"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.