cat.”

  8. I think authors should take a page from Hollwood’s book. I hear that the classic way to pitch a movie is to describe it as “_____ meets ______” — and you fill in the names of two blockbusters.

    Example: “Beowulf? It’s Ridley Scott’s Alien meets Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings!”

  9. There already is a book for sale called “For Fuck’s Sake.”

    http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0970312512/reasonmagazinea-20/

    I would like to buy your book, but not this one.

  10. Tim,
    Change your working title to “Catch 2; the Novel”

  11. Stevo,
    Even better, advertise books with the guy that does voice overs for the previews.
    “In a world….Where animals can talk…And become communists….Revolution will begin….and end in treachery….Some will be more….equal than others…This summer….Gerorge Orwell and the associate producer of Farenheit 9/11 bring you…Animal Farm….Only one pig will rule them all”

  12. Mo: Yes, yes! But that’s after the picture is made. For the pitch to the studios, it’s, “Animal Farm? It’s Babe meets Reds!

    Then we hire the Guy With the Voice.

    Jean Garaofalo once gave her impression of “every movie trailer made these days”:

    “In a world …” And then Tommy Lee Jones does something.

  13. And don’t forget, if the book has swords, Orff has to be playing in the background.

  14. Stevo, Mo,
    Litterly Laughing Out Loud 😀
    That’s fun, let me try…

    Some people just don’t play well with others…
    In a world where you go along to get along…
    He was prepared to go it alone…
    He would be the source human achievement if they let him…
    The architect of a new world to redeem the souls of men…
    But if they wouldn’t build it the way he wanted it…
    He’d rather BLOW IT ALL UP…

    it’s WALL STREET meets BRAVEHEART
    in Ayn Rands THE FOUNTAINHEAD [Duh Duh dun DUNT!!!]

  15. coming to a theater near you.
    check local listings for times and location.

  16. it’s WALL STREET meets BRAVEHEART in Ayn Rands THE FOUNTAINHEAD [Duh Duh dun DUNT!!!]

    Ooh, not bad!!

  17. 1. In Britain, Carmina Burana is being used as bkgrd music for a dish-washer tablet.

    2. To even have a chance of selling, a first novel…

    We literary readers don’t read stuff with split infinitives. (Unless it’s been written by Shakespeare.)

    (Or by writers for Reason, for whom cleaving infinitives seems to be a Constitutionally-protected right.)

    And while I’m at it: Why must Reason print articles in white type on pale-but-neonish orange or green backgrounds. SO hard to read.

    In Web design, it is generally accepted (by me, at any rate) that dark bkgrds with light fonts should be used as sparingly as possible. On the printed page…

  18. Of course, the “first” novel published is often the second novel, as becomes obvious when the amateurish second novel is rushed out to cash in on it (see McInerney, Janowitz, Ellis and all those 80s names).

    I think this, however, is only one of the ways in which the publishing biz is about the worst run business in America. I have a friend who’s published three novels, one a New York Times notable book, all three great reviews in major publications, one being filmed at this moment with big stars, and I swear about the only thing the publisher hasn’t bungled is getting the jackets on right, they have utterly failed to take advantage of every opportunity presented to them in a way that would get you canned in two minutes if you were the assistant brand manager for Diet Rite. Only the fact that he hired his own publicist has helped, and even she was only so-so by my (marketing background) standards. I can’t wait to see what replaces the current publishing industry, it’s hard to imagine how it could be much less competent.

  19. If people don’t want to come, nothin’s gonna stop them. Why is there always this assumption that the poor market for literary fiction is due to reader ignorance rather than hostility? The problem isn’t that people don’t know about the product; it’s that they don’t want it.

    forgive me, but i think this an insufficient analysis, mr cavanaugh. an intelligent, literary public takes maintenance. just as we construct (or used to) an educated public by schools not only to have a competent workforce but a workable republic, why should we not further offer to construct a literary public that can interpret the meaning of events in our times by contextualizing them through western literature?

    people are animals. shiny balls will do for what we want — 99% of msm is evidence enough of that — if we are content to live in idiotic savagery. but civility takes social effort; it does not arise spontaneously ex nihilo. to the extent that it may impinge on the individual’s prerogative to be a uninhibited drooling tool, so be it. the individual rarely enough seems to understand where his interests lie — far more rarely still deprived of the social understanding conveyed by literacy.

    i don’t know that legislation and regulation are an answer — if they are, they are a brutish one. government imposition is a poor proxy for social will. but the effectiveness of propaganda in convincing the human animal of the truth of artifice has been witnessed time and again (most recently in lebanon, imo — but if you can’t admit that, then iraq). changing the dialogue of this country is easy — but someone has to undertake it.

    whether that be publishing houses or msm or what-have-you, i certainly hope it happens. a renaissance is sorely needed, imo.

  20. Oh, no! Gaius Marius — who cannot use capital letters yet claims to have some sort of literacy — is going to sic the Dave Eggers police on us if we don’t start reading smarter stuff!

    By the by, “spontaneously ex nihilo” is not only redundant, it’s spectacularly, pretentiously so. It has all the hallmarks of someone punching a little outside his weight class.

  21. care to respond in substance, mr cricket?

  22. I get all the contextualizing I need through The Simpsons. (Of course, a broad education is requisite to getting all the jokes writen by those nerdy Harvard-grad Simpsons writers).

    How many “First Novels” have been the first published works by their authors? Like many dorks, I know more about science fiction than fiction, but sci-fi authors start out in sci-fi mags with short stories, and often publish their first longer works in serial form.

    The practical benefits include being able to put “acclaimed author of…” on the book-jacket.

  23. DaveIBD:

    Lit’ry types go the short story route, too, except they sell them to lit mags that, unlike analog, F&SF or Asimov’s, are usually not-for-profits subsidized by foundations, universities and, I’m sorry to say, taxes.

    The “mainstream” guys and gals go to Iowa to learn how to write smart, while the SF crowd has its own conferences. (Is Clarion still running?)

    That a Nabokov reference, or Kubrick, Tim?

    Kevin

  24. Actually, Kubrick, or Sellers, or Nabokov himself improved on the original line from the book, which is: “I have made private movies out of Justine and other eighteenth-century sexcapades. I’m the author of fifty-two successful scenarios. I know all the ropes.”

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