Ebooks and self-publishing, an option for literary fiction?

Did you read the Joe Konrath – Barry Eisler interview last Saturday?

All week bloggers and tweeters have been gossiping like school girls about the latest scandal.  And what a scandal it was!

There we were — book bloggers, publishers, independent booksellers, and writers — reading about Konrath and Eisler’s success; their freedom at being able to write for a living (and feed themselves!), to set their own prices and collect 70% of the sale price. We read their take on how the industry is changing in the author’s and reader’s favor. They practically broke out in song biding adieu to traditional publishers and booksellers (so long and thanks for all the fish). At one point Eisler said:

So the question isn’t, “Will paper disappear?” Of course it won’t, but that’s not what matters. What matters is that paper is being marginalized…today publishers are in the book business; tomorrow, they’ll be in the paper book business. The difference is the difference between a mass market and a niche.

I’ve haven’t read anything by Konrath or Eisler, but I can see why they’re so successful: they make it all sound so easy, so straight-forward. I was sold.

Well, almost. See, the thing is… how can I put this? Joe Konrath and Barry Eisler write thrillers. Blood, suspense, horror, intrigue… they’re of that ilk. In Eisler’s own words (from the home page of his blog), “I write full time: thrillers with a lot of realistic action, exotic locations, and steamy sex.”

Crime, escapism, action, steamy sex.  Sounds like all the makings of a bestseller. Add a $.99-2.99 price tag to that package and you’re making bank.

Is that too cynical? Maybe. Realistic? We all know that horror and sex sells so in that case, I think, yes.

The thing is, to make a living as a self-published author you have to either A) be a prolific writer in a  popular YA genre (Amanda Hocking), B) be a prolific writer of romance novels or C) be a prolific writer of books that are the literary equivalent of what you watch on TV (CSI, Lost, 24 and Law & Order, all of which were among the most watched shows of 2010).

However, my question is: what if I don’t want to write about that stuff?

What about my literary heroes: Annie Proulx, Marilynne Robinson, Chimamanda Adiche, Sherman Alexie and Margaret Atwood? Could these authors have gotten noticed by the world if they’d started out self-publishing their ebooks? Do the people who buy self-published books (and ebooks by first-time authors) go for literary fiction? How would they know it’s, errm, literary?  Especially when self-publishing still has the reputation for being poorly-edited, poorly-designed and, often, poorly-written? I suppose by buying it for $.99 and finding out… But still, could literary ficiton make it without mainstream publishers?

These are honest questions. I don’t have any data, but my hunch is no.

My guess is that traditional publishing is still the most viable route for authors of literary fiction, which is why, alluring as their proposition is, I can’t quite jump on the self-publishing bandwagon with Konrath and Eisler. Not yet, at least. Maybe if fiction critics for major national newspapers moved to reviewing ebooks and authors were able to get noticed by such reviewers.

But I’d like to hear from you. What’s the future of literary fiction if paper books really are “being marginalized”? Do you buy ebooks? What genre?

(It kind of taps into another philosophical question: why do we write? Is it for the money? The fame? To be immortal? Do authors of literary fiction deserve to make as much money as Amanda Hocking if they insist on writing in a genre that doesn’t satisfy the demands of so many consumers?)

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2 comments
  1. Bobbi said:

    I have read Eisler and he is not that steamy, lol. I don’t think people will be able to make it without and agent and tradtional publishing. They have the knowledge to get the book to the right people.
    I don’t buy e-books at all. I have to hold the paper and ink in my hands. I will pass your blog on to my sister though, as she listens to books and her son reads everything on a e-reader. Thanks!

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