One thousand true fans

The sweet smell of success.

Recently I was reminded of a blog post Kevin Kelly wrote in 2008 about success in the arts. It made a big impression on me when I first encountered it. Wondering if it was still available, I searched and found it instantly: It’s titled “1,000 True Fans”.

It’s a remarkably prescient piece of writing. Although it was never intended to be an inspirational motivator (“Write your bestseller NOW!” or of that ilk), it actually works much like one because it clearly demonstrates how reachable success in the arts can be. Every creator in any medium should study it.

Consider the reason the traditional publishing route remains so seductive to writers. Success appears to be meeting a clear end goal: Acceptance by a major publisher with a seven-figure contract. For bonus points, secure a movie or streaming deal. That sounds an awful lot like “success” by any modern definition. Achievement unlocked!

Independent publishing, on the other hand, doesn’t have such a well-defined end point. When are you a “success” in self-publishing? When you sell a hundred books? A thousand? A million?

(Note that the definition of success I spell out for traditional publishing doesn’t mention anything about per-copy sales; publisher acceptance is the validation. I find that goalpost-shifting to be interesting.)

Kevin Kelly’s “1,000 True Fans” cuts through the above crap, but not with hand-wavey exhortations to be true to one’s self or fist-shaking over how capitalism has beggared the arts. He offers hard and round numbers as a metric:

To be a successful creator you don’t need millions. You don’t need millions of dollars or millions of customers, millions of clients or millions of fans. To make a living as a craftsperson, photographer, musician, designer, author, animator, app maker, entrepreneur, or inventor you need only thousands of true fans.

A true fan is defined as a fan that will buy anything you produce.

One thousand sounds like a big number at first, but it’s a graspable number, a count within reach of mere mortals. This is one reason I really like his observation. One thousand is a concrete, realistic, and reachable objective.

The kicker is the last line: A fan that will buy anything you produce. That’s the hard part, because it involves shifting someone’s mind. (If nothing else, the screaming madness that is Twitter should go down as proof how hard it is to change people’s minds.) It’s not enough to find a thousand people to buy your book—they must be so impressed, they want to buy your next book, even before you’ve written it.

Kelly supports his thousand-true-fans claim with a couple of requirements and some back-of-the-envelope arithmetic:

  1. You need to earn $100 per year from each true fan.

  2. Your true fans must pay you directly.

If both cases are true, you’ll earn $100,000 per year, which should be enough to pursue your art full-time. If you’re willing to earn less, you can even trim some of those numbers back: Only 750 true fans, for example, or 1,000 true fans paying you $50 per year.

Share Always Be Publishing

It seems to me that Kelly, in 2008, was predicting the self-publishing model. Yes, Amazon remains a middleman (you’re not being paid directly by your readers), but Amazon’s 70% royalty rate for Kindle Select is damn close to the 100% royalty rate direct payment entails. And remember, publishers are not the only middleman in the traditional publishing model. There’s the bookstore, the shipping company, the distributors, your agent…

Look: If you can crank out one book every two months, and if you can earn $5 a copy, that’s $30 per year right there. Publish a book a month and you’ve doubled it to $60. Throw in a Patreon account for your true fans to contribute to, and add the revenue from your non-true fans who buy a book or two from you to see what the hub-bub is about. Do all that, and you might edge over the $100/year average.

A book a month sounds like a lot of writing, though. (Of course, if you want to write full-time, what kind of output do you think that means?) This is why I tell people who want to make a living writing fiction to produce romance novels. They can be written quickly, sell briskly, can be priced high, and are easy to package and market.

Building and maintaining a 1,000-true-fan base sounds like a job unto itself. The seduction of the traditional publishing route is that it cuts out all this hustling. A publishing contract brings with it editors, marketers, publicity, a sales force, and so on. The publisher does the hustling. You, the writer, cash their checks, lean back, and think about your next book.

Here’s the problem, though. I’ve read about and met writers who inked traditional publishing contracts and never made a living writing books. They teach or they work a desk job. Some retired early from a high-paying career (and could realistically do whatever they want). Many have spouses or partners who bring home big money, or they come from wealthy families. A dirty open secret in the writing community is that most part-time or full-time writers have other means of support, often a significant amount of support.

More discouraging is that many of these writers had books published, went through one or two printings, and watched the title fade into the background. Some of them even admitted a sense of failure they had to deal with after the bloom of publication faded. Many attempted to publish a second book, and some even managed to do so, but again, they couldn’t quit their jobs. Getting published was a one-off in their life, not a once-locked door being flung wide open for them to step through.

Yes, there are writers who make a full-time living writing books—writing a lot of books, it turns out. They almost are always genre writers. John Updike is the only literary novelist I can name off the top of my head who truly made a career off his writing alone. Even Updike leaned heavily on income from writing book reviews, though. (Plus, hey—he wrote for the New Yorker. It’s a good gig if you can swing it.)

These counterexamples only prove Kelly’s point. “1,000 True Fans” reframes the question of success from a single large victory to a string of small victories over the long haul. Success as a writer isn’t about signing a contract, being interviewed by a major newspaper, or seeing your book in a bookstore. Success is about making a connection with readers that is so thorough, they’ll become your #1 fan. If you can connect with a thousand people—a small, manageable number!—you’ll find sustainable success.

Kevin Kelly expanded and updated the essay since he first published it. It’s a long read, but worth it. Pour yourself a coffee and check it out.


Over forty free crime and suspense thrillers are available this month from independently published authors. If you’re looking for a summer read or a new author with a fresh take, this is a great chance to discover your next book.

Click here to see the full list.


j-nelson.net / Twitter / Facebook / LinkedIn / Goodreads

More on Amazon's Kindle Vella: Episodes vs. chapters

The never-ending story.

Last time I wrote about Amazon’s latest venture in the e-publishing world, Kindle Vella, a new pay-as-you-go platform for serialized stories. Details are scarce, but between Amazon’s press releases, their online help, and reading the tea leaves, a picture emerges of how Amazon plans to enter the burgeoning world of digital serializations.

Although Amazon hasn’t released much new information on Kindle Vella since then, I’ve put together a few more thoughts on the platform, and what it means for writers considering the plunge into serialized fiction.

Episodes vs. chapters

In my last post, I diluted the semantic differences between “chapter” and “episode,” Amazon’s term for serialized installments. By using the term episode, I noted, “Amazon is encouraging writers to think less like novelists and more like television writers.” I should have followed that thought through to its conclusion.

Consider Radish, the serialized fiction publisher most observers think Amazon is trying to catch up with. Last year Radish secured US$63 million in equity funding to produce “hyper-serialized fiction that updates several times per day.” As of last August, they had produced over 6,500 episodes across 30 original series. Certainly those numbers have grown since then.

Radish has hired seasoned TV soap-opera writers to churn out their “Radish Original” series. They meet in writers’ rooms, collectively plan the series trajectory, and dole out episode assignments around the table. Radish encourages writers it works with (but has not hired) to do similar.

My guess is that many writers eyeing Kindle Vella will take a novel they haven’t yet published (or are working on) and turn each chapter into a Vella episode. (Many of the questions on the Kindle Vella community board are pondering this very approach.)

That’s a bad idea. A novel is not merely an episodic story packaged together into one book, just as a novel is not merely a long short story.

Successful episodic storytelling has

  • a panoply of well-defined characters,

  • simultaneous plot situations which lead to combinations of those characters mixing and interacting,

  • all while juggling several story arcs at once.

And, yes, each episode ends on a cliffhanger, to keep the reader reading.

A lot of novels simply do not work this way. Often a single character drives the novel’s narration. The secondary characters, while colorful, are not nearly as strongly defined. The spotlight rarely, if ever, holds steady on them. A novel usually follows a single story arc, or maybe two or three, rather than interweaving several together.

Some commenters on this subject point to Charles Dickens as evidence that Kindle Vella could support a novel broken up by chapters. I think Dickens is, at best, an outlier here. (Does it need to be said that the reading habits of 1840s England is radically different than today’s?) Those looking for novelistic approaches are better served studying Armistead Maupin, but study closely: Tales of the City revolves around many characters intersecting in various ways, each traveling across their own story arcs. It’s not merely a novel created by cobbling together the weekly newspaper columns it originated from.

Better yet, read at least one serialized story on Radish, Wattpad, or another service specializing in the form. This will give an idea of what readers are expecting.

The other reason breaking up a novel isn’t such a great idea for Kindle Vella? Because novels end. Successful episodic stories may never end.

General Hospital is the longest-running soap-opera on American television, broadcast since 1963. Britain’s soap Coronation Street has been on their air since 1960. These are not televised novels where each chapter happens to be an episode. These are long-running stories that simply do not end.

Share Always Be Publishing

Episodic storytelling isn’t limited to television. The newspaper comic strip Doonesbury may not feel like a soap-opera, but it hews to similar conventions: A cosmos of colorful, well-defined characters thrown together in various plot situations (however contrived) with multiple story arcs running at once. The Doonesbury universe is so grand and intricate, you can purchase a database of every strip printed searchable by characters, events, settings, and so on. Although creator Garry Trudeau trimmed back his daily output in 2014, the ongoing stories of his counterculture pantheon continues into its fiftieth year.

Finally, there’s the matter of cadence. Radish’s “hyper-serialized fiction” series release multiple new episodes a day. Several commenters on the Kindle Vella community board have warned against releasing episodes at anything less than twice a week, and that writers should stick to a regular schedule or risk losing readership.

A successful Kindle Vella series may have hundreds of short episodes, rather than the novel’s usual 20 to 40 chapters, each between two and four thousand words. The numbers mentioned earlier about Radish (“6,500 episodes across 30 original series”) suggests an average of 217 episodes per series—and some of those series may still be ongoing. It’s more like writing a daily diary than planning and executing a full-length novel.

For any writer thinking of dipping their toe in the Kindle Vella waters, I would ask: Will you write chapters or episodes? Are you already planning the end of your story, or could it go on forever? And, how often do you plan on publishing each episode?


The Bridge Daughter Cycle is a Kindle box set of the first three books of my speculative-fiction series.

The series starts with Bridge Daughter, an alternate world of girls born pregnant who, at age thirteen, give birth to the real child and die. It’s followed by Hagar’s Mother and Stranger Son. All three books follow the generations of a family struggling to comprehend and live with the biological fate this alternate world demands.

The Bridge Daughter Cycle is available now. All three books are available separately in Kindle and paperback.


j-nelson.net / Twitter / Facebook / LinkedIn / Goodreads

Kindle Vella: What we know

Amazon enters the mobile fiction arena.

This week Amazon announced a new publishing platform: Kindle Vella. Details are still emerging, but the gist is that Kindle Vella is a platform for publishing serialized or episodic stories.

Vella is not currently available for readers. However, Amazon is seeking authors to start posting episodes in anticipation of the release day. They’re priming the pump: When Vella goes live to the world (“in the next few months”), Amazon wants their Vella Store stocked with a wide selection of stories for readers to choose from.

So: What is Kindle Vella, and how is different than other platforms?

The basics

The 10,000-foot tl;dr is, Kindle Vella is a new pay-as-you-go platform for serialized fiction.

Let’s break that down. Vella is structured for publishing stories one “episode” at a time. Amazon doesn’t use the word “chapter”—I’ll discuss this below—but, for now, that’s a handy way to think of Vella’s episodes.

Each episode is 600 to 5,000 words. (Amazon’s numbers are so specific, I assume this range is enforced by their software.) Readers can read the first three episodes of a story for free.

If they want to continue reading, readers purchase Vella tokens to unlock additional episodes. The tokens are priced depending on the number purchased at one time. A sample image in Amazon’s help system has 200 tokens costing $2, 525 tokens for $5, 1100 tokens for $10, and so on. (The documentation makes is clear that the final prices when the system goes live may be different.)

The number of tokens needed to unlock an episode depends on its word count. Each episode is priced at one token per 100 words, rounded down. So, a 638-word episode costs six tokens, a 2,115 word episode costs 21 tokens, and so forth.

This is important: The reader exchanges tokens for episodes, not the entire story. If they wanna keep readin’, they gotta pump more coins in the machine.

Royalties

How much compensation does the author receive? Amazon reports the split is 50-50 with the author. That seems pretty fair, although it’s twenty-points shy of Amazon’s 70% royalty rate when you enroll your e-book in Kindle Select.

The 50% rate is a touch more complicated than it sounds. Recall that readers can purchase tokens at different price levels. Amazon is offering authors 50% of the readers’ token purchase price. If a lot of your readers are buying tokens in high bulk, you’ll earn a little less than if your readers bought smaller numbers of them at a time.

Amazon has some math on their help pages. In their example, the difference in author royalties for a user purchasing a 3,000-word episode is between 13¢ and 15¢. So, while it’s important to know how royalties are calculated, the absolute dollar values are not large at the per-episode level. It may add up if you build a loyal readership, though.

It’s also a telling example of the economics of Vella. Kindle authors accustomed to $1, $2, or even $3-plus royalties on the sale of a single e-book will need to adjust their expectations. With Vella, readers are buying chapters on-demand, with the author earning a nickel here and a dime there.

Exclusivity

Kindle Vella partially locks your work into the platform. It also locks out certain kinds of work. You can’t simply take a novel you’ve published—even if it’s no longer available for purchase—and publish it on Vella a chapter at a time. (I have no idea how Amazon will enforce this rule if the book is no longer available, but that’s their stance.)

However, you may publish a serialized work for sale on another platform (like Wattpad or Radish) on Vella. They don’t want content “freely available on the Web” though—commercial serializations only, apparently.

There’s also the side question about what happens when the serialized story is completed. Can authors gather all these episodes and sell them as a single book or collection? Again, no. If you do that, Amazon will require you to take down your serialized Vella story. It’s one or the other.

Interactivity

Vella is designed to engage readers more directly than with regular Kindle publishing. Authors may include notes for readers at the end of each episode. Readers can mark stories as “following” and be notified when new episodes are ready. They’re also encouraged to vote for episodes, both a weekly “Fave” and a more generic thumbs-up. Amazon uses Faves to run a leaderboard of trending work.

Amazon doesn’t appear to demand new episodes be published at any particular frequency, but a successful Vella author will publish regularly. One commenter on the KDP community message board suggests daily updates if the episodes are short (1,000 words or so), while stories with longer episodes could be released twice a week.

Availability

Here’s an important catch: All indications are that Kindle Vella will only be available on iOS at first. This page shows only screenshots of Vella as an iPhone app. The page states “Readers will find your story in the Kindle Vella store on Amazon.com and in the Kindle app on iOS.” I’m guessing readers can only read Vella serials on iOS, but may buy episodes from both places (the web store and the iOS app).

Will Amazon eventually port Vella to Android phones? Perhaps. Will Vella be available for tablets, like the iPad and Kindle Fire? Maybe. Will users with e-Ink Kindle readers be able to read Vella at some point? Who knows.

This is the murkiest aspect of Vella. Any author curious about writing for Vella should seriously consider that their work may only be read on an iPhone. For some authors, that’s no problem. For others…that might give them pause. Let’s face it: Some stories simply are not easily enjoyed on tiny screens.

Share Always Be Publishing

The big picture

Stepping back, what to make of all this? I have a few big-picture thoughts about Kindle Vella:

  • Publishers like Radish, Goodnovel, and others have carved out niches with episodic, pay-as-you-go models. Importantly, their reading experiences are not merely available on smartphones, they’re designed for smartphones. These new breed of mobile e-publishers have caught Amazon’s attention, and it’s reacting.

  • Amazon has a spotty history when it comes to following through. Kindle Worlds, Kindle Scout, and Kindle Publishing for Blogs are all examples of off-shoots which withered on the vine. Be wary. Amazon could abandon Vella if it does not generate sufficient interest (and profits), much like they abandoned Scout and Worlds.

  • I’ve learned to parse Amazon’s language carefully. As I mentioned in my eulogy to Kindle Scout, readers of that service didn’t vote for books, they nominated them—meaning, the editors had the final say, not the readers. Likewise, with Vella organized as “episodes,” Amazon is encouraging writers to think less like novelists and more like television writers. (Radish uses the “episode” term as well, even going so far as to organize stories into “seasons.”)

  • Amazon loves exclusive deals with authors, as their 70% royalty rate for Kindle Select demonstrates. It surprises me to see Amazon allowing authors to publish on Vella work from other episodic platforms, as that implies vice-versa is also acceptable. I suspect Amazon realized Vella had a better chance of getting off the ground if existing serial authors could “port” their work to and from another episodic publisher. In essence, Amazon is playing catch-up for once in the e-publishing business. If Vella is a success, expect to see a Kindle Select-style opt-in program to lock authors into the platform.

  • Although Amazon is pitching Vella’s reader engagement, don’t expect them to go too far down this path. Amazon is notorious for maintaining barriers between their customers and authors. For example, readers may “follow” an author on Amazon, but Amazon is highly particular about how authors may, in turn, communicate with their followers. Expect this brick wall to extend to Vella.

  • Although I’ve seen mention in the Vella guidelines about nonfiction, the tools for adding episodes only lists fiction categories. More about this here.

It’s worth mentioning Radish one more time. Vella looks very much like Radish in terms of payment and episodic publishing. In terms of content, Radish focuses squarely on a certain kind of story: Young, sexy, hip, flashy. Their success stems from producing quick and thrilling reads. Bluntly, Radish looks to me like a romance publisher open to wide genre variations: horror romance, dystopian romance, and so on. They’re branching beyond romance, but the steamy stuff remains their bread and butter.

Amazon most likely desires similar flashy content for Vella, although they’re not communicating it that way. The author marketing material for Vella tip-toes around what Amazon would like authors to publish. That may be an opportunity for writers who think they can attract a following without relying on bedroom scenes.

When it comes to Kindle, Amazon has been more democratic than almost any other publisher in history. Radish and other mobile publishers still require editorial approval. Vella is available to anyone with an Amazon KDP account. This democracy is probably due to Amazon’s reluctance to hire an army of editors, but the fact remains: Vella is open to all comers (at least, for now).

If you’re interested in learning more, check out the Vella main site, the KDP guidelines, and the KDP Community message board.


Man in the Middle is my latest release, a modern novel of conspiracy and suspense.

During the first week of the pandemic, a security guard begins to see things he’s not supposed to see: Men working underground in the dead of night on Internet lines. Neighborhood police patrols enforcing more than the shelter-in-place order. And, a conspiracy to steal millions of dollars in BitCoin. The deeper he looks, the more he wonders if he’s uncovered reality…or is detaching from it.

Man in the Middle is available in Kindle and paperback editions.

j-nelson.net / Twitter / Facebook / LinkedIn / Goodreads

Do you need a writer's web site? — the soapbox

When you need to get something off your chest.

I’ve argued before that the brochure web site should be considered the ground floor for an author’s presence on the web, the lowest bar to cross. Anything less is not going to do much work for the aspiring writer (and aren’t almost all writers aspiring to something more?) Most of all, it’s not terribly hard to build one.

What I call “the soapbox web site” takes the brochure site and builds upon its foundation. It’s a way for a writer to put some of their own personality out there for readers. Social media is often good enough for that, but—crazy as it sounds—some ideas simply aren’t meant to be expressed in 280 characters or less.

The soapbox

The soapbox web site usually takes the form of a blog: semi-regular postings from the writer on whatever topic strikes their fancy.

It’s probably assumed that a writer will blog mostly, if not exclusively, about their own work. Certainly I’ve seen writer blogs where that was the case. The problem with this approach is that it can come across as incessant self-promotion. Also, a writer blogging endlessly about their own books will, at some point, give away so much of those books that there’s little reason for the reader to read them. And—let’s face it—there’s only so many interesting things a writer can say about their own books. B. Traven said, “The creative person should therefore have no other biography than his works.” That’s a pretty succinct warning against blogging about one’s own books.

Let me walk back one of the above points. Self-promotion is a reality of the modern world. The days of the smoky, literary genius secluding himself in his enclave while agents and editors talk up his work to magazine critics is, bluntly, a thing of the past. Even writers bagging seven-figure publishing contracts are expected to maintain a healthy social media presence and to make themselves available for interviews and AMA’s (“ask me anything”). That may sound glamorous—but it’s also self-promotion. That said, I still suggest writing a measured amount about one’s work rather than run a fire hose blog about how damn great your books are.

Another approach some writers use is to blog about topics that concern them, or are tangential to their work. For example, one of my early short stories is about an obituarist in the winter of his life. Because of that, I keep my eyes open for stories about obituary writers, strange obituaries, and so on, as a topic for my blog.

Usually, though, blogging writers gravitate to politically-charged subjects, and that certainly is one way to keep your readers coming back for more. Sharp and divisive political prose will attract eyeballs. Two and a half decades of year-over-year growth of the Internet has proven that.

When I built my web site, I struck a different approach. I focus on writing about subjects that inspire me, including reviews of books and film I admire—topics I think other avid readers might find worthwhile.

Mostly, though, I avoid politics and overly negative reviews (although I lapse now and then). This is a conscious decision on my part. A lone writer blogging about politics today is like selling bottled breeze in the eye of a hurricane. Rather than toss my small voice into the din of a massive fray, I decided to focus on topics that are important to the kind of readers I hope to attract. I also wanted to avoid the ranty, angry style of blogging common today. I’d done the ranty thing before—I didn’t need to do it again.

So, does this softer approach get eyeballs? It turns out, yes, it does. My web site attracts about 2,000 views per month, which is not enormous, but not bad considering it’s only me running it. I do almost zero promotion of it, other than list it on my social media profiles. When I post a new blog entry, sometimes I’ll link to it on Twitter and Facebook, but otherwise, that’s it. Those two thousand views are almost entirely from Google searches and the handful of followers I’ve attracted over the years.

Does it sell books? Not an appreciable number. I don’t do a hard-sell when a reader reaches my web site, no pop-ups or blockers which require them to click through to Amazon, or garbage like that. My books are listed down one side of the page (like advertisements). Occasionally I see a click-through from my site to Amazon. Correlating those clicks to Amazon sales is pretty difficult, but even if that person downloads a sample chapter to their Kindle, I count that as a success.

The argument against

That’s how I use my soapbox web site. Is it the approach everyone should use?

No. I enjoy writing about books and film. It motivates me to keep reading and watching, and it forces me to understand what it is about those books and movies that drive my interest. This energy is redirected back into my own writing, in various interesting ways.

But there’s another line of thought, which goes something like this: If you’re not working on your next book, you’re not getting your next book published.

I can’t fault this. This Substack is called Always Be Publishing, after all. My reason for choosing that name is not far removed from the above warning.

In my defense, I believe all writing is practice for your next round of writing. Writing is a skill that feeds back onto itself. Yes, you need to stay focused on your next book if you want to get published—but if taking a break from your book means writing something else, hey: You’re staying ahead of the game.

Share Always Be Publishing


Does social media sell books?

In the first segment of this series, I described going the pure-social-media approach as “the megaphone.” I was, and remain, skeptical that using only social media to get the word out about one’s books is effective.

Over at Writer Unboxed, Greer Macallister seems to back me up:

I don’t know if social media sells books. Sure, I can tell you that I’ve built a following on Instagram and Twitter and Facebook. I can tell you that people comment with “This sounds great!” and “I can’t wait for this book to come out” and “AMAZING!” Do they actually buy the book? Some of them, probably. But do I comment on other people’s posts with “This sounds great” and never get around to buying the book myself? Absolutely.

… I engage on social media because I like it and because it’s fun. Because I can’t prove it does a lick of good otherwise.

From “All the Things I Don’t Know”, which has a few more worthwhile observations for struggling writers of all stripes.


In My Memory Locked is a detective story set in near-future San Francisco. It’s a world of computer viruses using the subconscious against itself, specialized neuroliquers washing away bad memories, and a worldwide social network wired into everyone’s head.

Fans of Dashiell Hammett, William Gibson, and Philip K. Dick will find a familiarity with this story. Fans of mystery novels will find plenty in it for them as well.

Available now for Kindle and in paperback. More information can be found at j-nelson.net

j-nelson.net / Twitter / Facebook / LinkedIn / Goodreads

The double-edged sword

If you write literary novels, you're a prude. If you write genre books, you're a slut.

In The Breakfast Club, introverted Allison dares rich-girl Claire to say if she's a virgin. When Claire demurs, Allison says,

It's kind of a double-edged sword isn't it? … If you say you haven't [had sex], you're a prude. If you say you have, you're a slut. It's a trap.

This is how I feel when the question comes up about the distinction between literary and genre fiction. If you write literary novels, you're a prude. If you write genre books, you're a slut.

Is it really that simple? Nothing in this world is so simple. Yet, here are some true-life examples from my own experiences:

Prude

While shopping around my first novel, I got a tip that a prestigious national imprint had a new editor seeking fresh manuscripts. I sent mine along, hopeful but also realistic about my chances.

The rejection slip I received was fairly scathing. The editor claimed my book read of a desperate MFA student who doesn't understand the "real world." It was fairly derogatory (and oddly personal, considering this editor and I shared a mutual friend). A simple "thanks, no thanks" would have sufficed, but this editor decided it was my turn in the barrel.

Make no mistake: This hoity-toit imprint reeks of MFA aftershave. It's not a punk-lit imprint. It's not an edgy alt-lit imprint. It publishes high-minded literary fiction. The author list is upper-middle- to upper-class, blindingly white, and yes, many of them hold an MFA.

And I hold an MFA too, so perhaps the criticism is spot-on—except I wrote the bulk of novel before I set foot in grad school. I didn't aim for it to be a literary masterpiece. I wanted to write a page-turner. It's categorized as literary fiction because it's not mystery, science-fiction, fantasy, romance, Western, thriller, or YA/New Adult. Write a story about a character and his family, and it's not merely literary, you're trying to "be literary." Who knew?

In my novel, the main character has grown up in a town of physicists who design and perfect weapons of mass destruction—this is the actual childhood I experienced. I thought it would be a good read. (It is a good read.) My character is snarky, sarcastic, crude—and at times, he can be a right asshole. The technical background of the novel is, as they say, ripped from the headlines.

This seems pretty real-world to me. I thought I was writing a funny novel with an unusual setting and situation. This editor took it upon herself to declare I'm actually a Raymond Carver-esque hack penning quiet stories of bourgeois desperation. And that I should stop being that writer.

So, there's the rejection slip telling me to quit being literary, even though that's a categorization I never asked for. And it came from a literary publishing house. It's kind of a double-edged sword, isn't it?

Slut

After Amazon published my second novel, I began to sense a change in the attitudes of many of my writer friends. At first it was slight, like a shift in air movement when a door in the room is opened. Gradually, though, the emotional tension grew to the point it could not be denied.

I wondered if the problem was one of jealousy. My book had been picked up by a large company, but Amazon was not what you would call an A-list publisher (back then, at least—times have changed). And, they only published my book in digital Kindle format. I had to rely on CreateSpace to offer a paperback edition. The advance money was not huge, and the publicity not so widespread. It all seemed pretty modest to me, and I thought my friends would recognize it as such.

My novel is set in an alternate universe where human reproductive biology is tweaked in a rather significant way. This book is obviously science-fiction. Since the protagonist is a thirteen-year-old girl, it neatly fits into the YA slot as well.

And I'm comfortable with those categorizations. I grew up reading Asimov, Bradbury, Silverberg, and other science-fiction writers of the Golden and Silver Ages who laid so much groundwork for the genre. More importantly, I wanted to write a another page-turner, a real unputdownable book. From the Amazon reviews, I think I succeeded.

The tip-off for the issue with my friends was when my wife asked one of them if she'd read my new book. The answer was a murmured, "I would never read a book like that." This from a person I counted as a friend, and had known for ten years.

Before this, I'd heard her repeat the trope that all genre fiction is formula, as mindless as baking a cake from a box of mix. I always let it go, for the sake of harmony. Now it was being thrown in my face.

The funny thing is, one Amazon editor told me she felt in hindsight my science-fiction YA novel was not a good fit for their imprint. They were more interested in "accessible" genre fiction for their readers, and that my work was—yep—too literary. It's a trap.

Share

Tease

When Claire refuses to reveal if she's a virgin, bad-boy Bender suspects she's a tease:

Sex is your weapon. You said it yourself. You use it to get respect.

Between being a literary author and a genre writer, there's a third way: The literary-genre writer. These are the teases. They write genre fiction, but make it literary to get respect. And, often they do.

Examples of teases are Haruki Murakami, China Miéville, Cormac McCarthy, and Margaret Atwood. Much of their work is patently genre, but they are received and analyzed with the same awe and respect reserved for literary novelists.

The knee-jerk reaction is to say these writers prove it's possible to write literary-genre fiction. I don't think that's true at all, though. It only proves that authors accepted into the literary realm gets to have it both ways: To avoid the stigma of genre fiction while incorporating the high-stakes dramatic possibilities genre fiction offers.

Consider another literary-genre writer: Kurt Vonnegut. He writes science-fiction, but his books are rarely shelved in that section. Hell, he even wrote a diatribe about how bad science-fiction writing is (Eliot Rosewater's drunken "science-fiction writers couldn’t write for sour apples" screed). Yet, Vonnegut is rarely, if ever, permitted into the same circle as Atwood or McCarthy. There's something "common" about Vonnegut. Only at the end of his life was he cautiously allowed into the literary world. Some still say he doesn't belong there.

I remain unconvinced it's the sophistication of a novel itself that moves it into the upper literary tiers. I can point to plenty of books supposedly in the literary strata that are not particularly well-written or insightful. Something other than an airy quality is the deciding factor.

The success of a handful of literary-genre writers doesn't open doors, it only creates a new double-edged trap. An author who pens a literary-style novel can claim it's literary. See, he added his book to the "Literary Fiction" section on Amazon! But does it mean he's a member of the literary world? Not at all. There's something else holding him back.

The trap

The literary/genre distinction purports to explain every aspect of a story: Its relevance, its significance, its quality, its audience, even the goals of the writer when they sat down to write it. Nothing in this world is so simple.

There's a smell about the literary/genre divide. It smells like class. Literary is upper-class, and pulpy genre is for the proletariat. This roughly corresponds to the highbrow/lowbrow classifications. We even have a gradation for the striving petty bourgeoisie, middlebrow.

(Even calling a novel "middlebrow" is treated with disdain—a lowbrow attempt to raise a genre book to a higher status. It's easy to fall down the literary/genre ladder, but difficult to ascend.)

I definitely believe the Marxist notion of class exists, both abroad and here in the United States. What I don't believe is that a work of fiction is "of a class." Books are utilized as a marker of class—tools to express one's status. Distinctions like literary vs. genre communicate to members of each class which books they should be utilizing…I mean, reading.

This is not the most original thought, but is it really that simple? Nothing in this world is so simple. And I don't want it to be simple. As with food, the best reading diet is varied, eclectic, and personal.

Note the real damage here. If a writer writes the books he or she wants to write, and puts their heart and soul into making it the highest-quality they can for their readers, all that hard work is instantly deflated by the literary/genre prude/slut highbrow/lowbrow labels.

And if a writer introduces genre conventions into their literary work, they're a sell-out—a prude tarting it up for cheap attention. And if the author of a genre novel tries to achieve a kind of elegance with their prose and style, they're overreaching—a slut putting on a church dress. You use it to get respect. We're punishing people for being ambitious.

I've said it here before: People will judge a book by its cover, its publisher, the author's name, the number of pages, the title, the price, the infernal literary/genre label, its reviews, the number of stars on Amazon—everything but the words between the covers. You know, the stuff that matters.

Originally published at j-nelson.net


Over thirty post-apocalyptic and dystopian reads are available for free. Includes my own Bridge Daughter, a science-fiction YA novel that dreams of being literary when she grows up.

j-nelson.net / Twitter / Facebook / LinkedIn / Goodreads

Loading more posts…