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Are E-Books Killing the Literary Novel? Nonsense

These seem like dark days for literary culture in general and the debut novel in particular. At least, that's what the Wall Street Journal tells us. Here's the Journal's publishing beat reporter on the subject of first novels:

There will always be the lucky new author whose first novel ignites a hot auction. But more often today, many debut novels that would have won lucrative advances five years ago today are getting $15,000 or less, says Adam Chromy, a New York literary agent. Mr. Chromy was recently disappointed with the immediate response from editors for a debut novel he thought was exceptionally good.
Now here's every publishing reporter's favorite source, Larry Kirshenbaum, getting his well-worn oar in:
"Writers like Anne Tyler and Elmore Leonard have to simmer quite a bit before they are going to boil. Publishers no longer have the patience to work through multiple modest successes," Mr. Kirshbaum says. "There is a real danger that these people could be lost today."
This is, to put it politely, hogwash of the highest order. Finally, we're introduced to John Pipkin, a mid-list novelist, who thinks he's put his finger on the nub of the problem:
Mr. Pipkin says the business model of e-books worries him. "I embrace anything that makes it possible for people to read what I've written, especially if it's somebody who might not have read the physical book," Mr. Pipkin says. "But the sales price of e-books is lower than the price of physical books, so writers stand to earn less. It's a concern moving forward, especially as e-books make up a larger percentage of sales."
The publishing model where imprints buy the rights to a book based upon their market instincts is what digital distribution is destroying. And that will be the best thing to happen for writers and the publishers. In the present but waning model, the author sells the rights to his or her book to a publisher who supposedly has a keen sense of what will sell.

But the term advance is actually a misnomer. What the author gets is a guarantee. The publisher takes away the risk of publishing by guaranteeing the author a minimum income from his or her work. The Faustian bargain here is that if a writer becomes a huge hit, the publisher takes an inordinate share of the proceeds (70%) down the line. Over the years, author's agents have mitigated some of the publishers' advantage by playing them off each other and getting higher and higher advances.

Ironically, two types of authors could get very high advances: Those with a proven track record and those with none at all. Solid writers with two or three good but unspectacular books under their belt -- writers like John Pipkin -- have been dead meat in the publishing business for years. They were done in by the rise of the superstore and Nielsen Bookscan which made sales figures visible across the industry. Sell 10,000 copies on your second book like Mr. Pipkin did and you punched yourself a second-class seat to nowheresville.

Was that fair? No. Did it lose a generation of voices? Maybe. Who knows. Publishers are famous for having turned down scores of successful books before someone saw merit in them. Adding the dead hand of past sales figures to the decision process only made it harder for a writer to follow his or her artistic instincts. Did first-time novelists often get big advances? Sure. But those were based upon the suppurating whims of editors who were often chasing some trend they had previously missed out on: mountain-climbing disasters, lurid memoirs of drug addiction or, say, a vampire book.

E-books, on the other hand, offer a different model for publishing. Since writing a book takes nothing more than time and talent, the determined author can now publish and reap a larger portion of the sales revenue. That won't happen with the big publishing houses, they're only offering 25% of net digital revenues. They can do so because they've paid for the rights upfront. Justifiably, they want to earn some of their money back before applying e-book royalties to the advance.

Some time in the middle of the 1990s, most likely driven by the increased profits of bigger best-sellers made possible by the superstores, advances grew by great leaps first into the six-figure range. Then, they went far above. During that same time, network television and the movie business was the place most talented writers wanted to be. You could make a fortune as a showrunner on a hit sitcom.

In many ways, those rising advances were bait drawing writers back to novels and non-fiction. Soon the advances began to create an apartheid within publishing houses as the anointed authors got all the pre-publishing attention. Unfortunately, the big books weren't always the books with the big advances. Those authors got even on their follow-up books often to everyone's dismay.

To the Journal's credit, Trachtenberg quotes eminent writer -- and former book editor -- E.L. Doctorow approving of the new trend. And they admit, too, that most literary writers never saw big paydays. The rise in advances during the mid-nineties usually went to young, good-looking writers who could be marketed well. Some of those hit it big. Other writers built themselves up through tireless work or a knack for self-promotion. Dave Eggers has confounded the modern publishing industry at every turn and succeeded.

Writers need a Darwinian environment. Publishers too often try to fight the natural selection of taste. The husbandry of the book business has not been good for either the publishers -- un-earned advances (read: bad choices by publishers) account for one of the largest operating costs of any of the big six publishers -- or the writers.

Arthur Klebanoff, a former agent and now head of the e-book publisher Rosetta, announced this week a new royalty structure on his e-books that begins at 50% and rises quickly to 60%. Enterprising authors -- the ones who write because they have to -- will get the bigger reward for having taken the risk. Inverting the royalty relationship by making the publisher take the minority share of the book's revenue is the future of publishing. That will benefit publishers, writers and, in the end, our literary culture.

Image courtesy of Timonoko via Flickr

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