Understanding the Market for Fiction Writers
Fiction writing seems to be something that everyone and his dog is engaged in these days. Firstly, about twenty-five years ago, the arrival of the word processor meant that anyone could two-finger type out a novel, print it and send it off to unsuspecting agents and publishers.
Secondly, the establishment of the Internet has spawned a plethora of journals, zines and communities full of people writing fiction. This has produced a polarization in the fiction market. At one end – the most densely-populated end – are the non-subsidized print and Internet literary journals. Despite their best efforts, the vast majority of these seem to exist for the sole benefit of writers – there are precious few people who subscribe to these zines just to read them. For the most part, they are filled with writing by promising beginners and intermediate writers. At the other end of the spectrum lurk the subsidized literary and American University journals. They have deliberately striven to dissociate themselves from the ‘writers’ journals and have been criticized for being elitist, narrowly “MFA-Literary” and nigh on impossible to get into.
The problem is, there seems to be nothing in the middle: nothing to cater for fiction that is neither safe and rule-abiding on the one hand, nor elitist and establishment on the other.
What does this mean for fiction writers first entering the market? Initially, they develop fast. There are so many resources available to them. Developing short-story writers move swiftly from beginner level to intermediate by joining on- or off-line writing courses, or getting peer reviews in well-established writing communities such as EditRED.com, and often go on to enjoy plenty of success. The non-subsidized journals publish a lot of new fiction, but they answer to the needs of all the other developing writers of fiction.
The irony is that as these writers, encouraged by their initial success, start to believe in themselves and hone their skills. They begin to dig deeper and reach for other ways to express themselves through their writing, only to discover that they have outgrown the market that nurtured them through their development. They have simply become too good, or too challenging for the majority of online journals. However they may not yet be good enough, or well-connected enough or “MFA-Literary” enough to be picked up by the top literary journals, which are ultra-competitive. So even though their fiction is of a much higher quality, the rejection letters start flooding in.
What options are left to this ever-growing group of fiction writers? Should they dampen their literary ambitions, prune their “heavier” stuff and return to the safety of the journals they began with? Or do they continue trying to get their best work into the elite journals and accept the struggle with zen-like determination knowing they could spend years trying to place their best stories, while the ones they churn out as a matter of course garner publishing credits with relative ease?
The explanation given by many magazine editors of magazines not supported by grants or universities, is that they depend on their subscribers – the aspiring and intermediate fiction writers themselves – and stand to lose subscriptions if they print more challenging fiction.
For many developing writers, bland, safe, forgettable writing represents the peak to which they can aspire. Writing courses reinforce this approach, since it produces significant short-term results, so more and more writers end up producing more of the same in a mind-numbing fiction, and the whole cycle picks up momentum and plummets into an ever-descending spiral.
How Can Fiction Writers Further Their Careers?
Secondly, literary editors will be forced to raise the game and acknowledge the need for greater diversity if their publication is to stand out from the burgeoning crowd of zines. Perhaps an editor’s job has changed. It is no longer to give writers what they want but to show them the range of possibilities in truly great fiction. At the same time, as more people are using the Internet for the purposes of entertainment and education, the great prejudice against reading off the screen is fading into background noise. Genuine readers are beginning to appear. At last editors are beginning to reach the audience for which their zines were always intended.
Finally, following the lead from the most successfully marketed publications on the web, zines will have to mark out their own territory by identifying their specific niche and demanding only the very best fiction that fits the bill. This might sound narrow-minded, but due to the extreme proliferation – we’re talking thousands of literary journals, zines and online projects – the best way to differentiate your zine from the hoards is to create a strong, tightly-defined identity for your publication and demand the highest quality writing that fits into its niche.
Writers of fiction often seek publication as affirmation. If avoiding the deeper, more challenging fiction means you are more likely to “place” it, your development as a writer might well grind to a halt, but at least you’ll get published. If, on the other hand, you are challenged to meet the high demands of a range of tightly-defined fiction journals, which all have their own loyal, hardcore following, you will be challenged to experiment with your idiom, range and approach to writing fiction. This means, writers could go ahead and write something they know will be challenging, in the knowledge that they will be able to find a niche, and a readership, for it.
These niches exist in the literary world; they are just not represented in the literary journals. As Alex Keegan, author and editor of ‘7th Quark’ magazine says, we are left with “barely-readable journals at one end (boring and bland) and barely readable journals at the arts-subsidized end (heavy and elitist). There should be journals out there that have real quality without ivory-tower attitudes.”
Short fiction is a dynamic art form, and the Internet is a quickly-evolving forum for artists to develop their craft, experiment and push the envelope. As we enter the Web 2.0 era, the days of hegemony and elitism enjoyed for so long by subsidized literary journals are numbered.
About the Author:
Chris Lee Ramsden is the managing editor of Edit Red and ScribblE ResourcE. He is passionate about contemporary fiction and fascinate by the new avenues of expression available to the modern writer. Check out the latest Writing Resources for articles, interviews with editors, agents and authors, all aimed at helping writers