William Faulkner's first novel, Soldier's Pay barely sold when it was released in 1926. Neither did Saul Bellow's in 1944, Kurt Vonnegut's in 1952, Cormac McCarthy's in 1965, or David Foster Wallace's in 1987. All of these books garnered tepid reviews and bare-minimum sales. Ever since Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1828 debut sold so poorly that the author burned the remaining copies out of embarrassment, flopped first novels have been an American tradition.
Publishers have typically taken the long view, expending great effort and bushels of money to keep struggling authors writing away for years, banking on the hope of eventual literary success. It is to this dedication that we owe America's status as one of the great literary pillars of the world. Now, that dedication is faltering, and with it, the future of the great American novel. But it's not too late to save the novel.
Random House or Harper Collins would never deliberately cut loose the next Faulkner, of course. But it's not hard to imagine a poor and struggling but brilliant and promising young author living in, say, the lower Mississippi Delta, able neither to scrape by on bare-minimum advances nor to keep the attention of a publisher now desperate for quick successes. With publishers cutting back, there is a risk that we might lose the next Faulkner without even knowing we've lost him. And that risk is real.
Book publishing's increasing obsession with blockbuster names began before the recession made every galley a house's big break or bust. Look at the literary celebrities of the past 20 years: Bret Easton Ellis, Jonathan Safran Foer, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers, Sherman Alexie, Jeffrey Eugenides. All produced big hits with their first books. If Ellis's debut had been a promising but disappointing flop, rather than the epoch-defining Less Than Zero, would his publisher have dropped him before he had the chance to write literature that would ultimately help shape America's understanding of the 1980s? The answer 20 years ago would have been "maybe," but today it would be "absolutely." As we struggle to understand an economy toppled by the very forces Ellis details -- malicious greed, perilous shortsightedness, debaucherous self-interest -- it's easy to see great literature's value to society.
Of course, many industries are beleaguered today, and President Obama can only act as CEO for so many. But literary fiction is different from banks or cars in that it's never been about profit. Like education, which is socialized, and health care, which should be, literature is a national resource that we can't afford to lose. That's why we need to adopt a set of tax incentives that would make it easier, or even in a publisher's interest, to take chances on new and underselling authors. Rather than making the next Faulkner a liability, make him an asset.
Publishing houses that print only small-run fiction by authors who have never achieved high sales should be afforded tax breaks on whatever revenue they do pull in. Better yet, tax only novels that sell a certain number of copies, reducing the risk inherent in authors that may undersell. Allow houses to write off a portion of the marketing for first-time authors who don't have the name recognition of established writers, an imbalance that has led many publishers to all but abandon advertising campaigns for anyone less successful than J. K. Rowling.
The monolithic giants of book publishing should receive similar tax incentives for specialized imprints that publish only new or less-than-profitable authors. Let the whole company get a break for maintaining a branch that's demonstrably about nurturing talent, not profits. Then publishers like Random House would be fighting to preserve their for-the-love-of-literature divisions rather than shed them. After all, small imprints are actually cheaper to run, since they aren't burdened by the giant advances of big houses. Helping publishers shift resources to these imprints would ultimately serve their bottom line.
Of course, the government would have to establish guidelines to prevent publishers from gaming the system. Once authors produce anything close to a commercial success, for example, their books would not qualify for further protection. But I doubt there's much risk for exploitation. Only a banker could produce a disastrous work-around like credit-default swaps. And only a novelist could understand the cultural forces that led him there. If we're going to spend trillions fixing balance sheets, maybe we should consider the struggling writers who might one day decipher the very human forces behind those balance sheets.