SPECIAL IDEAS REPORT

Idea of the DayThursday, July 9, 2009

Give Struggling Authors a Chance

brewbooks/flickr

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.

Archives for Idea of the Day

TrackBack

TrackBack URL for this entry:
http://ideas.theatlantic.com/mt-42/mt-tb.cgi/11280

Comments (7)

Amen. Amen. Amen. I totally agree. Now I want to know if you'd like to read a good literary novel?

publishinggurudotblogspotdotcom

A great way for first time authors to get started is self-publishing. Build a track record that you can sell to a major house.

You must be kidding? Its idiocy like this that gives the industry and book critics/commentators a bad name. A special tax break for authors that no one reads? Tax the evils of Dan Brown, James Patterson & Danielle Steele to subsidize William Vollman, who is great but is read only by you and me. Does it occur to you that you are treating a symptom rather than a root cause?

Christopher WunderLee

It has been widely reported recently that The Catcher in the Rye still sells thousands of copies a year, Pride and Prejudice sold about 110,000 copies last year, and War & Peace sold about 33,000. In “Cents and Sensibility”, Adelle Waldman points out the Tolstoy now outsells Tom Clancy’s No. 1 best-selling book, The Cardinal of the Kremlin, while many “classics” outsell bestsellers of yore (The Runaway Jury by John Grisham sold almost 74,000 copies last year, well below Austen or Salinger). The point of this is thinking about longevity, rather than big blockbusters that sell well initially and then, disappear into oblivion. The “classics” are mainstays of any bookstore, and the literary fiction of today becomes the “classic” of tomorrow. If we intend to continue producing “classics”, we need publishing houses to think long-term, not just about fads and tales that Oprah might be inclined to put on his coveted list.

The suggestion that no one is reading William Vollman or Ben Marcus or William Gaddis anymore misses the point. People are reading these authors, just not in the millions that popular fiction attracts, and these authors have a chance at producing meaningful classics that will help the business of publishing over time. A business plan that depends on a book becoming a blockbuster isn’t sustainable.

So -- ignoring the idea of thinking about an art form solely as a business enterprise, which doesn’t help either publishers, writers or readers (in fact, it’s just this line of thinking that’s annihilating literary fiction) -- there is a cultural, social and political aspect that literary fiction fulfills. Works of fiction are the primary sources of history. We understand a culture based on its art. Reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a study of Ireland in the early 20th century. Fiction captures time in a unique fashion and illuminates cultural and social movements beyond the scope of history. On the Road is as a hero’s tale as it is a chronicle of 1950’s Americana. The Mandarins educates more about Paris after World War II than any book, it captures that time and provides a meaningful expression of the experience. This is no Fantasy novel selling millions and getting movie deals, nor is it some Romance that flies off the shelf and will later sit in the city dump. This is literature, speaking to generations, resonating with future readers, enlightening minds, and it is precious. We need literature and yet we depend on business people focused on quarterly sales reports and how to maximize profits. It’s a broken system.

But, and one of the omissions in the above article, more than dealing with how big publishing houses promote and/or pay for literary fiction (I can’t do more Jonathan Safran Foer “experimental” fiction), we, as booklovers, need to support the small presses and independent publishing houses producing literature. They need reviews, they need exposure, they need shelf space, they need attention. Whether it’s in the pages of The Atlantic or sections in bookstores or the IndieBound.org campaign from the American Booksellers Association (promoting independent bookstores, why not independent publishers?), the real vanguards of literary fiction need our support. The notion that we aid the big publishing houses, but ignore the smaller, independent publishers, plays to that inaccurate assumption that only Penguin, Random House, etc. are legitimate (always an odd assessment since no one argues only Borders and Barnes & Noble are the only legitimate booksellers). This is a prejudice that prevails publishing, and yet, from Algonquin to Ms. Beach’s willingness to put out Ulysses on her own dime, to City Lights, the indies are the thankless ambassadors of literature. Without them, our literary canon would be greatly reduced in number and significance.

Unfortunately, too many people think about literature like glossy products – if a laundry detergent doesn’t sell, you scrap it; if Pontiac can’t sell cars, it should go under. But, this misses the profound cultural need literature fulfills… that of voices hanging around the suburbs of the sublime.

Yes, I totally agreed with this. We need to give these authors some form of protection to prevent cunning publishers from gaming the system. Also, with the interent gaining such popularity, prehaps authors should also look into the method of publishing their works online through ebooks, etc. This will be a relatively cheaper form of getting their works to gain exposure using much lesser money.

Dave, Hostgator Coupon Specialist

Yes, I totally agreed with this. We need to give these authors some form of protection to prevent cunning publishers from gaming the system. Also, with the interent gaining such popularity, prehaps authors should also look into the method of publishing their works online through ebooks, etc. This will be a relatively cheaper form of getting their works to gain exposure using much lesser money.

Dave, Hostgator Coupon Specialist

Yes, I totally agreed with this. We need to give these authors some form of protection to prevent cunning publishers from gaming the system. Also, with the interent gaining such popularity, prehaps authors should also look into the method of publishing their works online through ebooks, etc. This will be a relatively cheaper form of getting their works to gain exposure using much lesser money.

Dave, Hostgator Coupon Specialist

Comments on this entry have been closed.