Publishing Literary Fiction (in Charts and Words)

I went to New York City a few weeks ago and spent 3 days talking to editors at Random House, Penguin, Simon and Schuster, and HarperCollins. I try to do this a couple of times every year to pitch upcoming projects and to get a better idea what editors are looking for. Since  I have been doing more work representing fiction, mostly literary and young adult,  I decided to speak to a number of literary fiction editors  and try to figure out the  elusive secret key to publishing the perfect literary novel. I am sad to report that this key continues to elude me.

The editors, with whom I spoke, all told me that they were looking for “fresh new voices.” This is commendable and reassuring, particularly for debut novelists. And I also believe that this is true. We often  scold commercial publishers for failing to take risks. Not to sound snarky though, sometimes I have difficulty distinguishing those fresh new voices from the stale old ones.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that trade publishing is the marriage of art and commerce. This is no less true of the decision to publish that most artistic of book genres, the literary novel. The acquisition decision is rarely based on simple aesthetics. In fact there is a vast amount good fiction writing out there, most of it heavily vetted and edited by agents before even reaching the desk of the literary editor. Good writing is a given. Publishers want something more.

Literary fiction editors are just like the rest of us. They get hooked on a novel in the first few pages, they fall in love with the story and the characters, they are seduced by the language, they stay up all night reading it, they laugh and cry,  and   decide they must publish  this book. But then the decision moves on to the acquisition meeting. Every week a group of editors meet with the publisher of the imprint, the marketing director, and the sales manager. Questions come up. Will the chains buy this book? Is the novel too much like one that flopped last year? Is the voice really fresh and new? Is the voice too fresh and too new? Is it too dark for the book group readers (That happened to one of mine). Is it too literary?

Too literary! Wait a minute. That’s what publishers are looking for, isn’t it? Well, yes and no. All of the literary editors told me that they want books with good writing, strong characters, original themes and compelling plots. How is this any different than a commercial novel? After all thrillers have to be well written too these days. 

So I took out a little piece of paper and started sketching a kind of literary-commercial continuum chart.  Most of the editors agreed that such a continuum exists and that the lines separating the genres are pretty fuzzy. They all agreed that the books they are looking for are not at the far end of the literary continuum. They are closer to the middle. Some editors and some imprints have sensibilities a tad to the left or a smidgeon to the right. 

So here is my chart. Study it, literary fiction writer, and you will get published.

Actually, that isn’t true. You probably won’t get published. Now those of you who lack courage and self confidence should not read on. The chances of getting a publishing contract are still pretty small, even for authors of talent and with fresh new voices.  I asked one of the editors to tell me how many manuscripts she considered in a year and from those how many ultimately got published. She looked at her log and said she had gone over about 250 manuscripts. Two were ultimately acquired and  put into print. This is a sobering statistic. And remember, all of her submissions were prescreened and heavily filtered by agents.

Here is the chart.

So I ask myself why am I spending so much time trying to make deals that seem to have less chance of happening than winning the lottery. I guess it is just that I love this stuff (and I got a pretty good feeling that my number is coming up soon).



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16 Responses to “Publishing Literary Fiction (in Charts and Words)”

  1. perspicere Says:

    2 out of 250? Seems to me maybe even the ‘professionals’ are not quite sure what comprises “Literary Fiction” . Let me take a shot. :puffs up, cracks knuckles:

    Literary Fiction most always flops in the theaters. It makes some money but never blockbuster type of money. For example, take Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees, that is about as close to literary fiction you will get in today’s market – but look at how it did in the theaters – $38 + million tops(world wide).

    Therefore, if we were to look a Literary Fiction from the film industry’s perspective, we can describe it as execution driven. Its appeal isn’t obvious from the pitch, the appeal is in its characters. It’s one of those stories where you as the reader just have to go along for the ride and experience it yourself to appreciate it.

    Whereas commercial fiction is a high concept project that is pitch-driven. You know right away if you want to commit to reading the story . It is one of those “ah-ha, I see, I get it now; I want to read it.”

    So from your post, It seems as if acquisition editors are looking for:

    a great ride on a scenic road where we learn the driver is an extremely interesting hero(ine) who is poised to save the world from nuclear annihilation. lol

    What 2 titles did the company publish?

  2. Anonymous Says:

    Did you pay for lunch or did they pay for lunch? I could have told you this by looking at the seasonal lists… You say you don’t represent fiction on your agency site but here you are. S&S publishes mostly shit…notorious for it…Random House… long ago but not for years… watered down quality stuff by accident… Harper Collins, ECCO… they think Joyce Carol Oates is literature. Viking Penguin… Paul Slovak shepherds William Vollmann every once in a while… cant remember the last time I asked to see a novel … same goes for Random House Harper Collins… Only FSG does fiction of some quality, if you subtract Franzen… such a stupid title is Ulysses literary fiction?…
    In Barnes and Noble I notice they mix it all together now…
    Michael Roloff sent me the Link to your site…Did Codys ever publish books… A James Liddy book for instance?

  3. hannahkarena Says:

    As a writer in the querying process, this post made me oh-so-slightly depressed. [the end]

  4. Mike Roloff Says:

    if one editor takes 2 of 250 submissions of literary fiction that means that at any
    given time 250 m.s. are sloshing their way down the spiral, from f.s.g., knopf to the lower reaches and eventually to fine little places like Tin House or Algonquin, but that also means that of those 250 about 10 % find a liking in the top tier??? now if only there were real readers and good enough reviewers, and time.

  5. jobs in fresno ca Says:

    Hi there, I found your website via Google while searching for a related topic, your website
    came up, it looks great. I have bookmarked it in my google bookmarks.

  6. lovekatie29 Says:

    I stumbled upon your site when attempting some research and, even though its not entirely on-topic with this post, I have a question I hope you can answer.

    I am currently an aspiring writer. I write YA – mostly high fantasy but I’ve recently started working on a contemporary/urban fantasy story. I say it this way because while there are fantasy elements to the story they are somewhat minimal. My question is are the genres close enough, considering they are all YA, for me to be able to publish in both? I am really excited about the urban fantasy story but, as most of my story ideas are high fantasy, I don’t want to get pushed into the contemporary/urban fantasy corner if I manage to get it published and I really don’t want to use a pen name.

    • andyrossagency Says:

      Dear Lovekatie. Most publishers judge each story based on its own merits. There are always trends. Last year all the deals seemed to be about paranormal. Now they seem to be looking more for realism. But you can’t follow the trends. By the time you submit your story, the trends will have changed. Write the best story you can and try to find someone to fall in love with it.

      • lovekatie29 Says:

        Well yes, but what I mean is if I do manage to get the urban fantasy one published will I still be able to work towards getting something in high fantasy published? I know that most publishers prefer writers to stick to a single genre in order to develop a loyal fan base but I’m not sure how strict the “one genre” rule is. Is YA considered the “one genre”? Or would urban and high fantasy be close enough for me to be allowed to pursue both?

    • andyrossagency Says:

      I think you might be splitting hairs. Publishers are interested in making money and acquiring books that will sell. Doesn’t really matter what the subgenre is. All that being said, if you have a popular book, they may try to get you to write sequels. If your name is totally associated with certain genres, they probably will encourage you to continue in those genres. But not necessarily. Some very serious literary fiction writers liked to write popular mysteries. Sometimes they used pen names for that

  7. Al Rubin, M.D. Says:

    Speaking of books that will make money and sell, I’m an M.D. psychiatrist and just read a ms. by a patient of mine that I could not put down. This patient has drawers full of never marketed writing. The novel I read in ms. was riveting, and I’m a well read psychiatrist. I gave it to my colleague, a doctor of psychology with a Ph.D. in comparative world literature, and he couldn’t put it down and read it in one evening, also. My patient is extremely sensitive to others’ feelings and highly intelligent and well read in great classics. I’d call this novel, paranormal, psychological realism with a thriller and highly erotic element. Sort of Kafkaesque or in the genre of the Da Vinci Code. My Ph.D. colleague and I consider Shakespeare, Dante, Rabalais, Whitman, Dickinson, maybe Toni Morrision, Salmon Rushdi, De Lillo and Arundati Roy great writers, but not Joyce Carol Oates to give an idea of our taste. I’d like to help this patient who is shy of marketing– from having been traumatized by it–to receive recognition for the long, hard hours of work achieved–but still sitting in drawers. The writing is easy to read, not convoluted, but engrossing in detail and metaphor. The patient needs to believe in the work accomplished, more than any need for money. Money is not my object at all, as the novel belongs to my patient, and my patient does not need money, but a sense of readership and accomplishment in the work. My patient is highly sensitive to others’ feelings and very intelligent, well read and nearly psychic, but disillusioned by the world of commerce. Money would be 20th on this soulful patient’s dream list. The novel I could not put down is still in my mind. I wake up mornings thinking of the characters, and so does my colleague with his Ph.D. in world literature. Would I be able to drop of this ms. at Knopf, FSG, W.W. Norton, Viking, Harper Collins, etc. and have it read, if I drop it off with my enthusiasm and credentials as an M.D. psychiatrist, or must I find an agent first. I don’t have time for that, and I doubt my mildly depressed, but sane author-patient will search for an agent. You will understand how good writers can be sane in an insane commercial culture. Emily Dickinson wrote: “Publication is the auction of the mind of man,” and refused to publish, but sent her work to over 40 correspondents who were friends and read it with admiration. Somewere the top editors of her day. She published in the scribal sense. What would you recommend? How can I help this patient be discovered as a “fresh new voice” of literary fiction? Please reply

  8. andyrossagency Says:

    Al, if you or your patient want to get a novel published from the major publishers you mention, I’m afraid you are going to have to find an agent. I’ve written in this blog 11 steps to finding an agent. . You should probably read that and start from there.

  9. Al Rubin, M.D. Says:

    Would you be interested in seeing the ms. I speak of? It was done sometime ago on a typewriter. Maybe, I can have my patient send it to you, or at least some sample pages–with a query letter as your steps suggest. I don’t think the patient would be willing to retype it on a computer without an agent’s interest.

  10. Evelyn Says:

    Dr. Rubin, I wish your patient success. As a patient myself, I’m debating how best to share my novel with the world. If –oh if– I got accepted by a small or major publishing house, I would lose all my SSI check after receiving $2000 or so in bulk payment. Generally that payment is all a writer receives and must be spent almost entirely on promotion. If I self-publish, that counts as “passive” income (ha ha!) and I lose dollar for dollar on what I earn… Maybe I should stuff it in a trunk like Emily.

  11. Oscar Hokeah Says:

    Hi, Andy. Great post. I had a sense that the industry was as such. Thank you for being a champion of literary writers. Being one of those new voices and just finishing a collection of short stories, I can see I have my work cut out for me. I’ve been in” the relentless pursuit of…” since I started writing when I was fourteen-years-old so I assume that drive isn’t going anywhere. It’s ingrained in my DNA at this point. Good luck with your journey, and thank you for sharing your post with us.

    Oscar Hokeah

  12. Enedina Mccotter Says:

    I like this post, enjoyed this one thanks for posting .

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