How Art is Made: In the Catskills is a collection of interviews with some of the world’s most accomplished artists who live and work in the Catskill Mountains, New York. Five painters and illustrators, two ceramicists and printmakers, one sculptor, one weaver, and one writer discuss what inspires and moves them, what draws them to their medium of choice, what materials they use, how they approach a new artistic project, how they deal with setbacks, and how they celebrate success. Nine are formally trained at prestigious art schools; one is self-taught. What they all have in common is a rigorous studio practice, discipline, and the desire and curiosity to learn new things, and share them with the world.
This past Sunday Writers in the Mountains in partnership with Glaring Omissions Writing Group co-hosted a panel discussion Writing Fiction Today – Literary vs. Genre Fiction: Real Distinction or No Difference at All? at the Golden Notebook bookstore in Woodstock.
The panel discussion was moderated by Jenny Milchman. Jenny’s debut novel, Cover of Snow, earned starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Booklist, as well as praise from the New York Times, San Francisco Journal of Books, the AP, and other publications. It was an Indie Next and Target pick, won the Mary Higgins Clark Award for best suspense novel, and was nominated for the Macavity and Barry Awards for best first novel. Her second book Ruin Falls, also an Indie Next Pick, was published in 2014 to starred reviews from Booklist and Library Journal, and chosen as a “10 Best of 2014” by Suspense Magazine. Jenny’s third novel, As Night Falls, will be published on June 30th, 2015.
Before I summarize the panelists’ remarks, allow me to make a few general considerations. Right before the panel discussion started, I googled literary vs. genre fiction. And the fastest answers I got were:
- Literary is about explaining the world;
- Genre is about escaping the world.
- Literary fiction takes the awards (there are exceptions to this rule, as we shall see!);
- Genre fiction makes the bestseller lists – it gets the money!
- Literary fiction is more about advancing the intellectual discourse;
- Whereas genre fiction is more about playing with emotions.
Last November Joshua Rothman from The New Yorker wrote A Better Way to Think About the Genre Debate (you can find full article here). Rothman pointed out that contrary to the general belief that genre fiction doesn’t get nominated or receive literary awards, Station Eleven, a dystopian novel by Emily St. John Mandel, made it in fact among the fiction finalists for the National Book Awards last year. Rothman also pointed out that novels such as Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment are both literary and genre fiction.
Now going back to last Sunday’s panel, here is what the panelists had to say.
“I just like to write a good story. Booksellers find the distinction helpful to know where to shelve a book. And also publishers find it helpful to know how to market the book. There are many genres: romance, thriller, sci-fi, etc.”
Gaylin, a USA Today and international best-selling author, received an Edgar nomination for her first book Hide Your Eyes. Her Shamus Award-winning novel, And She Was, was also nominated for the RT award, the Thriller and Anthony awards. In addition to her six published crime fiction novels, she’s published the Young Adult mystery Reality Ends Here (Simon and Schuster/PocketStar). Stay with Me, her eighth book – and the third in the acclaimed Brenna Spector series – was just nominated for an Edgar Award for best paperback.
“I agree with Alison that bookstore owners need to know where to put the book, but it could backfire in a way. I like to call my books literary thrillers. Because I put a lot of effort in every sentence that I write. I think it’s mostly the way the books are marketed that had created this distinction. My last book Stranger Like You was marketed as a thriller, as opposed to my first two which were marketed more like general literary fiction. Stranger Like You sort of got lost, and people couldn’t find it. The distinction is not what motivates me to write; I just want to tell a good story. And I think what people like is some sort of driving narrative focus. The effort you put into character development is what makes a novel more literary – the voice of the characters and things like that.
Write a book that conveys your vision of the world.”
Brundage holds an MFA from the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she received a James Michener Award. Before attending Iowa, she was a screenwriting fellow at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. Her short fiction has been published in the Greensboro Review, Witness, and New Letters. She is the author of three novels, Somebody Else’s Daughter, The Doctor’s Wife, and A Stranger Like You, all published by Viking. Her new novel, All Things Cease to Appear, is forthcoming from Knopf in 2016.
“I think this distinction became a problem for bookstores after WWII. It’s a post-war problem. Writers wrote for markets. But in the 1950s, early 1960s writers began to go to universities, and write for tenure. That was a different novel than writing for the markets. They needed different reviewers saying good things about their books. And then what happened was that people in the academia became very resentful of people in the marketplace, and vice versa. Hemingway wrote The Sun Also Rises because he wanted to become a commercial writer; he didn’t think he could make it by just writing short stories.”
Golden is an award-winning journalist and the author of six full-length works of non-fiction and fiction. His first novel, Comeback Love, was published by Simon & Schuster. Some of his work has appeared in the Detroit Free Press Magazine, Albany Times Union, New Jersey Monthly, Microsoft’s eDirections, Beyond Computing, Electronic Business, Midstream, The Forward, and Capital Region Magazine.
Going back to Jenny Milchman, a couple of days prior to this panel discussion, she started a Facebook thread, and engaged with fellow writers in a passionate, well-argued debate. One commenter remarked that good writing is good writing, and bad writing is just that – bad writing. Another one said that he thought at literary fiction more in terms of general fiction, whereas genre fiction is a clearly recognizable genre (or maybe even a niche genre, I would add). Yet another one added that it’s become fashionable to label almost anything outside of the genre fiction as literary, and that makes the label meaningless. One commenter discussed the dichotomy ideas vs. emotions: ideas as pursued in literary fiction by those intellectually oriented, and emotions as explored in genre fiction for readers looking to have an emotional experience. Someone else summed up that this is an overrated question, and that readers don’t understand or care about.
What are your thoughts about literary vs. genre fiction?
As more and more aspiring authors debate over traditional versus independent publishing, I am weighing in this debate by exploring the pluses and minuses of each option. Herein I will consider the relationship between author and publisher from a historical perspective, I will look at self-publishing from a business and marketing standpoint, I will share statistics and trends, and I will mull over the future of publishing.
Over the past five years or so we’ve talked extensively about self-publishing given tremendous opportunities created by digital technology, but self-publishing is not new. Shortly after the invention of the printing press in Germany in 1450, German painter Albrecht Durer self-published an illustrated book called The Apocalypse, as reported by Hyperallergic and other sources. As a side note, Durer’s godfather, Anton Koberger, one of Germany’s most successful publishers around that time, published The Nuremberg Chronicle in 1493 – that book is on display at Vassar College through December this year.
To resume, artists and writers with entrepreneurial spirit have always existed. In the 17th and 18th century Europe self-publishing was fairly common; self-publishers were using subscription models to hook new readers. But moving forward into the 19th century, the advent of newspapers and magazines changed again the way publishers were doing business, by enabling them to publish short book excerpts and popularize novel ideas. It’s worth mentioning the essay published in October this year by The Economist magazine From Papyrus to Pixels: The Digital Transformation Has Only Just Begun, a piece musing over the past and future of publishing from different perspectives.
Granted, the relationship between authors and publishers hasn’t always been a rosy one: in 1849, for instance, Thoreau had a hard time finding a publisher for A Week on the Concord and Merimack Rivers, as reported by Brain Pickings; eventually, he paid out of pocket to print 1,000 copies – only 300 would sell. In 1845 Edgar Allan Poe only made $20 for the publication of The Raven, despite the instant success of the poem. Meanwhile, in 1855 Walt Whitman decided to self-publish Leaves of Grass – Whitman only printed 800 copies, and although the sales weren’t great, the author wasn’t discouraged. Today, we’re looking at traditionally published authors like David Mamet, who is considering self-publishing, and also at successful self-published authors like Bella Andre, who sold millions of copies of her novels, and made The New York Times Bestseller List.
Self-Publishing Is a Business
Self-Publishing is a business. Writers who self-publish are also publishers, marketers, and business managers. Publishing a book is very much like a start-up – it involves everything from product development, the book, to knowing the technology that’s involved, resources that are available, project cost, market research, branding, distribution, sales, and taxes. Successful self-published authors understand the book market – they know what people read, and how they read, know who their competition is, know how to price their books, know how to promote and distribute; they can compare different publishing models, and make a profit. In sum, authors who self-publish are more than writers – they are also entrepreneurs.
Self-publishing and book marketing go hand in hand, because authors who self-publish have to market their books, and build name recognition. Therefore, in addition to being writers, authors today are also performers, communicators, and brands. In that sense, I’m quoting Helmut von Berg, a publishing expert, who said for Publishing Perspectives in January 2013 that: “publishing of the future is networked publishing.”Also Seth Godin, who just published a CD of his bestselling book Tribes, emphasizes the importance of having a tribe, when it comes to marketing and sales: “All those blogs and social networking sites are helping existing tribes get bigger and enabling new tribes to be born.”
Trends and Statistics
In 2013 there were a total of 458,564 self-published titles, an increase of 17% from 2012; broken down by format in 2013 self-publishers published 302,622 print books, an increase of 28.80% compared to 2012, and 155,942 e-books, a decrease of 1.60% compared to 2012. The source is Bowker Market Research.
In 2013 self-publishers preferred print to digital, a remarkable finding, considering how much easier it is to self-publish digital rather than print content. The ratio print to digital was 60 – 40 in 2012; in 2013 that changed to 66 – 34 print to digital.
Also, another exciting trend, in October 2014 Frankfurt Book Fair, the world’s largest book festival, expanded its successful self-publishing German-language arena to include English-language books; the fair hosted this year a two-day intensive program dedicated to self-publishers, thus acknowledging the increased importance of independent publishing.
The Future of Publishing
In recent years we’ve seen a constant increase in self-published titles. But traditional publishers are no stranger to this market either: in 2008 HarperCollins created Authonomy.com, a site dedicated to independent authors; in 2011 Penguin U.S. created a similar site called Bookcountry.com; in 2012 Penguin acquired Author Solutions, one of the biggest self-publishing conglomerates; also in 2012 Simon & Schuster partnered with Author Solutions to create Archway Publishing. Furthermore, in 2013 Bowker, the agency that issues ISNBs in the United States, in existence since 1868, created a site called SelfPublishedAuthor.com, providing resources for authors contemplating independent publishing. In sum, traditional publishers appear not only to have been embraced self-publishing, but also to profit from it.
Pundits looking at traditional publishing models ponder over what changes the future might bring. And editors working in big publishing houses already moonlight as freelancers for independent projects. Meanwhile, Penguin UK is offering online writing courses, thus this major company becomes more than a publisher, and enters the realm of instruction and education. Other pundits wonder whether traditional publishers would unbundle their services, and thus offer authors just what they need, whether be editorial services, design, marketing or distribution.
In conclusion, should you self-publish or look for a publisher? The answer depends on a whole range of factors. It’s important to look at both options, and assess pluses and minuses. Ultimately the decision will depend on the goals and needs of each author, and the nature of each book project – some projects are more complex than others from an editorial, legal, or financial standpoint. Your choice.
© 2014 Simona David
How often do you review your ideal client profile? Do you do it once a year? Twice? Quarterly?
I am used to reviewing my client profile at the beginning of each year, when I also update my resume and re-assess my best products and services. It’s a process that helps me set a new direction for my professional goals in the year that is about to start. It gives me a fresh perspective.
Hence, I look at:
1. Who Is My Client?
If I understand my client’s business and what makes it unique, I can better serve his / her goals.
2. What Is My Client Looking for?
Is my client looking for marketing plans, white papers or other media products (i.e., newsletters, books, blogs, or websites)? Is he / she in need of brand enhancement or development? Perhaps strategic planning? Fundraising?
3. Where Are My Clients?
Are my prospective clients in the Catskills / Hudson Valley area? Or, are they in New York City? How do I facilitate a meeting?
4. When Is My Ideal Client In the Market? What Is His / Her Purchasing Behavior?
When is my prospective client most likely to re-vamp a website, publish a newsletter or a handbook, look for market research, organize events, or engage in strategic planning? How do my services respond to these needs?
5. How Do Prospective Clients Find Me?
Most of my clients are repeat clients. Others find me through referrals, word of mouth, business meetings, or social media.
Also, to better understand my clients, I regularly conduct surveys and gather insights. It’s important to me to know how my clients find me, what they like about my services, and what else they’d like to be offered.
What is your advice? How do you go about reviewing your ideal client profile?
Have a productive new year!