Self-publishing will save literary fiction

An interesting piece on The Bookseller today about literary fiction. The worry from some agents and publishers is that unique and daring voices are going to fall silent because of the changes in the publishing industry (fewer bookstores, lower advances, less risk-taking). The idea seems to be that without the funds to support these writers, the works will never materialize, and literature will suffer a great loss.

I think the opposite is going to happen. The future of literary fiction will be owned and operated by digital natives — writers who grow up posting on blogs, debating on forums, posting on Facebook and Twitter, and all the myriad forms of self-publishing that we don’t seem to label “self-publishing.” Learning how to turn a manuscript into both a physical book and an e-book at almost no expense to the author takes a weekend of fiddling around. And that’s from someone who learned to type on a typewriter. Digital natives are going to be both literary and technologically savvy. It won’t be long (it’s probably already happening) before the next great voice is putting her work out there . . . simply because she can.

What goes unsaid but seems implied in the message that literary works will die without a publishers’ support or bookstores in which to shelve them is that we write literary works for the pleasure of publishers and bookstores. These works are rarely even written for the pleasure of the audience. The three works of my own that I consider the most literary are the three that I tell people *not* to read. I wrote them for myself. I wrote them because I had to. Because it would have pained me *not* to write them.

Works such as this have been penned in composition books by others and shelved, never to be seen. Digital natives won’t do this. They might post the entire work on a blog. They might text the entire work to strangers, one line at a time. They could craft these works on WattPad for public purview. They might typeset the work at a book crafting workshop and bind the pages into a jewel of stitched leather to be read by no more than one person at a time. They might distribute their masterpiece on thumbdrives. But they will write. It’s what we must do.

Artists have relied on the largesse of patrons for centuries. Increasingly, those patrons will become the general public. Or, as the cost of production and distribution drop to zero, artists will realize the patron has become moot. Anyone today can carve out enough time to work on their masterpiece. And that’s why masterpieces will continue to be written.

The final advantage digital natives will have is the absence of a self-publishing stigma. Soon (this is already true for many) self-publishing will be seen as the purer artform. No tampering with style or voice. No gatekeeper. No need even for monetization. Doing it yourself has all the allure of the hacker culture, the local culture, the maker culture. Doing it for a corporation has all the allure of . . . vanity, perhaps?

Great works are being penned at this very moment. They are waiting to be discovered. The problem for the agents and publishers who like to plant their flag upon such works is this: In the future, it’ll be the reader who gets there first.

25 responses to “Self-publishing will save literary fiction”

  1. Jason Lockwood Avatar
    Jason Lockwood

    Here here, Hugh. I have more literary than genre ambitions, which is not to disparage genre fiction. It’s simply that the kind of fiction I gravitate towards as a writer is straight drama. I will always love genre fiction, too, and have even thought of some approaches to creating a detective series of my own.

    I see it as normal that I will publish my own works, both literary and genre fiction. Like you, I don’t see the need to limit myself to one or the other.

  2. Very true.

    I think self – publishing allows writers to take greater risks. This gives both genre and literary writers more freedom to create daring works, without the need to pitch them to a marketing department.

    I try and straddle the line between speculative and literary fiction. It’s not the easiest gig in the world, but I do it because I love it.

  3. In the complaints about the loss of “great literature,” I hear whispers and whines of educated white males who will no longer be the gatekeepers, no longer deem what is “great literature” and what is rubbish, and therefore will no longer maintain such a stranglehold on what the general public learns is human experience. They fear the loss of power. They fear that the white male will no longer be the neutral representative of all humanity.

    Philip Gwyn Jones writes:

    “The view from the writer’s desk looks stormy, or at best overcast. It is no longer possible for most ambitious writers of intellectually bold fiction or non-fiction who are neither salaried academics nor independently wealthy to make even a meagre living from their writing during the gestation of their book-length projects. The old model of funding sources which combined to supply a passable living (in lieu of paid non-writing work) is derelict.”

    And I laugh at hearty laugh. Phil, honey, dear, this situation was never true for the vast majority of women or people of color throughout time, many of whom could or even did write incredible literature. The writers he name-drops in the article? Coleridge, Conrad, Joyce. Notice what Philip Gwyn Jones and Will Self have in common with those people?

    Don’t ask what prolific books we might be missing out on now that fewer can rest comfortably in their ample, funded writing space (and instead might have to do what the rest of us have to do).

    Instead, we should all be asking what prolific books will now be available because the gatekeepers are becoming increasingly irrelevant, and we should be excited.

    High five, Hugh. High five.

    1. > I hear whispers and whines of educated white males who will no longer be
      > the gatekeepers, no longer deem what is “great literature” and what is
      > rubbish, and therefore will no longer maintain such a stranglehold…

      That’s odd, since most agents and editors are female.

  4. When has it ever been possible for not-yet-published writers to make a living writing fiction? This argument baffles me. Writers have traditionally lived on the earnings of their parents or spouses, or the bounty of a wealthy widowed auntie. Writing novels is a lot of fun; even when it’s excruciating torture, it beats your average day job all hollow. Expecting to make a living at it right out of the box is like expecting to make a living playing softball or gardening. This is yet another absurd, defensive argument from the Keepers of the Status Quo.

    Literature, both high and low, is increasingly going to be produced by people who write because they love to write and who write *what* they love to write. Boot the gatekeepers out of the way and readers will be able to discover an amazing new universe of stories.

  5. Love, love, love this. This is exactly why I’m self-pubbing my first literary novel this fall. I wrote it for me, for no one else, and the fans of my genre stuff probably won’t like it. But there’s a literary side to me that I have to explore, too. Self-publishing lets me be the girl who wrote a book just to answer an Andre Dubus story. But I can also be the girl who writes about long-lost royal treasure. I can be me, all parts of me, for better or for worse.

  6. You know else self-publishing saved? Me, a little.
    Because I had to switch careers from teaching, and my job is fabulous but it only feeds me. And now my daughter is older and the urgency is off a bit, and there’s just… this job.
    And even writing didn’t help. I finished the monsterpiece, the 200k epic novel that will change the world, and gee, none of the agents I sent it to wanted a look. Being able to write didn’t change that.
    Being able to self-publish changed that. Giving myself deadlines, knowing that I could, arranging to put a cover on it (all digital so far, but a cover still speaks even when it’s a thumbnail)- all those things are what gave me some of the joy I had been missing. And it also made me write MORE. Because now there was a reason.
    I cannot over-emphasize the rewards I’ve gotten from being able to put my tales out there, instead of waiting to be discovered by the descendants of the people who rejected The Diary of Anne Frank 14 times. You know, those descendants- they’re the guys who rejected JK Rowling 12 times!

  7. This is such an interesting piece, thank you Hugh. I’ve gained a great deal of invaluable information from all your articles and interviews. “Unique and daring voices” didn’t fall silent in the music industry with the advent of indie labels and bands; quite the opposite in fact. The publishing industry may have to do some hasty shape-shifting to catch up with the innovations of self-publishing authors!

    My agent found a publisher for my debut novel, Tantalus, but a bit further down the line, their marketing dept. wouldn’t back an unknown author with a genre-defying, literary novel that couldn’t be pigeonholed. I had no choice but to go it alone, and this process has been a lot easier through following the inspirational journey you have shared with us all.

  8. The three works of my own that I consider the most literary are the three that I tell people *not* to read. I wrote them for myself. I wrote them because I had to. Because it would have pained me *not* to write them.

    Hear, hear.

    I couldn’t succeed in the traditional industry because most of my early work was literary. I tried writing horror for a while, but those literary-type stories just kept calling to me. Now, as an indie author, I can write to my heart’s content, and package it however I deem necessary. And you know what? My readers love it. I’ve found my niche.

    Literary fiction isn’t going anywhere.

    Great piece, Hugh. :)

  9. Love the post… except for the use of the term “digital natives”.

    There are plenty of old and young folk alike who choose to prioritize the use of new technology and new distribution mechanisms over established and entrenched publishing mechanisms. Chronological age alone doesn’t predispose anybody to taking advantage of technology in pursuit of the need to write.

  10. I look forward as a reader and an author to having more freedom to experiment. I think the current environment is characterized by traditional publishing people running around at conferences screaming, ‘the sky is falling’ and not allowing experimentation because of diminishing levels of readership. Isn’t that the time to throw caution to the wind?

    As always you have a vision for the future. Thanks. It is always inspirational to read your blog.

  11. Thanks, Hugh. And thanks to all the very smart writers who left a comment. I write funny books–well, shit, I think they’re funny–and was told by the traditional publishing empire that though they laughed out loud, they could not sell a funny book, so too bad for you and your funny books, Rich. That’s not fair, is it? Nope, it’s not. That’s why I’m self publishing my novels on my Laugh Riot Press imprint (August 2014 release). For me, the beauty of self publishing is the empowerment I feel, the confidence gained, the momentum built to write more, to be a writer now and to continue being one because I know my books will launch before I even write them. I know my stories will be told and shared. That’s power. That’s me controlling of my own writing destiny no matter what the heck happens. If I find an audience, hallelujah. If I don’t, hallelujah. Either way, the books are out, my life feels full, and I am a writer. Thank you, self publishing. I suspect that lot of us do this, Hugh, because you give us courage and inspiration. So please don’t stop, man.

  12. […] piracy too. And then goes on a Konrant about the new world of publishing that pairs nicely with Hugh Howey’s post on how self-publishing will save literary fiction. I’ve also learned to write on a manual and then electric typewriter – but you young […]

  13. “In the future, it’ll be the reader who gets there first.” Absolutely! And as you say, this whole ‘selfpublishing’ debate will soon settle into an artform with a high degree of collaboration; just like in the movie and music industries.

    By preparing the introduction of a literary fiction author in translation, I am witnessing especially the collaboration aspect of things… and how each quarter the path to publication is getting more and more paved by great success-stories and role-models.

    However most interesting is the resistance of the literary establishment I am dealing with to change the focus from debating in literary echo-chambers — clamoring for literary awards and engaging with academia — towards the reader, by painfully crafting an honest and concise pitch for her most precious gift: dedicating many many of her treasured one-on-one hours to your story… Again and again I encounter the utter refusal to even attempt condensing a (so called) literary work to a twitter length tag-line… “That’s sooo Hollywood…” they scoff. Well exactly; they’re making a great effort whilst asking only for two hours!

    In fact, my hunch is that literary fiction will blossom as never before, simply because readers will get there first… that so called genre literature will sooner than later evolve into what by all given measures and standards qualifies for literary fiction…

    Great article, Hugh!

  14. […] This article was originally created as a blog post on Hugh’s blog. You can find the original post here. […]

  15. Sometimes publishers ask writers, “So, what is your marketing plan for this work?”

    I’m sorry, I don’t have one.

    But only one of us has to live on the money.

    And that’s me.

  16. […] Self-publishing will save literary fiction | Hugh Howey […]

  17. After pitching and querying some work for over 20 years, I finally put my toe in the water and tested one of my novels that I couldn’t get any interest from agents. It’s gone on to win awards and generated conversations about the CCCs and its legacy in our forests and national parks. Having learned from that experience, I published its prequel last month. It takes collaboration to put out a book, but I love the way it’s going. My most favorite novel is now in the hands of an editor. Fall, I hope. An audiobook for each of the published novels is in production. life is good.

  18. Thank you! I’ve suffered many a doubt about self-publishing my literary and contemporary fiction for years and recent outbursts by certain high profile authors have done little to soothe my fears.

    But here you have reminded me that there is no shortage of readers (of all genres) and there is no restraint on how an author may reach them in this digital age.

    What also offers comfort and encouragement is the trail being blazed by other authors* (of all genres) who consistently carve out new ways to look at the market all the while creating new manageable dirt roads for others to investigate. We are a mob of hungry writers but we are not being told to do A or B in order to get fed, we are being guided to consider C, D, E and F and that makes for a very exciting future.

    (* Talking about you, Hugh. So thanks mate!)

  19. Excellent point. I love literary fiction, its like outsider art or indie music, you work at what you love, your reference point is expression, not the market. Thanks for bringing this up Hugh.

    Outsider Art:
    Indie music:

  20. Agreed. I love that you say that “self-publishing will be seen as the purer artform”. So true! Authors are free to write what they please without the “gatekeepers” ruining their confidence.

  21. I’m in tune with this. That’s why I’m beginning a regular feature on my blog to review self-published literary fiction. I’m stipulating all those genres I won’t look at, in the hope that I can select from a list of mainstream writers to promote one or two a month that seem particularly worthy.
    I have included one or two over the last year, but now I’m going to make a point of it.
    This will be separate from reviews of recently translated fiction, another interest of mine.

    It’s quicker to self-publish a book than to wait for months to hear from one agent at a time, who then has to trawl himself/herself around publishers. In these days of speed and efficiency, it seems strange, the publishing world, doesn’t it? That’s why independent publishing must be here to stay, and increasingly so.

  22. Huckleberry Finn was self-published.

  23. […] And who says literary fiction writers cannot self-publish? Ten or twenty years ago, self-published books were assumed to subpar writing because there has to be a reason why the publishers rejected the book. Now-a-days, self-publishing is becoming common. Yet, literary fiction tends to have this snobby attitude against self-publishing. Terri Giuliano Long and Cari Noga have self-published literary fiction. Do you think self-publishing will save literary fiction? […]

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