By Porter Anderson | @Porter_Anderson
From January 22, 2012
Part of my series of columns on publishing, Writing on the Ether, appearing Thursdays at the invitation of Jane Friedman at JaneFriedman.com
I started the week asking, in effect, whether the industry! the industry! is becoming so fixated on its digital Sturm und Drang that it’s forgetting its art, that content which, author and Ether sponsor Roz Morris reminds us, is supposed to be king.
It can happen to any business that brokers creativity in the marketplace, especially when P&Ls are upended by fast, deep transition.
The news industry forgot itself, too.
That’s why I got into this week in Ether for Authors at Publishing Perspectives with a look at a chance missed at the highly regarded Digital Book World Conference to hear some of Hugh Howey’s tradition-scrubbing Wool text while we had him there.
Now comes a follow-on development. Self-publishing author Colleen Hoover’s Hopeless is to be published in print by Simon and Schuster’s Atria, while Hoover maintains control of her ebook rights. This is, of course, a close parallel to Howey’s deal, which is also with Simon and Schuster and which also leaves the e-rights in the author’s control.
Howey, with characteristic generosity, writes the Hoover news on his own site in a short post, Sensing a trend…:
This is an even bigger development than my agreement, because it signals a trend rather than an anecdote. How long before other publishers realize they need to offer similar concessions to successful indies or miss out on ready profits? How long before established authors ask to retain digital rights for new books in popular series?
This is the sound of another digital train leaving the station, he’s right. I’m not even sure some of S&S’ sister publishers are happy to see these contracts walking out the door. They’re being hailed by some in the self-publishing community as representing a pivotal moment, of course.
Joanna Penn, another Ether sponsor who writes as J.F. Penn and joined me on a panel at the Bookseller’s FutureBook Conference in London, makes the apt observation that leaving e-rights in the hands of a strongly selling author is smart because publishers can expect that author to remain more engaged in marketing.
Some authorial skin is left in the promotional game.
In return, I’ve suggested to Penn that the publishing house, itself, is more highly incentivized, too, because it now has a genuine partner in the author: it’s to each parties’ advantage to coordinate and augment each other’s marketing efforts, hands across the formats.
@Porter_Anderson first of many in the stampede to come – will benefit all since authors will be more invested in marketing if keep e-rights
— Joanna Penn (@thecreativepenn) January 23, 2013
I applaud Hoover’s success, of course, and am watching with everyone else for the development of this trend Howey and others are hailing. I don’t know how many contracts add up to a trend, but this is at least a pattern for now, and it does appear to be breaking the stranglehold of all-rights-controlled contracts.
But Hoover’s moment in the sun of Simon and Schuster brings me to a different concern.
Critic Porter Anderson has been talking recently about the rise in “shirtless” fiction — romance, romance and more romance. For Porter, it’s akin to the 25-cent paperbacks people can buy by the bag at library book sales and used book stores. Easily read, easily discarded. He’s been pushing what he’s calling #legitlit and #seriouswriting — stories that make you think. Is that literary fiction? That might depend on who you ask.
It’s like hearing your own voice on a recording—”I sound like that?”—to read your thoughts being extensively played back by someone else.
But Coughlin does it with a lot of finesse in her post Serious Fiction and #LegitLit: Creating a Hybrid Home. And in the process, she probably introduces my own topic more gracefully than I might have done. I thank her for that.
A quick clarification: When Coughlin writes “Creating a Hybrid Home” in her headline, she’s not referring so much to the “hybrid” author who, like Howey and Hoover, both self-publishes and traditionally publishes—something discussed at length in Ether for Authors in regards to a Writer’s Digest and Digital Book World survey.
Instead, Coughlin is looking for a combination of commercial and literary elements that come together as what I’ve begun hashtagging as #legitlit or #seriouswriting.
She’s conjuring the kind of thing you can find, for example, in Michael Hogan’s Sistine, a literary thriller from The Rogue Reader. Or, in case you haven’t read it yet, in Howey’s Wool—there’s a literary dystopian sensibility at work in the original five-novella omnibus, which is why some critics refer to Bradbury and Orwell in reference to Howey’s work.
Generally dubbed literary, herself, Coughlin is wishing for a less punishing caste system in how we label “the product.” She writes:
Genre has taken on a connotation that is the opposite of serious fiction. More and more there are books out there that don’t fall into either category. If more people adopt the “serious fiction” category, maybe we can start to build a new genre.
Me, I’m just looking for better books and fewer shirtless men kissing beautiful women.
— Roz Morris fiction (@NailYourNovel) January 22, 2013
We need to see publishers rethink propping up this glut of erotic romance as if it’s something that Anaïs Nin dropped by and endorsed on the loading dock. #Cmonson. A mercenary indulgence in sales of soft pornography is tantamount to super-sizing French fry orders during the obesity epidemic.
Did you read the indictments of the CUNY Graduate Center’s Burton Pike, written for the German Book Office and carried this week at Publishing Perspectives? In Cultural Homogeneity and the Future of Literary Translation, Pike writes of flattened national voices and the rise of a “generic international content”:
This cultural change also affects how writers themselves regard language…The author notes that younger writers in English are…less likely to know foreign languages, less likely to be interested in the forms of language, including their own, and who, because they regard language as instrumental rather than essential, are less in love with language as part of their literary work.
As an astute and innovative insider in the business said to me the other day, it’s all penny dreadfuls. Of whatever genre.
And my point is that we’re selling so many penny dreadfuls—and getting so accustomed to seeing bookish bonbons as the rightful work of the industry! the industry!—that we could be losing our grip on what literature really is. Anti-intellectualism and bonus checks won’t revive literature as what Pike terms “the sacred bearer of high culture.” When has the big news been that a self-published literary novel was picked up by a major house?
Even drenched in our digital baptism, we could still be about our fathers’ business. It had to do with our cultural relationships with each other. Remember? That’s what ennobled publishing. Penny dreadfuls were out there, but they weren’t presented to the public as front-table season-starters. And we weren’t up to our asses in them, either.
Here’s Coughlin, remembering a friend’s comment about the work of Doris Lessing:
He said she’s one of his favorite authors because, “She’s one of those authors who makes me not want to read another book for a long time because there’s always a lot to absorb and reflect upon.”
Best thing about the books behind Sundance: Doris Lessing's The Grandmothers is now Two Mothers. http://t.co/HzowfuxL
— Carolyn Kellogg (@paperhaus) January 23, 2013
What makes this subject hard to handle, of course, is that as soon as you mention literary work, you’re assumed to be bad-mouthing genre. I’m not doing that. Neither is Coughlin. But many folks who work in genre seem to be defensive on the subject—although it should surprise nobody that with the Internet prompting all but sixteen people on the face of the planet to write books, the most populist genre formulations are going to dominate the output.
Publishing Perspectives’ Edward Nawotka follows Pike’s essay with the question, “When the language of commerce (and sex) dominates everything, where is there room for the political or cultural?”
Maass does assert that the commercial work he advocates transcends genre and involves rich characterization. But he also calls for “high impact” as an essential element, a successor to his longtime writing-course mantra, “tension on every page.” I think this “impact” business (the product, Maass writes, of “great stories and beautiful writing”) can too easily be another sop to readers who won’t go forward into fiction without the promise of a good car chase. Or of shirtless men kissing beautiful woman.
Coughlin, trying valiantly to define what “#legitlit” signifies to her, writes:
Those books that have enough depth and meaning that we find ourselves reflecting on the book, the characters and the story in the hours, days and weeks that follow, those are serious fiction, or #legitlit.
I’m delighted if #legitlit sticks with readers. As I’ve written before, Nevil Shute (Maass and I share a keen fondness for Shute’s work) taught me the shuddering grace of what Coughlin is describing when I couldn’t shake the shadow of the radioactivity moving toward Australia in On the Beach. I get what she’s saying very well.
But I’d like to suggest that where we, as the community of publishing, need to focus today is on the relentless invasion of cultural dynamics by entertainment.
What I mean when I hashtag something #seriouswriting or #legitlit (which can be fiction or nonfiction) is that entertainment is not its priority.
Most good #legitlit is entertaining. But its intent lies in ideas, principles, concepts—not in “sit back and relax” feel-good entertainment.
Here’s something I learned from London-based husband-and-wife authors Dave and Roz Morris. They know an editor who was involved in trying to land the hardback release of Howey’s Wool—just out this week there from Random House UK. The editor, say Morris and Morris, filled them in on the background story of Howey’s self-publishing coup the rise of his book to publisher-wooing levels.
But the editor, who eventually did not get Wool, they tell me, never mentioned that Howey’s work was good. As Roz Morris, author of My Memories of a Future Life, puts it:
We know one of the editors who was in bidding for Wool. Told us about the genre and sales. Never once mentioned it was well-written. I had no idea until I looked at your sample [in Ether for Authors]. In all the convs we had with this editor, Hugh’s quality was irrelevant.
— Dave Morris (@MirabilisDave) January 22, 2013
— Hugh Howey (@hughhowey) January 22, 2013