We've all heard of literary fiction, but we often hear conflicting opinions about what it is and who writes it–including the widespread false news that self-publishers cannot succeed in this genre. Orna Ross, director of the Alliance of Independent Authors, a reader and writer of literary fiction, dispels the myths and gives guidance on how indie authors can succeed at self-publishing literary fiction. With thanks to Melissa Addey, Roz Morris and Hannah Jacobson of BookAwardPro.
What is Literary Fiction?
Literary fiction (litfic for short) is the genre of storytelling that explores the most complex social and psychological characteristics of the human condition, in original, expressive, and sometimes experimental ways. The most defining quality of literary fiction is its original and skilful use of language and style.
NY Book Editors define literary fiction as a type of fiction that “doesn’t adhere to any rules. Anything can happen which can be both exciting and unnerving for the reader. Sometimes, literary fiction takes a common theme in mainstream fiction and turns it on its head.”
Litfic readers appreciate literary style and technique, and stories told in subtle, nuanced and original ways. That's utterly part of their pleasure in the work, what makes a book “good” for them. Other readers, those who most appreciate plot, pace, and known patterns, can find litfic boring, puzzling or too much like hard work.
It's also commonplace to hear writers and others in the literary industries say that self-publishers cannot succeed in literary fiction. Not true, as we shall see below.
Literary is often a label that somebody else gives you. I don't think anybody sits down to write a “literary”. We write what we can, as best we can. The challenge that I set myself is to write something that's honest and true.
Literary Fiction Versus Mainstream Fiction
We often define literary fiction by comparing it to what it is not, the kind of fiction that is variously (and unsatisfactorily) called “genre fiction” (though litfic is also a genre), “popular fiction” (though some litfic is tremendously popular, while much mainstream fiction goes utterly unread) or “commercial fiction” (though bestseller book lists include plenty of litfic).
Because it's more about style and execution than content, literary fiction embraces all genres, as well as being a genre in itself. Sometimes it embraces multiple genres in one book. My novels are murder mysteries, multi-generational family sagas, contemporary and historical women's fiction.
Literary fiction doesn't fit a clear description like, say crime fiction or romance, so there can be confusion about the genre among writers, particularly about how to market books in this genre.
And of course lots of books fall between the two. As ever in matters literary, there are no rules and much creative melding and fusion.
For the purposes of comparison, I'm going to use the term “mainstream fiction”, as the least-wrong.
Mainstream fiction is typically more plot-driven, less like to stop for discursive asides, less likely to deliberately puzzle and challenge the reader. Author want to grip the reader from the outset, keeping them on the edge of their seat with a quickening pace of tension. Literary fiction readers are more open-minded and patient, and appreciative of slow-burn storytelling that for them is as impactful and memorable as fast-paced plots.
Literary fiction is arguably more challenging to write, which is why it takes longer, and why it is typically thought of as being more “highbrow” than other genres, appreciated more for its creative virtuosity than its commercial appeal. It is the stuff of which literary prizes like the Booker Prizes and the National Book Award are made.
Litfic tends to be less escapist, more true to life, especially in its conclusions. In litfic, the characters' don't all live happily ever after. Rather, litfic resolutions invite readers to imagine what happens in the after life of the book and readers want to ponder the characters' futures in this way. They want the story to have a resolution, of course, but nothing too tidy, clichéd or unrealistic.
Literary fiction often relies on symbolism or allegory to impart the deeper takeaway than the story itself reveals. In litfic, emotions are usually mixed, characters often ambivalent, and situations a mix of good and bad–just like in life.
This truer-to-life quality is one of the things that attracts me to litfic, as a reader and writer. Another is its attention to language. Oscar Wilde, when asked how his day's work had gone, spoke of spending the morning taking out a comma and the afternoon putting it back in. This quote is sometime attributed to Flaubert who was a notoriously slow writer.
“I have just spent a good week,” he wrote to a friend midway through Madame Bovary, which took seven years to compose. “Alone like a hermit and calm as a god, I abandoned myself to a frenzy of literature. I got up at midday, I went to bed at four in the morning; I have written eight pages.”
Litfic writers can relate.
Self-Publishing Literary Fiction: Some Confusions
Says ALLi's Campaign Manager, Melissa Addey:
“Often authors use literary to mean ‘good quality', which is not what literary fiction is. I searched for litfic as a genre on our member database and out of 200+ who had ticked literary as their genre, many did not seem to fit the genre. This is problematic. It implies the possibility of mis-selling books to the wrong readership, which causes a raft of problems.”
Another problem is the litfic authors who are deeply resistant to marketing and promotion. For example, they often refuse to use on trend covers because ‘it's the words that matter'. But the litfic audience is accustomed to some of the very best covers there are on the market, including beautiful editions with gold-sprayed edges, cut-outs and more.
The Place of Prestige
Litfic readers are a discerning lot and they are used to being oversold to, with ecstatic reviews, and book blurbs. So while a paid editorial review from a brand name like Blue Ink or a prize win might not move the needle for most readers, for litfic readers it can (sometimes) make a difference.
Will it make a difference for your book? There is no way to be sure without testing and trying. Invest in an editorial review. Seek out awards to enter and don't hold yourself back by thinking your book's not good enough. Let somebody else be the judge of that.
“When it comes to winning prestigious awards, the challenge for self-publishing authors is twofold,” says Hannah Jacobson, ALLi's new Awards Advisor and founder of ALLi Partner Member, Book Award Pro. “Awareness and navigation. Firstly, awareness that your book could suit the award requirements; secondly, actually navigating your book through the submissions process, which can be lengthy and cumbersome.
“For example, the Pulitzer Prize openly accepts self-published works. However, many indies are unaware of this openness…and thus never navigate their works through the process. How unfortunate! Lack of awareness leads to no submission, which leads to lack of recognition in these award programs. It is a vicious cycle, but one we can certainly break. Show up, give your book every chance to gain recognition (whether through smaller awards or famous ones), and the literary world will take notice.”
Many significant literary awards are now opening up to indie authors.
- The Premier’s Literary Awards
- The Arnold Bennett Prize
- The Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards
- The British Book Awards
- The Commonwealth Book Prize
- The Rathbones Folio Prize
- The Jhalak Prize
- The Lambda Literary Award
- The Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer of the Year
- The Pulitzer
For more on submitting to awards, we have three useful resources.
- ALLi's awards rating page (currently being updated)
- ALLi's Ultimate Guide to Winning Book Awards: Tips and Tools (blog post)
- ALLi Prizes for Indie Authors, our short guidebook, packed full of tips and advice for preparation and submission. ALLi members can download a complimentary ebook copy of Prizes for Indie Authors in the Member Zone. Navigate to allianceindependentauthors.org and log in. Then navigate to the following menu: BOOKS > SHORTGUIDES. Other formats are available to members and non-members in ALLi’s Bookshop
Prestige in other forms matters can give you a leg up in this category too, says Melissa Addey.
Consider MAs and PhDs. You can even get a studentship for a PhD in Creative Writing, which in the UK means you get paid approx. £17,000pa (and all your fees paid) for 3 years. A ‘full-time' PhD actually takes up about 2/3 full-on days plus some thinking time per week.
Or writer residencies in prestigious places is another option. I was one for the British Library, which opened many, many doors for me. Try to align yourself to some high-level institutions Also grants from prestigious funding organizations, the chance to lecture at a university or well-known educational establishment can all boost your profile and help you to reach the right readers.
It takes research, a lot of applications and some practise, but there is definitely a spiral of success that happens, whereby people don’t want to be the first in line to give you a grant/opportunity, but want to join in once someone else has!
Consider targeting literary festivals where literary fiction takes prime focus. Again, don't assume they don't welcome indies, many do. For example the very prestigious Hay on Wye, which has multiple events in the UK, Peru, Spain, Columbia, Mexico and Texas, is open to indie authors. Check out our resources on the Open Up to Indie Authors campaign page (log in needed)
Research their themes and styles, then pitch yourself as a speaker, workshop facilitator or as part of a panel.
Marketing for Self-Publishing Literary Fiction Authors
What, then, is the best way for a self-publishing literary fiction author to market and promote their books?
Literary Fiction Covers
As in every other genre, covers are crucial and your cover should be the very best you can buy. Melissa recently had an author lament that no-one reads their books because they are too literary.
“I read one of the books and actually, it would appeal more broadly because although it is very well written and literary it is also engaging, but its cover is almost deliberately off-putting to a wider audience. It looks like a really ‘classic’ textbook that you’d be set at school and some people are going to be very turned off by that. Have something that looks like thought went into it … but don’t assume there might not be a bigger audience than you’re giving readers credit for.”
As it's common for literary fiction releases to be slower, try and keep an eye on current trends. With slow releases, a new cover can make readers feel this is a new and interesting read (Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy was fully re-covered as each new book came out, to match the current trends around the time of each publication date).
Roz Morris, literary fiction author says,
“I’ve come across many literary indies whose covers are letting them down. They want to be taken seriously and I've tried to kindly suggest they could present their work professionally – and they reply that the quality of their words is all that matters. But literary novels have to communicate a well honed aesthetic sense. Nuance is everything. A terrible cover will send the message that the writer has no sensitivity. If anything, the covers for literary fiction have to be even more polished than genre covers.”
Use a different kind of blurb: ones based on plots and questions (how will he ever…?) are unlikely to strike home. Depth and complexity should be reflected in the blurbs.
Give a light plot blurb ‘intro’ and then focus on the themes and ideas being explored within the text and the likely emotions or the ‘thought journey’ the reader will experience.
Literary fiction often features characters who are morally ambiguous and possess personal flaws, captivating readers with their intricate backstory and inner psychology. They may even be evil or unlikeable. The blurb should hint their complexities and imperfections are revealed in a nuanced manner, allowing for a deeper exploration of their motivations and faults.
Gather a group of authors who also write literary fiction and carefully curate the quality of those books and their covers, so that you are confident that your joint reading community will appreciate this curated list. You can do this via BookFunnel by setting up invite-only promotions.
You don’t need to discount the books, you just all promote them via your own channels saying, ‘perhaps you’d like to explore these books.’ This can get a noticeable and positive response. If you create a group that works, consider planning regular such mentions, especially as members bring out new books. Literary fiction authors often write more slowly and so benefit from keeping attention on their works and having people ready to mention a new launch.
Newsletter swaps or BookFunnel co-promotions would work well here.
Book Pricing Strategies
Consider how you price your work. Readers who like literary fiction may consider very low permanent (no promotional) prices an indicator of poor quality and be put off. Also consider what formats you publish in: offering multiple formats is desirable, as many litfic authors like to read in print and without an audiobook, you can be invisible to younger generations, who like to consume their fiction in audio format.
Ensure that your books can be ordered into bookshops (and mention that on your website). Some literary readers, who tend to be thoughtful folk, pride themselves on not using the larger online retailers.
Conversely, don't assume that other tried and tested indie strategies — free book giveaways — don't work for literary fiction. As we've seen, it's a broad church and not all litfic readers want the same things.
Test and try. Iterate. Improve. Explore and experiment until you hit on what's right for you and your books.
How to Market Literary Fiction: Roz Morris Case Study in Newsletters
Roz Morris is a novelist, memoirist and writing coach. She’s taught masterclasses at international events and for The Guardian in London. She’s a story consultant for a thriller publisher in Dublin and a regular panelist on the Litopia YouTube show Pop-Up Submissions, with literary agent Peter Cox. She’s acclaimed for her own novels: My Memories of a Future Life, Lifeform Three (longlisted for the World Fantasy Award), and Ever Rest (finalist with honourable mention in the Eric Hoffer Book Award) . She’s also the secret hand behind ghostwritten books that have sold more than 4 million copies. Find her on her website, her newsletter and you can tweet her on @Roz_Morris
Q. Does advertising work for literary fiction?
I’ve tried advertising but never got much traction. Literary is a broad category and the competition is too rich for me.
I could advertise in niches for the subject of each book, but I’ve found that to be ineffective because subject niches are quite literal. For instance, one of my novels features a dual timeline and other incarnations. If I advertise in those subject areas, readers tend to want a traditional treatment, not a quirky story with an unconventional take.
I’ve found the best marketing tool is myself. If I speak at an event or on a podcast, or if I hold a book-signing, I sell books. I can involve people in what I write and what I’m interested in, and that personal touch seems to do the trick.
Q. How can indies translate that to a bigger audience?
I use my newsletters. I used to be wary of newsletters as a marketing tool, but now I love them.
To start with, I was put off by the standard advice – to offer giveaways, previews, special offers, bonus chapters and so on. Much of that is impractical for me. I have a small catalogue, so giveaways would soon bleed me dry. If I wrote about the next book I hoped to have on sale, I’d be writing the same update for years. ‘Did a bit more this month. It’s coming along. It’ll be finished, oh, I don’t know when.’ Readers would get mighty tired of that.
So for a long time, I thought I couldn’t send a newsletter because I wouldn’t have news.
Things changed when I found myself writing a literary travel diary, Not Quite Lost. It was an unexpected thing and I wrote a newsletter to explain, including why I had doubts, because who would be interested in my diaries? Several subscribers wrote back cheering me on. It was the most personal newsletter I’d ever written, and they liked it. I suddenly saw. I could write about life between launches and book events – as a 24/7 creative person.
I now send a newsletter every month, and only a small part of it is works in progress or sales stuff. The rest is personal adventures that arise from books I’ve written, adventures that might end up in future novels or memoirs, books I’ve recently loved and want to share, creative friends I want to celebrate. I wrote about a highway I used to drive on that had been returned to nature – continuing the spirit of my travel memoir. I wrote about meeting a friend from my teen years and discovering how we had both turned into professional creators.
The essence of it is connection, as it is when I’m able to present my work in person.
Is it effective? That’s impossible to measure. Some people unsubscribe, but who doesn’t get unsubscribes? Some write back every month and continue the conversation, or just say they enjoyed it.
Q. How do you attract new subscribers?
I have design experience so I create graphics for each edition of the newsletter, which I share intensively around my socials. I use them as headers, changed each month, on my Facebook page, Tumblr and Linked In, so people can see what I’ve been doing recently. They’re also in my email footers and at the end of every post on my blog. When new people sign up, I have a welcome sequence that explains who I am and what I’m about. People write back to that too. It certainly seems to generate a sense of connection.
Q. Do you use lead magnets to attract new subscribers?
I don’t use them myself. Some literary writers offer short or flash stories as an incentive, but short form is a discipline of its own and not all novelists find it natural. I don’t, and anyway, short form fiction wouldn’t be a faithful showcase for my work.
That’s a crucial point – whatever you offer, whether through a freebie or the newsletter content itself – should be true to the books you write. That’s the relationship you’re building.
Above all, it’s important to own your identity as an artist. Know what’s true to you and what isn’t.
And know that your work has value in itself. A lot of writers think the only thing they have to offer – if they can’t give special deals – is advice for other writers. I made that mistake myself, thinking my own work had to take a discreet and embarrassed back seat. (Although I’m also an editor and writing coach, so writing advice is not entirely irrelevant.)
But much of conventional newsletter theory asks what value we are offering to readers. If your newsletter is a good read, and interesting to the right people, that is value. And the literary crowd, more than anybody, appreciates the writer who has a mind they enjoy.
You don’t need extra offers or bells and whistles and bribes. Take the long view and be yourself.
I am a UK-based British author. Of the awards noted, my books would only be eligible for the Rathbone award. However, it’s important to note that you can’t nominate your own books for the Rathbone. Books are nominated by members of the Academy. Each member can nominate up to three books. The way in would be to court a member of the Academy and persuade them that your book was worthy. I imagine that unless you’re lucky enough to know an Academy member, it is quite a closed world!
Thanks for this dose of reality!
Yep. The British Book Award has a criteria of already successful, so that’s little help when you’re trying to make a breakthrough. I’ve tried entering a book in the Booker (one I published for someone else) and the criteria are really stacked against small indie publishers – the qaulity of the book is irrelevant. The big publishers maintain their fortress walls.
Hi Steve, With the British Book Awards, Self-Published Titles is a category all of its own. However, the award is for book design and production rather than the quality of the writing . ‘The judges will be looking for exceptional design,
free of typographical errors, with particular emphasis given to excellent layout and standards of typography.’ It is a completely different slant than other awards.