Writers are still writing; readers are still reading; we see Blackfriars as enriching our literary publishing and making the relationship between reader, writer and publisher one of real collaboration.
— Ursula Doyle, co-founder, Blackfriars
What Digital Disruption Does to Us
Here in the industry! the industry! there is a subtler side to things than we usually like to admit.
The digital dynamic favors entertainment over art. In every industry it affects, it promotes feel-good hokum. Not difficult drama. Sit-back-and-relax “very funny” crap. Not important documentary. Short things over long things. Shallow things over deep.
The book business faces a hollowing out of its culture.
–Philip Jones, The Bookseller
Why? Because when we say “digital,” we’re talking about distribution.
What can be digitized can be distributed farther, faster, more cheaply, less discriminately. What once was viewable only on big screens in cinemas with popcorn and greasy floors now can be watched on your phone, right? It has been digitally distributed to you. And I’ll bet that film you’re watching isn’t Lawrence of Arabia, is it?
The digital dynamic electrifies the gutter. The main thing it changes is how much (of anything) can be pumped into society, more quickly, more easily, and by fewer workers than before.
And so once the Angel of the Digital Death has passed over your home and left your family huddled around the television, confused and cold—but online!—what’s missing? The good stuff.
I’ll give you a brief respite from the book world. Let’s look at television for three examples.
- The Bravo cable network “was the first television service dedicated to film and the performing arts when it launched in December 1980,” according to its site. It now produces what it terms “the best in food, fashion, beauty, design and pop culture.” Such as The Real Housewives of...
- The Arts & Entertainment Network began in the 1980s, too, and with a similarly serious mission. Today, it dares not speak its original name. Since the 1990s, it has been simply and officially “A&E.” A few years ago, it brought you the misogyny on wheels of Rollergirls. Now, it puts you into a Paranormal State.
- Take even the Sci Fi Channel, which is said to have included Gene Roddenberry and Isaac Asimov on its first advisory board. As is cheerfully rationalized in a folksy FAQ entry on its site, the new “Syfy” was something that could be trademarked. Have you seen much science fiction there lately? Maybe some horror, right? Including SmackDown. Imagine lesser.
I’ve put you through that tenebrific triumvirate of trivia not because I don’t love you but because it’s easier to see the fulsome folly of others’ faux pas than our own.
Publishing’s Best News of the Week
Yesterday, Friday, Little, Brown in London announced that it’s creating Blackfriars, the first digital literary imprint from a major UK publisher. Normally, I don’t celebrate the creation of new imprints because we have too many imprints already; they’re an Old Publishing device that merely clutter the scene and never made sense to readers.
In this case, however, I’m delighted.
Laura Hazard Owen at paidContent writes it up this way in Here’s something new: Little, Brown UK launches digital-first imprint for literary fiction:
Several publishers have launched digital-first imprints for genre titles — science fiction/fantasy, romance and so on. In these instances, books are published first as ebooks and aren’t released in print unless they take off. Until now, though, we haven’t seen a major publisher launch an e-imprint focused on new literary fiction — more serious fiction of the type that wins awards and gets major reviews.
Blackfriars’ news release says the list will launch in June with its own site, “a lively, interactive home” including “a ‘reader recommends’ function where the general public can make a case for why their favorite unpublished writer deserves a place on the Blackfriars list.”
(That last bit is ingenious, by the way. Committed readers will help flag good new work for this publisher because it’s smart enough to leverage the interactive power of community. Publishers didn’t get it at first. Many still don’t. A few, we see now, are starting to catch on.)
In Little, Brown launches literary e-imprint, Williams writes:
Summerhayes said another “convincing” element was that the imprint’s titles would be viable for submission to the literary prizes, including the Man Booker.
And Owen at paidContent points out that two titles planned for June have been published in the States already: The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan from Penguin’s Riverhead, and Benjamin Anastas’ Too Good To Be True from Amazon Publishing.
Blackfriars royalties “may be problematic,” as James Scott Bell said to me en tweeterie upon hearing the news.
Although Blackfriars’ people in London haven’t answered my questions on this yet, Williams at The Bookseller writes of it being “understood” that royalties at Blackfriars will reflect traditional levels, meaning, as Owen writes, some 25 percent. The positioning power of a major publisher (let alone advances, if any) might help offset lower royalty rates, if, indeed, they are lower.
Three Questions and Answers About All This
Royalty questions aside, what the Blackfriars news from London prompts me to write about is what has happened to literary fiction in the digital disruption of publishing.
You do remember literary fiction, don’t you? Well, of course you do. For many of us, it was the childhood entry to reading Most of what are considered “classics” among books are, in fact, literary fiction.
True to form for the digital dynamic, genre work has fared far better than literary.
Entertainment has held up better than art.
And literary work is the art of the book world.
Here in our final moments together before you rise up and take my life for saying all this, I’m going to set out several questions about this whole, ugly standoff in the books world. And I’m going to give them truthful answers. Thus, I will die what Albert Camus called A Happy Death. (The man was so literary he could barely walk.)
(1) Can there not be artistry in genre work? Of course there can, and I’ve read it. By the same token, there can be car chases in literary fiction. But, on the whole, literary fiction is to genre work as classic stage drama is to TV’s reality shows—art vs. entertainment. The entertainment hawkers don’t like you to remember that art can be outrageously entertaining. The digital determination to lower the common denominator for that big, big audience has done its work: literary is out of the boat these days and swimming for it.
(2) Isn’t literary fiction a form of snobbish, abstract, experimental avant-garde plot-less showing off by people who belong to Mensa and wear nothing but blacks and grays? No, but your anti-intellectualism is showing if you think that. And the genre-jugglers who tell you these things about literary know very well that they’re liars. I’ll just nay-say some of them here quickly to be sure it gets done.
- Much, if not most, literary fiction has story and plot, characters you care about, and even many feel-good, warm-and-fuzzy moments. Even titillation. Your Shirtless Men Kissing Beautiful Women would have a much better time at a literary salon than you (or they) might think. And they could bare their romance-glutted minds, for a change, too, not just their pecs.
- Do “literary people” not disparage genre people? Not nearly as much as genre people slag literary folks, in my experience. Literary workers are far outnumbered by the mighty marching militant mavens of mush, who order five and six short romance/erotic-romance books per week from the big houses of heavy breathing. Genre people have nothing to fear from literary.
- Me, I do disparage genre. Every chance I get. Okay, not really, but I do think we’re built for better things and I think we owe each other our best work always, as does my Writer Unboxed colleague Keith Cronin. (See his Write Like You Mean It.) I read work in several genres. And no, I’m not going to tell you what or whom. I read it, some of it, because there are good people, talented and intelligent people, working in genre. I want to see them break free of its cloying strictures and overweening fans, but I understand their fondness for eating and paying bills.
- And keep in mind that we’re having a chat here that the “man on the street,” or MOS, as we call him in the news business, wouldn’t recognize: the awfully-general public isn’t thinking about genre-vs.-literary. They, like Ms. Lauper, just want to have fun. The fact that literary lands on bestseller lists as frequently as it does means they’re finding some of that fun in those books.
(3) So, lastly, what IS literary, that you and I should be excited about a digital-first imprint for it at a big house in London? Literary work has a higher purpose than merely entertaining. It usually seeks to illuminate some part of life in a way that might cause us to reflect on who and what we are. Again, it can be entertaining, but you’ll be laughing all the way to an epiphany when it goes well. Unlike genre, literary is not bound by formulas and guidelines issued on pink copy paper by publishing houses redolent with after-shave lotion. Literary work may—but not always—use a wider vocabulary than much genre work because our language is a magnificent treasure of specificity when we know how to roll its glories our way.
A great genre work may make you laugh or cry. Good literature will make you think.
In a blog post at The Bookseller, editor-in-chief Philip Jones has written about how damaging the digital drive can be to what books have meant to us all. His piece, Balancing the Books (again, a subscription is required), rightly defends multi-prize-winning author Hilary Mantel from the sort of cowering attacks digital can prompt in journalism.
A decade into digital, Jones writes:
The big books sell more (much more in fact), and the difficult titles continue to sell enough to justify time and money…The three pillars that support the sector—price, a diverse marketplace, and copyright—are all under threat, while the shift to digital has up to now favored quickly produced commercial fiction over slow-burners, when it is the latter that will underpin the sector in the long term.
I’m sick of seeing digital’s dumb distribution have its ham-handed way with us and leave literary behind. I’m glad to see one home announced for it in a major house in London within that digital array.
And I’m ready to hear from you on this. Want to tell me I’m a cultural cad and a colossal killjoy? Know that whatever you say is fine, you won’t be put down. We can disagree with respect. Happens all the time. In literary circles.
Image: Porter Anderson, Kingsway, London