Why Literary Writers Aren’t Getting Traditional Publishing Deals
This week I had lunch with an agent friend who expressed her frustration that the best manuscripts she’s representing simply aren’t selling to traditional publishers. It’s a storyline so familiar to me that I used it as the plot for my book trailer for Green-Light Your Book, in which an animated author gets rejected over and over again for her work not being commercial enough. In my new book, I write:
If you don’t know what it means to “be more commercial,” then bless you. But by the time you’re finished with this book, you will know, and you will understand why what’s most important in determining whether you get a book deal from a traditional house has nothing to do with how good your book actually is and everything to do with how commercial your book (and by extension you, your idea, your vision, your brand) is or has the potential to be.
Today’s aspiring authors are running up against more barriers than ever in their pursuit of traditional publishing. They’re getting what I call the “too” responses—where editors are deeming their books too spiritual, too niche, too literary. It’s all code for not commercial enough.
It used to be that traditional publishers were curators of what we read, and therefore, in a trickle-down way, of our cultural values. Literary books—which usually refers to books of substance, that are more intellectual, typically better written, and stylistically more sophisticated—were valued by mainstream culture. People actually strove to be well-read. There’s no question that our cultural values have shifted in the wake of twenty-four-hour news cycles, digital content, and the constancy of social media. People are still reading, but we’re (generally) more focused on being informed, staying on top of what’s trending, and interacting with online communities than we are in being well-read. Due to the busyness of the average person’s modern life, fewer of us have the bandwidth for literary works. As a result, the traditional publishing world has abandoned its mandate to publish as many of them. That these books “matter” is not a good enough trade-off for the inherent risk of publishing too many literary books. (And before anyone rushes to contradict me here with numerous examples of recently read literary gems, please note that I recognize literary works are still being published. Some of these authors have existing followings—think Toni Morrison, Jonathan Franzen, or Sue Miller, to name just a few. In other cases, like Helen MacDonald’s beautifully executed best-selling literary memoir, H Is for Hawk, the publisher should be given credit for taking a risk that paid off.)
While literary works win awards, and are the books that transcend time, they’re also becoming the least desirable projects for agents and editors. Even those who love them can’t afford to take them on. Agents can’t sell them because publishers can’t justify their publication. Here’s a quick (and rough) math exercise to understand why. When an editor offers an advance to an author, the general rule of thumb is that the book has to sell an equal number of copies as the dollar amount of their advance in order to break even. What this means is that a book that gets a $10,000 advance needs to sell through 10,000 copies to break even. These days, a book that sells this many copies is a bestseller. Most books, even prize-winning books, aren’t selling anywhere near 10,000 copies. So when publishers look at their bottom lines, the books worth taking a risk on are increasingly commercial books—those that will be big summer reads, attached to celebrities or authors with huge existing platforms, big thrillers, or that have the word “girl” in the title (just kidding—ha ha ha).
If you’re a literary writer, or an aspiring author with a literary book, don’t for one second let rejections deter you. As much as it may have been your dream to publish with one of the Big Five publishers, or to have had an agent or editor validate your work as worthy, today’s publishing climate is in such an upside-down state that many of the best books are being rejected simply because they’re “too” fill in the blank: sophisticated, stylistically complex, dense, or “writerly,” per Sanjida O’Connell on Jane Friedman’s blog.
I’m not worried about literary writers not getting published, because I know they’re finding alternate routes to publishing, but I do have concerns (because I talk to these writers regularly) that they think they’re not up to snuff because the traditional world rejected them. Which is why it’s so important to understand that somewhere along the way “literary” got conflated with “doesn’t sell.” And doesn’t sell for a big publisher can and usually does mean anything under 10,000 copies, maybe 5,000 copies for smaller presses. Perhaps 5,000 copies can be a sales goal to strive for, but know that if you touch fewer readers than that, your work still matters and you’re not second best. Set measures of success that include but are not limited to sales, and seize your own publishing future by the reins.