| This Weeks Column:
THE DEATH OF FIRST FICTION
... a MobyLives guest column
by Robert Lasner
14 March 2005 Elisabeth Sifton, then EditorinChief of Viking, wrote in the May 22, 1982 issue of The Nation that, "the average first novel sells only about 2,000 to 4,000 copies. This readership represents about .001 or .002 percent of the population." Combine those sobering sales statistics with last year's NEA report, "Reading at Risk," which showed a ten percent decline in literary readership since 1982, when Ms. Sifton made her comments, and it is clear that things are not going well for literary first fiction.
As a publisher and a firsttime author, I understand the problem all too well. In 2002, I decided to selfpublish my debut novel For Fucks Sake because I knew, as someone with no connections in the literary world, how difficult it would be to get published. Not wanting the selfpublishing stigma hung around my book, my wife, Elizabeth Clementson, and I decided to build a publishing house around For Fucks Sake, and Ig Publishing was born.
Nostalgic for the good old days, when publishers actually tried to build an author's career, we dedicated Ig to publishing the work of "overlooked or firsttime authors." While we heard phrases like "sixty percent returns," used to describe the failure of first fiction, we were confident that we could sell literary first novels. (Fortunately, we were also savvy enough to publish other, more commercial fare, or I would be writing this as a former publisher.)
We published two first novels. Each was imaginative, and different than a lot of other stuff that passes for imaginative and different. Each author was nonconnectedno agent, no "following," no MFA. Each book was nongenre specificnot a mystery, not a thriller, etc.and nonclassifiablenot a gay novel, not a punk novel, etc. In short, both were just good literary reads and, as we discovered, the worst thing to publish these days.
Both books received a few reviews and a few orders upon release, and, then, three to six months after release, the returns started to roll in. (The sixtypercent figure was right on.) Publishing, for those who don't know, is a consignment business, and if your book doesn't move off the shelf in ninety days or so, it is removed from the shelf and sent back, hopefully still in sellable condition, to the publisher, wholesaler, or distributor from which it came.
We were crestfallen. We had spent a lot of TLCtime, love and cashon these novels, and all we had to show for it were boxes of books gathering dust on our distributor's shelves.
Today, as our house passes the threeyear mark, we, quite frankly, are wavering on our commitment to literary first fiction. And it is not just because of the failure of those two novels. (My novel has actually sold well, despite a grand total of one review when it came out, because the title and the edgy content helped it to develop a word of mouth following.) It is that we have also, sadly, learned "the business of publishing."
Ignoring the hot MFA grad you read about in Publisher's Weekly whose novel starts a big house bidding war, literary first novels are almost impossible to introduce into the marketplace. Bookstores will only order them in small quantities, if at all, and it is difficult to get reviews, especially in places that really matter. Additionally, getting a bookstore reading for a first fiction author is an effort that would make Sisyphus proud. A wellestablished independent bookseller once told me flat out that he would never book a first fiction author into his store.
Furthermore, to even have a chance of selling, a first novel has to be classifiable, meaning it has to fit neatly into a genre or nichemystery, 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.
Nowadays, when an "unclassifiable" first novel is submitted to us, we find ourselves considering the book's salability more strongly than the quality of the work. "Excellent writing, good story, can't sell," is the conclusion we often reach. I wish this weren't the case, but we need to make money to stay in business, and, the fact is, first novels don't offer much of a chance of doing that. Furthermore, as a fairly young small press without an impressive fiction backlist, there is not a lot we can do to help a first novel get the attention it needs to succeed.
Is there anything that can be done, then, to save first fiction? I believe there are a few solutions that could at least give first literary novels a fighting chance. To begin with, alternative review sourcessuch as the free alt weekly of Anytown, USAshould stop publishing reviews of big press books that are already covered by the mainstream review sources. Do we really need to see another review of Eggers, Moody, etc., after their books have already been reviewed in NYTBR, LA Times, Chicago Tribune, et al? Too many alternative papers go conservative when it comes to the book section, often reviewing the same books as the major newspapers and magazines. While many alternative sources do pay attention to small presses, as a whole, they can do better.
Then there are bookstores. Though most independents have limited resources, they can be innovative in ways that the chains can't. One example is that of Cindy Dach, of the Changing Hands bookstore in Tempe, AZ, who books "First Fiction" author tours, where groups of firsttimers read in bars, which makes the often staid author reading experience a bit more lively, and a lot less sober. These tours are jointly sponsored by publishers and independents, and are a good example of different parts of the book industry working together to benefit firsttime authors.
Even the monolithic evil chains can play a part in promoting first fiction. Borders was partly responsible for the success of For Fucks Sake. First, they actually ordered the book, and second, instead of placing single copies on the back shelves of all their stores, which guarantees high returns, they placed multiple copies in select stores, in this case college and urban areas where For Fucks Sake would be better appreciated. As a result, my book sold several thousand copies through Borders.
Finally, big 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 hitor, 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. It would make for happier authors, and, in the longterm, happier publishers.
However, none of the suggestions I have made will matter it we don't increase the appetite for literary reading in this country. And short of destroying every single television set, I don't know what can be done. Literary reading is becoming a lost art, and according to "Reading at Risk," the greatest decline in literary reading is among the young, which is not a good harbinger of things to come. However, if something is not done, soon, not only first fiction, but all literary fiction, will disappear as a viable part of the publishing world.
Robert Lasner is the author of the novel For Fucks Sake and copublisher of Ig Publishing in Brooklyn, New York. You can write to him at igpublishing AT earthlink.net.
©2005 Robert Lasner
HOW I MANAGED TO GALVANIZE THE RIGHTWING HATE MACHINE WITHOUT REALLY TRYING . . . In a guest column, Steve Almond tells what happens when you write a simple little book about your love for candy and you give maybe just the slightest little mention of your politics . . . .
All material not otherwise attributed ©2000 2005 Dennis Loy Johnson.