The Art of Publishing Literary Books That Sell

I think of sales figures as a measure of how many people have been reached by a book’s message. One sale equals one person, or more, with lending. The purpose of publishing a novel is to share a good story with readers. But reaching them, just to let them know the story is available, involves a hard decision about how to publish.

Professionally, I have worked to publish everything from literary fiction to romance novels, memoirs to business books, physical and social science “think” books to self-help psychology and spirituality. The audiences for each of those genres has different needs. They read for different reasons, expect different things, and most importantly find books in different ways. I have supported authors traditionally publishing with houses and self-publishing their inspired visions, straddling the biggest chasm in the industry. These days, there are incredibly diverse options available to authors, with resources of all kinds advising on what to do (myself included). 

Having circled the publishing sphere, I can manage all the processes it takes to make a book. As the creative phase of writing the first novel in The Queen Bee series winds down, and it is time to publish, I am faced with a decision. How I choose to publish could determine so many things, like how readers find my books, the amount of money I make from sales, degrees of creative input and control, the industry platforms I support—whether beneficial (!) or harmful (Amazon and sadly now Goodreads)—and who my readership turns out to be. 

While I have a lot to say about each of those topics, and the list is not nearly comprehensive of all the factors at play in successful publishing, I think what means the most to me is the last one: who is my readership? I wonder: How can I best connect with them? What will they want from me, in terms of novel content, online interaction, in-person interaction, and even things like covers, special editions, packaging, and customer service? What resonates the most with them, in our intersecting interests, passions, and curiosities? These are open questions that I contemplate a lot. 

Sometimes, I think back to the thesis I wrote as part of my master’s degree in publishing (MPub). It was based on my “work experience” (in British and Canadian parlance) or “internship” (in American) at what was then still the Penguin Book Group in London. There, from a desk overlooking the Thames River, I supported editors in the literary imprints publishing luminary authors like Zadie Smith, Zoe Heller, Simon Winchester, and Nick Hornby. Because literary taste is so subjective and personal, I grew curious how these editors selected manuscripts that would have broad appeal. I titled the thesis The Art and Science of Choosing Literary Books That Sell: Acquisitions Decision-Making at Penguin UK. I conducted interviews, asked probing questions, summarized sales meetings, and observed discussions as decisions were made. There are a lot of aspects of a project to consider, it’s true. But what the decision fundamentally came down to was someone (an acquisitions editor) with a strong sales track record saying, “I love it,” and getting others to love it also. 

Of course, these were the days before there was so much demographic and buying-habits and search engine data available to quantify the decision. I don’t know if today’s data-focused approaches might make my thesis redundant in the industry, but it still captures the heart of what goes into making a good book: the words “I love it.”

 I must be able to utter those three little words to write the book. My brand and cover designer said it when she grasped just what I’m all about. Beta readers said it when they expressed how much they wanted to read the next book in the series. My editor said it in a more formal way: “There is so much to commend in this manuscript” while offering her love of craft to make it better. If I seek an agent, they would have to say it, feel it, and experience enthusiasm making their heart beat fast. Ideally, the love would spread to a publishing house—at least through acquisitions and development, and if I’m really lucky into marketing and sales. 

I know, I know. Surely you’re saying, “But that’s not how business works. Publishing houses are in it to make a profit. They are squeezing your creative soul for money.” That’s true too. I have worked with agents who just take your money and do nothing to help. Editors who disparage authors behind their backs. Marketing people who make it part of their job to “break up” with authors three months after a book’s launch. And witnessed horror stories of miscategorization, overzealous editing, and sloppy production errors. No one can control their experience with a publishing house. But there is the potential that a love for it could see my books through. 

Self-publishing is so appealing for many reasons. But the grievous fault with it feels profoundly influential because I focus on readers accessing the novels. Fiction genres like romance and crime sell terrifically through self-publishing channels; audiences are primed to purchase them, enjoy them, join author communities, and feel committed to supporting their favorite authors so they can write more. 

I write accessibly, engagingly, and in ways that readers are familiar with and expect. But it falls into the genre of literary fiction. Readers of literary fiction seem to want an authoritative stamp on their books: a prize, a place on bestseller lists, an esteemed publishing house. They don’t eagerly search for emerging authors on Amazon the way romance and crime readers do. They don’t have a long history of buying from authors directly, supporting them on Patreon or Ream. Instead, they eagerly await the next installment from a well-established source, or until the next award is announced, or as they are browsing through the stacks at Barnes and Noble or their favorite local bookstore. My understanding is that fundamentally, literary readers are not so prepared to embrace self-published efforts.

There’s so much to this decision, but it all goes back to my master’s thesis. As someone motivated by sharing, spreading, and propagating the love for stories, books, writing, and reading, I remain torn about what path to take to publish. If you have anything to say that might help me out, please comment or send a private message. It’s time for this story to reach readers. 

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