Google+ Followers

Friday, March 12, 2010

Depressing Trends

I sold a novella thirty-seven years ago. I hope to sell a novel this year.
The large gap in my views of the fiction marketing industry has given me a
perspective into publishing trends that is worth sharing.

In the mid-seventies, genre fiction was looked at with disdain. Before
Quentin Tarantino, "pulp fiction" refered to the poorest and worst of
literature: dime novels. Romance, science fiction, and mystery all was
considered pulp. As such, agents and publishers preferred not to touch genre
fiction. It did not pay well; it was hard to sell.

At that time, literary fiction and commercial fiction was in demand. In
terms of word count, "the longer the better" was the advice to young

Another major change since then concerns publishers, agents, and query
letters. An unpublished writer was encouraged to submit a novel (or "three
chapters and an outline") to a publishing company, not to an agent. The
submission was accompanied by a cover letter. For fiction, a query letter
without at least three chapters was unheard of. The publisher would employ
"slush-pile" readers to pore through the unsolicited manuscripts. Agents
were for second novels, or for first novels a publisher wished to acquire.

Then, the big hurdle for a beginning writer of fiction was to get a
publisher interested. Today the big hurdle is acquiring an agent.
Agents now serve as slush-pile readers and initial editors.
To me, this is a very negative trend, and it has hurt the
quality of American literature. The initial reader, when I was young, was a
publisher's paid employee who was looking for good fiction. Today, the
initial reader is an agent who is trying to make a profit as quickly as

A novel that takes time to develop character, plot, and thought-provoking
thematic ideas takes more effort and time to sell on an agent's part than
short genre fiction that has an already determined market. Combined
with generations of readers raised watching TV serial dramas
that have very little theme and plots resolved in less than an hour, this has
resulted in the decay of quality literature. Thirty-four years ago there
were far more novels with characters and plots people will remember for the
rest of their lives and far fewer romances, police procedurals, and vampire
novels that are forgotten days after they are read.

I know of at least two novelists who started their careers writing formula
genre novels and are now writing larger quality literature. That seems like
the way to do it, because today it is far easier to sell a first novel that
is short and fits into a popular genre than it is to sell something truly
memorable. I find this rather sad.