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What Does It Take To Make It In Literary Fiction?

abstract:As a person who leads book groups, meets and interviews new authors and reviews books,  I frequently get asked the question, "How do books make it in the literary fiction market?"  Rachel Donadio's article "Promotional Intelligence," in the May 21, 2006  edition of NYT reveals the window is smaller than a space shuttle trying to land in hurricane season—new authors have two weeks to make it.


May 26, 2007

"[I]n 2005, almost half of all sales in the literary fiction category came from the top 20 best-selling books, according to Nielsen Bookscan, which tracks sales in 70 percent to 80 percent of the domestic retail market. The three top sellers in literary fiction were The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon (640,000 copies in Bookscan's sampling); Memoirs of a Geisha, by Arthur Golden (560,000 copies, including the movie tie-in); and The Known World, by Edward P. Jones (274,000 copies).

This top-heavy pattern makes promoting literary fiction a challenge. "You need 15 things to happen in the right order on time," said Bill Thomas, the editor in chief of Doubleday-Broadway, whose recent successes include "The Curious Incident," as well as Jonathan Lethem's Fortress of Solitude and, yes, The Da Vinci Code. Those things include drumming up enthusiasm inside the publishing house, spreading the word to booksellers and reviewers by sending out manuscripts months before publication, and securing a front-of-store display at Barnes & Noble and Borders and prominent placement on To show booksellers you're serious, Thomas said, you have to ship a minimum of 20,000 copies to stores at the time of publication.

But literary novels rarely sell that many copies in hardcover, and the need for a high print run sets up expectations that can be difficult to meet. Printing 20,000 copies off the bat also requires the commitment of the entire publishing apparatus. To get "in-house support" for a book, editors vie against one another to win over the marketing and art departments so the book gets advertising dollars and the best jacket possible. That means literary fiction editors are increasingly called upon to become businesspeople and lobbyists. "The stereotype of the introverted book editor scribbling away in a dimly lit office may have once been true, but now if you're that way, your books fail," said Geoff Shandler, the editor in chief of Little, Brown, which publishes Rick Moody and David Foster Wallace.

Today, "it's a zero-sum game and the publisher knows they can only push so many titles per season," said Eric Simonoff, a literary agent at Janklow & Nesbit whose clients include Jhumpa Lahiri and Edward P. Jones. "There's an enormous amount of internal triage that goes on. Rarely is a publisher surprised at the success of a work of fiction." That doesn't mean their best efforts always bear fruit. "A lot of preplanned successes turn out to be flops," Galassi said. Benjamin Kunkel's "Indecision" sold 19,000 copies from its release last August through the end of April, according to Bookscan — a respectable figure for a first literary novel, but disappointing for such a heavily promoted title (though it was much discussed in literary circles, which to some is the true measure of success)."

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