Debut Big Literary Fiction Big Bucks


A recent article from The Wall Street Journal, “Betting Big on Literary Newcomers,” discusses advances paid for “debut” Literary Fiction–and last year four were in excess of one million dollars. This article flies in the face of naysayers implying that Literary Fiction is perhaps the toughest genre of crack. First, it’s very hard for debut authors–but what genre isn’t? The other “issue,” if one can call it that, is that the really successful recent works such as THE GOLDFINCH and THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE–were labors of great love by the respective authors, as one required nine years to write and the other ten. One of my favorite books in the world of Literary Fiction published during the past couple of decades is THE POISONWOOD BIBLE, and if I remember correctly, Ms. Kingsolver said this book required ten years of her time. And if we look at the copyright dates before and between both WINDS OF WAR and WAR AND REMEMBRANCE, I believe there was a nine-year effort spanning the publication of each novel and its closest predecessor.

I’m certain there are some four- or three- or even two-year-or-less-year examples that someone can cite which pertain to Literature’s being published, as well as said books’ being well received by the public, but these take million-to-one odds and add a multiplier to the equation. I love it when a client of mine writes Literature, and I’m proud to say that I have worked with several writers who I believe have written brilliant material in the genre. Also, I know a few agents well enough who work in this genre that I can call them and they will read work I suggest, but I have yet to have one book in the category of Literary Fiction signed, and I’m almost of the opinion, as I said to a client who in my opinion wrote a fantastic roman a clef, that I believe the word count was simply not voluminous enough to be take seriously for material in this genre. This is how squirrelly I’ve become when trying to analyze Literature’s potential for publication by a bona fide royalty imprint.

However, while I’m discussing how difficult it is to debut with a work of Literature, a two-million-dollar advance was paid to Gary Risk Hallberg for CITY ON FIRE–and this was his first published novel. Hence, it can be done. And, yes, this book is a tome; actually a megatome, as it’s listed at 944 pages, and I have to guess it took more than 90 days of its author’s time to write. And to be clear, even though this was a debut novel, he has written for many august publications, including The New York Times, and he did have a novella published previously by a major imprint. So, as Paul Harvey used to say, this is the rest of the story. But, above all else as it relates to my theme for this section in my Newsletter, “big word counts” seem to be a major aspect of breaking into the Literary Fiction category.

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