|“Ancient of Days” – William Blake|
Self-publishing is often denigrated in some circles as a dominion of poor quality, but even among people who don’t sneer at it, what springs to mind when they think of self-publishing is usually genre fiction. People just don’t often think of self-publishing and literary fiction going hand in hand.
I think this is increasingly going to change – and the great thing about it is that it’s actually a very old tradition. None other than Marcel Proust got his start by, (vanity publishing alert!), paying a publisher to put out SWANN’S WAY, and he was by no means alone – just ask Ben Franklin, William Blake and many others.
Major publishers have been a tad wary of literary fiction for some time, and while reputable small presses have picked up the slack, when I was an agent I saw too many great literary books languish for lack of a publisher.
The infrastructure is developing – already you have thriving online blogs communities devoted to literary fiction, like The Millions, HTMLGIANT and Bookslut, and with review space declining in print anyway, who’s to say that you have to have the imprimatur of a publisher to find attention.
You still seem need a publisher to be nominated for major awards–to my knowledge, a self-published book has yet to be nominated for a Pulitzer or National Book Award or NBCC Award–but could that really be far behind?
And I blogged recently about my former client C.Y. Gopinath e-publishing his novel THE BOOK OF ANSWERS through Smashwords in the US (it’s published by HarperIndia in India), and I think it’s a model for the future. There is great literature out there and self-publishing isn’t just for genre fiction anymore.
Michelle Davidson Argyle says
Some of my favorite books are classics that were first self-published. Small presses are a great choice, too, for work which doesn't fit anywhere else, and if that doesn't work out self-publishing can be an excellent route to take. My novella, CINDERS, is one I decided to do on my own because I knew it was too short for a small press or anyone else to take on and that it's literary elements might not get it selling high on a traditional list, either. I don't regret the decision for one second. It eventually led me to the small press I'm with today. 🙂
Great post and insight!
Julie Daines says
This is a great post. As a new author trying to break into the publishing world, it's so hard to know whether to go with traditional publishing or self publish.
Everyone wants to avoid some of the labels that are, unfortunately, attached to a self-published author–especially as a writer of literary fiction.
Michelle Muto says
I've noticed that short stories, westerns, some science fiction, and other genres are enjoying a comeback thanks to self-publishing.
I wonder if publishers will be paying more attention to what readers are buying via self-publishing instead of trying to determine what they think will sell?
Ellis Shuman says
Some very good literary fiction will be self-published, but, will it be easily visible? At least with mainstream publishing, there are many stages along the way weeding out the substandard submissions. With so many turning to self publishing, it might be harder to quickly identify the truly great reads.
Mr. D says
The success of some self-published books has opened eyes for sure.
Robin Sullivan says
I hope you are correct. My husband has had great success in genere fiction (sold 90,000 self-published copies of his Riyria Revelations) and recently sold the series to Orbit books for six-figures. He has a completed literary fiction piece that I can't decide what to do with (Because I alwo worry that self-publishing literary fiction is more tricky).
For any literary fiction readers out there who are interested in beta reading (and helping me decide what to do with "A Burden to the Earth" send me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I'll provide you with a free copy.
Robin Sullivan | Write2Publish | Ridan Publishing
I think this trend will extend to short stories and novellas, as well. The length is good for business travelers and consumers might be happier with a $ .99 single short story from an author they like than an anthology for $10 with eight stories they aren't interested in. Traditional publishing doesn't have a good model shorter stories.
Literary fiction is driven by hype. Self-pubbers can't get hype. End of story.
There's no doubt that self-published literary fiction will get bigger and bigger as the potential for being successful is so much greater than it once was. If you have the skills to promote themselves well online, releasing your own work could be a better option than conventional publishing.
Also I think it's become more 'legitimate' now. Literary authors are less likely to turn their noses up at self-publishing.
I'm another author who decided to self-publish my literary novel. Editors loved it but said it was too unusual for mainstream lists and too literary to be genre. My agent said it's the kind of novel that would have been snapped up four years ago but is too risky now.
So I'm harking back to the days of another renowned self-publisher – Charles Dickens. And in more ways than one – he serialised his fiction and that's what I'm doing too.
I found when I'd finished the novel that it fell neatly into four episodes so that's how I'm putting it out.
My agent is watching keenly to see how this plays out as his agency is looking at models for e-releases of their own.
It's early days yet – episode 2 just went up – but reviews on Amazon show that readers are enjoying it and are eager for the next instalment. And they're emailing me with their ideas about what might be going on, and their hopes! For years, themedia has been talking about interactivity as a holy grail – could this be a way to make fiction interactive?
Who knows. At the moment it's just a fun way to launch my book.
Susan Kaye Quinn says
As Michelle says, great insight! Increasingly it seems that traditional publishing is a great fit for certain kinds of books, but not all. The range of options available to authors (self-pub, small pub, trad pub) seems to be making more great stories available to the public, even if they are sideways from the typical. And I can't help thinking that's a great thing.
Jim Hanas says
Echoing Michelle, while it's true that genre writers have embraced self-publishing more quickly, some of us literary fiction writers have been out there for a long time — with good results.
I released by first self-pubbed ebook in 2006 and my second in 2009. These books included stories that originally appeared in standard-bearing journals like McSweeney's, One Story, and Fence — and these DIY releases led me directly to my current publisher, Canadian indie ECW Press.
It has been a little lonely — I've been out there with people with whom I share a publishing philosophy, rather than a literary aesthetic — but I've always been surprised that more literary writers haven't taken advantage of the tools that are now available.
"I think this is increasingly going to change"
I do, too. I've been hesitating about self-publishing a literary novel because I've never done self-publishing. I have published a lot of trashy romance books with publishers and I've made a few bucks. But the literary novel wouldn't work for any of them and self-publishing seems like the best way to go.
Matthew MacNish says
"I saw too many great literary books language for lack of a publisher."
"I saw too many great literary books languish for lack of a publisher?"
I'm not sure. Otherwise, I think you make a great point. Traditional publishing needs books that will sell by the truckload. Literary fiction doesn't often do that, but that doesn't mean it should disappear.
I hope you're right, and that it will become even more readily available.
Will Entrekin says
"to my knowledge, a self-published book has yet to be nominated for a Pulitzer or National Book Award or NBCC Award"
Dave Eggers' What Is the What was a finalist for the 2006 NBCC Award. It was published by McSweeney's, which was founded by Eggers, who serves as editor there.
But I think you're right that we'll see it happen more often.
Wasn't there a nominee for the National Book Award recently whose book hadn't been published, like, at all?
IIRC, it did come out via a small press, but not until well after it was announced as an NBA nominee.
Google tells me it was Jaimy Gordon's Lord of Misrule.
I think it just goes to show that the likelihood of winning success and accolades are so amazingly random and odd, we mere mortals just can't forecast them.
Meghan Ward says
Thanks so much for blogging about this, Nathan. I was thinking about this topic yesterday. I'm not familiar with many literary novels that have been self-published – especially which have sold well. All the self-publishing stars – Joe Konrath, Amanda Hocking, John Locke, etc – seem to be genre writers. I'll keep an eye on The Millions, Book Slut and HTMLGiant (never heard of that one) for more literary fiction. And I'm curious to know whether there are any self-published memoirs that are doing well, too.
Meghan Ward says
Dirtywhitecandy – I think I read an article about self-publishing recently that advised against selling chapters of your book as separate e-books, so I'm curious to hear more about how that's working for you.
Jim Hanas – Thanks for your feedback. Great to hear self-pubbing is working for some literary fiction writers.
Roger Floyd says
Sure, Proust, Franklin, Dickens and others self-published, but they didn't have the tremendous competition of other self-published novels that a writer has today. A really good novel can get lost in the sea of trash that constitutes self-publishing. It's a lot easier to self-publish today than it was in Franklin's day, and when he brought out a book, he had much, much less competition. If you self publish, you gotta market it if you want it noticed.
D.G. Hudson says
Thanks, Matt, that word swap was bothering me too. (I think 'languish' is right, but it stopped me in my reading.)
Why not literary fiction? Genre fiction has shown self-pubbing to work for some. It just takes a gutsy writer (with adequate funds) to go for it. Most of those jumping ship back and forth right now in publishing are established writers, with a few exceptions. Some of the stigmata may be fading…
If it's an open field in self-pubbing your own book, let's just hope the work is proofed and edited. Editing services may experience a boom, as will PR services for those who dislike it.
Never give up the ship, that's my motto, that's starship, BTW.
Matthew J. Beier says
@Dirtywhitecandy – Very cool! I think it's great that your agency is being supportive with this endeavor. I'm pondering doing something similar with a series of shorts. I'll be curious to see what happens for you.
A year ago, I was feeling hopeless about having a career in writing. Every time I flew into New York, I looked out the plane window and saw the city as one that would make or break my future. Since I decided earlier this year to start my own press and self-publish, I have felt so free. The future is now up to me, and my mashup of literary/dystopian/political satire might have a shot. I love that anything can now see the light of day, even if it is crap (though I really hope more and more self-publishers invest in good editing/design/etc.). The good stuff still has a chance to rise to the top through word of mouth, based on people's individual tastes. This can happen for any type of book, including literary fiction. I hope more authors follow the trend, as long as they work their asses off to release quality work.
E.B. Fyne says
Great post! And thanks so much for the links! I'd never heard of those guys. Read and learn.
"You still seem need a publisher to be nominated for major awards–to my knowledge, a self-published book has yet to be nominated for a Pulitzer or National Book Award or NBCC Award–but could that really be far behind?"
I don't know about the Pulitzer or all those… but up here in Canada, the 2008 Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour was won by Terry Fallis for his book The Best Laid Plans – which he'd had printed on a vanity press and then sent in his only five "free" author copies to the nominations committee. He landed an agent once his book made the shortlist, and a publisher after it won the award.
Jaye Viner says
I've been waiting for this post. Thanks for following up. The website links were helpful
Bryan Russell says
I've been wondering about this for a while now. Every author I've seen raised as an example of the new self-publishing paradigm has been a genre author. All the best-selling Kindle authors I've heard mentioned? Genre authors. I've never actually heard anyone recommend a purely self-published literary novel. Ever. Are they out there? I assume there must be some. But there seems to be something of a missing link between the novels being written and the potential audience.
Is it the stamp of approval from a publisher? An assurance that the pretty sentences actually go somewhere? Or are we talking about some fairly different audiences, too, in terms of the engagement process of the reader? In my own subjective experience of the internet, I've found that both the readers and writers of genre are much more interested in community. They're more interested in connecting, in sharing experiences, in creating a group experience around a book. For literary writing, however, I've found that, in general (there are always exceptions), the literary audience, and the literary writers themselves, are less group-oriented: a lot more lone wolves. Literary authors seem more competitive, more insular. A book is an individual experience; I wrote it, you can take it home and read it now. By yourself.
I mean, this is obviously a gross generalization, but the mentality seems quite different. I've seen a few literary writers who've jumped into the genre waters, and they seem pleasantly surprised by the sense of camraderie, the sense of a greater and wider involvement in a community. Now, with these communities come certain negatives (cliques, infighting, clannishness, etc.), but I think this develops from the larger mentality. I mean, I just can't see a big group of Philip Roth fans duking it out with a bunch of Zadie Snith fans on the internet.
"Your White Teeth can kiss my ass!"
The mindset is different. And yet I think this more group-oriented mindset sells books, both for traditional publishers and self-publishers. The intensity of the group experience is what drives viral growth, I think. People want to share, they are already a part of a group (or groups) of like-minded people, and so they tweet or blog and they get it out there. And the people in the group are eager to find new stuff, to experience what the rest of the group is experiencing. This links not only the people in the group, but different groups as well. There are concentric ripples of connection.
I don't think this is the same for literary fiction, at least right now. The experience is individually oriented. Yes, people will check out the New York Times reviews, or the Washington Post. But you probably won't see a group of Updike fans gathering at a convention to throw down a big party.
"Just like Couples, man! We'll all have affairs with each other's wives!"
Anyway, I'm curious to see how this brave new digital world will treat literary fiction.
I hope more good and interesting fiction of every kind and length gets out there now that self-publishing is on the rise. I know more mediocre stuff will be available too, but it's exciting to think of authors being empowered to put full force behind work they love even if it means taking a risk. (And literary fiction is all about taking risks, anyway.) Just think of the music being made (and sold) today that wouldn't have had a chance to find its niche before the recording industry was shaken up a few years ago.
And thanks for the vocabulary challenge! I'd never seen the word "imprimatur" before today, so I got to use the dictionary. (I'm a libarian, so that makes me happy.)
Anne R. Allen says
Thank you, Nathan! I'm a literary fiction reader, and I've been trying to figure out why there isn't more lit fic in the indie world. We keep reading how Big Six editors are less and less interested in anything literary, and Kim Wright wrote a great piece last week about how many litfic writers are switching to genre. So where is our serious literature to come from?
Like everything else, it seems, it will spring from innovative indie writers who aren't afraid to break from the herd. (Even though the herd is seriously thinned these days. The Big Six have been dictating what we're allowed read for way too long. Not every reader on the planet is into post-apocalyptic steampunk zombies. As Michelle Muto says, maybe the Big Six will finally figure that out.)
"I've never actually heard anyone recommend a purely self-published literary novel. Ever. Are they out there?"
It's out there, you have to look for it. Even the best social networkers have a tough time promoting self-published lit. And a lot of self-published authors aren't great at promoting.
The best place to find these books is on social media like facebook. I could name at least ten books and authors right now, but that wouldn't be fair.
Nowadays, the reader has to take a little more initiative when it comes to finding reading material. It's out there, but you have to look around for it.
Kristin Laughtin says
It could definitely happen! I know of a few cases where self-published books were picked up by traditional publishers later (although I guess most of them kind of blurred the line between literary and commercial), so it's only a matter of time before someone figures out how to market effectively a self-published novel to similar success.
(Since there will be nitpickers, though, it's probably important to note the distinction between some of the authors you mentioned, who still had to put in the work of printing their self-published novels, and those of today, who can upload it to the web much more easily.)
I just wonder if making Literary Fiction more available by self-publishing will make it any more popular.
This is really exciting. One of the wonderful things about our Web 2.0 world is the ability to match the write fiction to the right reader, and I see it coming sooner!
Marilyn Peake says
This is so true, Nathan! For some time now, I’ve been searching the Internet, mostly Amazon Kindle, for self-published books and indie books in order to find cutting-edge literary and genre fiction. Many have impressive reviews, and some have won impressive awards. Although not self-published, TINKERS was published by a small indie press after a boatload of rejections from literary agents and traditional publishers, and it actually did win the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction in 2010: Mr. Cinderella: From Rejection Notes to the Pulitzer. TINKERS is one of my favorite literary novels, so beautifully written! THE SILENCE OF MEDAIR, a self-published book, was recently named a Finalist in the Aurealis Awards, and is a beautifully written, thoughtful Fantasy novel. The author wrote about how THE SILENCE OF MEDAIR had been stuck in a review process at a traditional publisher for ten years until she finally self-published it: The Glacier. These are just two stories about two phenomenal books I've found online. I've found many, and most have incredible stories behind an agonizing boatload of rejections prior to the author turning to indie or self-publishing to get their book published.
KC Frantzen says
After attending several conferences held by a major organization I was a member of, and finding the emphasis was almost exclusively on acquiring an agent or editor, I recently made the decision to let my membership lapse.
Perhaps I'll rejoin at some time, but since I have no hope of displaying our high quality independently published middle grade novel (even if they had a "BEWARE! Self-published books on this table" Sign as a friend said), I couldn't justify the expense.
It's a bit frustrating, but we forge ahead ANYWAY with promotion and marketing… and most importantly crafting an even better sequel. 🙂
Thanks for bringing this issue (again) to the forefront!
The English Teacher says
I'd like to back up Michelle from comment #1 by saying that her book, Cinders, was the first one that really convinced me that the days of assuming that self-published meant "bad" were over. Hers was so professional that I had to start reading more self-published works.
I don't know that, as writers, we can actually make productive predictions about this kind of thing. It's a whole forest for the trees issue, we are too deep into the world of loving books, of learning about the craft, of understanding publishing of analyzing the work of others. Eh.
Nobody else does this. They read what they like, they give a pass to the rest. In letting go of the literary life that was myself, I have come to believe that anything is possible. Any writer may find readers. And that far too much of what I thought I knew about publishing after 15 years and 37 novels no longer applies… if it ever did.
Marilyn Peake says
Robin Sullivan – I found your husband's books online yesterday in my ongoing search for indie and self-published books, and discovered his amazing new deal with Orbit. Congratulations to him!
Michelle Davidson Argyle – I purchased CINDERS a while back. My husband who's a huge reader absolutely loved CINDERS! (I'm planning to read CINDERS, too; but, unfortunately, I'm woefully behind in my To Be Read list as I try to finish the final rewrite of my newest novel.)
Absolutely agree with you, Nathan. I don't have much to add really, you're spot on. But I'll probably ramble on anyway…..I think the wonderful thing about e-publishing is books no longer need to languish – there is a way to get them out to their readership, large or small.
I think this will be true for many genres that have been overlooked: literary fiction, short stories and novellas, and (especially) poetry, which has pretty much been cast into oblivion.
I think there are a couple of important things to remember:
a. These are early days yet. Many things are just starting. For example, the way in which readers find books is likely to go through a significant development.
b. Because it's early days, the lure of the 'dollar bill' is high right now. Some people may be jumping around genres and publishing platforms because they are realizing there is money to be made. That's likely to calm down some in the future. People will discover if their heart is in the writing itself, and all that means, or in money, and make choices.
c. Because it's early days, any current trends are likely to be short-lived.
Just my opinion, of course. Thanks for letting me ramble, Nathan. Love discussing the future, it's very fun. 🙂
Oh, I should clarify. I don't think that any author choosing e-publishing is a trend. I think that's the future. The trends are things like literary fiction writers choosing to write genre, which you mentioned yesterday, Nathan. I think, anyway.
Also, I love the picture on this post!
Nancy Kelley says
Nathan, I want to thank you for having a positive outlook on self-publishing. It can be frustrating some days to go through my blog reader and find multiple blog posts or comments putting down self-published authors. Most of us work just as hard as the traditionally published author; we've simply chosen a different business path.
Of course, you're also honest about the drawbacks, and that's appreciated as well. It's easy to read the pro-indie blogs and form unrealistic expectations. You've checked those once or twice.
Thank you once again, Nathan.
Thomas Burchfield says
My experience so far–publishing one novel "Dragon's Ark" through my own imprint Ambler House in both trade and e-book, plus a screenplay ("Whackers"–e-book only)–suggests to me that some sort of new support system must evolve.
To me, the job of writers is to write, and while I'm fairly good at marketing, I'm still only fair and, unless I'm a millionaire, I have only so many hours in the day. I'll never be able to do what a professional publisher can do.
Distribution remains a problem, as evidenced by the fact that so many of these free distribution sites are enormous slush piles where serious, ambitious novels–literary and genre alike–get lost in all the froth and slosh.
I used Book Baby for distribution of "Whackers", where I pay a fee and keep all the profits, while they do the conversion and distribution (and believe me, if I had to do all that myself, I wouldn't have the time to write another book for years.
What'll happen I can't say for sure, but we'll see. One possibility: agents become more like publishers or distributors.
I bookmarked this one, Nathan. Both your words and the comments are so useful.
Terin Tashi Miller says
Ha! Thank you, Nathan! The former Mr. Agent Man proves himself (as always suspected) a champion of literature.
Seriously. Pat Conroy self-published his first novel. Robert McAlmon set up and published Ernest Hemingway's "in our time," as well as "ten poems and three stories," essentially for friends and fellow writers in the relatively small left bank area, calling his product "Contact Publishers."
Sylvia Beach, a bookstore and lending library owner, published the first edition of Joyce's "Ulysses," which writers like Hemingway sold subscriptions to (essentially promised copies for investment), and then smuggled into the U.S.
Ford Maddox Ford, a friend and one-time collaborator of Joseph Conrad's, published "the transatlantic review," using essentially the same printing aparatus as McAlmon. I mean the same machine. Ezra Pound, Joyce, Hemingway, McAlmon, Gertrude Stein, a host of other names associated with a flowering–if not redirecting–of not only American literature, but world literature, all contributed stories to Ford's project.
My point: I predict and expect and indeed hope you are absolutely 100% correct. Literature, as we know it, has always appeared first quietly, among friends, only to be eventually "discovered" by those who would make a fortune off of it. Take Boni & Liverite, for instance, which published Hemingway's American edition of "In Our Time" after "discovering" it. And published Sherwood Anderson's "Winesburg, Ohio," still a classic and forerunner to the style that would be associated with "realistic fiction."
You mentioned blogs, and some other places where literature is appearing. I noticed you didn't mention, and perhaps aren't aware of two growing sites: http://www.thewriteplaceatthewritetime.org and http://www.kgbbar.com
It's not the left bank. But when and where writers and other artists get together, eventually, something happens. It's bound to.
Thanks again for a great post.
Graham Strong says
In this global village world, I think it's important to point out that although the literary novel may not do well in the US (I'm no expert), it does do well in other parts of the world. In Canada for example, the literary novel regularly dominants the best seller lists.
Which brings up another interesting point about ebooks — they are easier to sell internationally. Kind of getting away from your main point here, but perhaps an interesting corollary…
Michelle Davidson Argyle says
English: It means a lot to me that my book has convinced a few people that self-publishing can be a good thing. 🙂
Marilyn: I've found it absolutely fascinating how many men have enjoyed CINDERS! I think it might be the high body count or something… 🙂
Get to it when you can and thank you for your support and interest!
Dan Holloway says
This feels the wrong way round. A few years ago self-publishing felt like it was all about literary fiction – it was the way for books without a massive commercial potential but high on originality to find their niche audience. It feels like it's only in the past couple of years that genre fiction has flooded self-publishing, especially epublishing, and those of us who have always been there are squeezed out – I blogged about this phenomenon for The Self-Publishing Review earlier this year (https://www.selfpublishingreview.com/blog/2011/04/03/so-when-did-the-indie-success-stories-become-our-success-stories/).
and argued elsewhere that self-publishing would ultimately benefit most the prolific midlister
Webbiegrrl Writer says
Graham, THANK YOU! Although I'm American myself, I really hate it when some of my compatriots here get so American-centric they can't even recognize that the same rules might not apply all over every part of this planet. We really need to stop being quite so full of ourselves here–we barely acknowledge you ALSO exist on this continent, eh? 🙂
As an Indie Author myself, publishing genre fiction (Romantic Suspense) I've looked at the various English speaking markets and literary fiction definitely HAS dominated. It's only recently that romance novels are gaining ground–other genres are still floundering around a bit. In the UK especially it's not "balanced" the way it is here in the US. Most of the UK authors I know don't seem to realize this either. Funny how it goes both ways!
Just to put Dan's comments into context (:: waves:: hi Dan!) he's quite a fine literary author (from the UK) who also has written a killer thriller, The Company of Fellows, which is climbing the best seller lists, so clearly it's possibly to cross over from "art" to "commercial" work. The real question is, can he find his way out of our darkness and back into the light *haha*
Graham Strong says
@Webbiegrrl Writer – I think it's natural to be somewhat home-country-centric. But with international markets now just a click away, it's worth exploring what works in other places too.
It's not without precedent. The Hoff is big in Germany. Jerry Lewis is The Man in France. Maybe you or I could rule the best seller list in New Zealand?
Another great thing about ebooks is that now you can (fairly) easily change grammar structures for each market, using US spelling in the US, Canadian in Canada, UK in the UK, etc. (I'm a little excited about that — can you tell?)
Whether or not people will bother is another question… For many readers though, it could be these added touches that help make you more accepted in markets outside of your own.
Judy Croome says
Two classic authors not mentioned are Jane Austen & John Keats. Their first works were self-published (if I wasn't so comfortably ensconced in my chair I'd go & look up the references)
Judy, South Africa
Dave Bricker says
Publishing my third literary fiction work this year through my own Essential Absurdities Press. The books are affordable, clothbound hardcover editions with an attractive dust cover and typesetting inspired by the best of 1920s hot metal typography. I could never get this quality out of a mainstream publisher. See https://www.wavesnovel.com for a preview and feel free to steal the flipbook engine I developed for Adobe InDesign users.
pete howells says
This blog encouraged me so much back in September 2011. I have gone on to self-publish two novels in eBook format with amazon kindle and Lulu. (Both ltereray Fiction/Psych Thrillers.)
The first, Perspective has, so far sold well. The second, 'Disentangled' will be launched in April 2012 again via amazon kindle but also as a print on demand paperback ( I found that I could get no newspaper or radio station to review the eVersion of Perspective despite having some very good reviews from readers on the amazon site.
Feel free to check my work out on,