Ask The Editor

November 26, 2008

Bestseller or bust?

Filed under: Advice for fiction writers,Commentary,The Publishing Biz — editorialconsultant @ 11:39 am

I’ve heard from a number of published novelist friends that, although their earlier books did reasonably well, they’re having great difficulty selling subsequent novels. Publishers are reluctant to buy “midlist” books (books that may sell steadily but never reach bestseller status). The New York Times’ report on the decision by one publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, to freeze its book acquisitions for the foreseeable future, gives some clues about the reasons for this bestseller-or-die mentality. It’s not just the economy — which, we all know, is beyond awful — but the fact that some publishers have such significant debt, they can’t afford to publish anything that’s unlikely to become a huge hit:

Once upon a time, some publishers suggested, they could cultivate under-the-radar authors and slowly build an audience for them over several books. Now, with few exceptions, books tend to come out of the gate at the top of the best-seller list or be deemed failures.

“It is seriously going to be a time for known commodities,” said Esther Newberg, a literary agent who represents blockbuster authors like the thriller writers Patricia Cornwell and Linda Fairstein and Thomas L. Friedman, a columnist for The Times. “I would hate to be starting out in the business.”

So, what does that mean for the thousands of authors who have written wonderful novels – or hope to? If you are lucky enough to get a contract, you’ll have to do everything in your power to help get attention for your book – because nobody can buy a book they don’t know exists (and publishers generally throw the most publicity dollars at books they know will return the favor with book sales dollars). And if you can’t get a contract in this brutally difficult market, take a tip from Brunonia Barry and consider becoming your own publisher.


  1. I’m wondering if one ‘answer’ for fiction writers seeking publicity/publication/distribution will involve some sort of multi-media internet method…something different from the novel-as-we’ve-known-it.
    I have no clear picture of this yet in my own head–but somehow a writer’s work has to rise above the literal ocean of self expression that we’re drowning in, daily. Otherwise, nobody cares, & thus no one pays real $ for the effort.

    My half-formed notion concludes that some sort of You-Tube element might be part of plan to get attention – a dramatization of part of the book? A compelling literary panel discussing the book’s genesis? Maybe even those (to me) gaawdawful ‘write your own ending’ or ‘create your novel from this novel’ experiments that some postmodernist writers explored? (John Barth was involved in this I think, tho I looked for & could not find a specific reference. I heard him speak at a conference in Iowa City in ’93 on his experiments, if my memory has not fouled up this recollection.)

    Hypertext fiction, interactive fiction, and an offshoot known as the ‘visual novel’ , marketed in Japan may be factors as storytelling evolves in the global internet world. The big Q in my mind is – can anyone make a living doing this?

    Once upon a time,storytellers entertained the tribe or clan in verbal, face-to-face encounters. They were (one assumes) revered and fed adequately by fellow clansmen to keep the stories coming. Let’s skip blithely past the Greek drama & parchment scrolls to that astounding technology, the printing press (which put many scribes out of business). Publishers emerged to serve as a filter for audiences, and a channel of distribution for those storytellers who didn’t have their own printing presses. This epoch lasted for not quite 600 years.

    Now we storytellers are confronted by another technology – a global internet with nearly unlimited distribution opportunities, but equally dramatic changes in who (publisher? author? website?) is paid for what (books? articles? mixed media?), & how the experience of reading or viewing can be measured and compensated fairly to those who create the entertainment or enlightenment.

    In what form will storytellers (ie, fiction writers, novelists) be supported in the future? There’s gotta be a way…

    Comment by Lynn Wasnak — November 30, 2008 @ 8:47 pm | Reply

  2. […] already limiting what they acquire to books they believe have a shot at becoming bestsellers. See my earlier post for more details. So, authors have little to lose that hasn’t been lost already and, potentially, much to […]

    Pingback by Major changes in the business of selling books « Ask The Editor — December 16, 2008 @ 11:35 am | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: