Earlier this year, I launched a literary fiction survey to get feedback from independent authors about the kinds of books they had written. The survey was made up of only a few questions, the most intriguing of which asked each author about which category they believed their stories belonged in. For example, was the literary story they had written about family? Was it about abuse? Or was it about the nature of meaning, etc.? The survey was short and directed.
I then offered authors who had participated in the survey the chance to expand on their views by responding to a series of more open-ended questions about literary fiction. The result was 17 author interviews out of 27 survey responses.
Read on for the survey responses as well as my argument about what I think a logical next step is to make these results valuable.
First of all, the 17 interviews are already posted on my blog.
2016 Literary Fiction Survey Results
But here we go. Let’s review the different categories of stories identified as literary fiction by their authors according to the 2016 literary fiction survey. (A print-friendly copy of the survey results is available by clicking here.)
4 authors wrote coming-of-age novels. Two offered clarifications to their choices: one coming-of-age novel was about sexual identity. The other was about letting go of the past. Two authors offered no clarification.
4 authors wrote novels about family. No clarifications about the stories were given.
3 authors wrote novels about the nature of home and the struggle of the individual to find their place in a fragmented world. No clarifications were given.
3 authors wrote novels about oppression and discrimination. Two offered clarifications to their choices; one novel about oppression and discrimination was about the human ability to overcome terrible tragedy. The other was about cultural misappropriation.
2 authors wrote novels about failure and redemption. No clarifications were given.
2 authors wrote novels about forbidden and destructive passion. No clarifications were given.
Now, here is something interesting: 9 authors could not classify their novels under any of the pre-defined categories but simply identified their stories according to these themes:
- What it means to be human
- Nature of narrative meaning and how we construct it from meaningless events in our and other people’s lives
- Grief, despair, healing, the search for love, the nature of obsession, how we live secondhand, spiritual charlatanry, superstition, belief and the nature of belief
- Small town life
- Oppression and discrimination about a disability
- The beauty, horror, mirth and complexities of our individual human quests to inhabit life as richly and passionately as possible
- Abuse and trauma (two book listings by the same author)
- Oppression and discrimination as it concerns sexual orientation
So what does this mean? And why are these results important?
If you ask me, some of the above-mentioned story categories are likelier to resonate with readers more than “literary fiction”. A story marketed under a category about abuse and trauma will attract readers who have suffered some form of abuse themselves or who are simply interested in the topic.
If the same story is marketed as a work of literary fiction?
Maybe not so much, since readers must find a listing of works of literary fiction, perhaps in Amazon’s Kindle store, and then work to find stories among many books that might have that theme. If readers choose not to do the work, it is a missed opportunity for both the author (who could otherwise have sold a book) and the reader (who could have enjoyed reading it).
The same would be true for literary stories that fall under other categories, such as families and coming-of-age stories. Authors with the ability to market their books under those more specific categories will find readers.
Marketing Works of Literary Fiction
I’m not an iconoclast. I have no intent of toppling institutions or of grabbing a washcloth and scrubbing the term “literary fiction” off the blackboard. But, following my flirtation with becoming an English professor years ago, I moved into marketing, and that’s the field where I work now.
Let’s face it. Independent authors operate in a tough environment. One day certain tactics work, the next they don’t. Maybe guest blogging worked two years ago. Maybe now it doesn’t as much. InstaFreebie is all the rage right now. Maybe next month, it will be a wasteland.
But we can certainly help ourselves on an ongoing basis by finding the most appealing calls to readers, and perhaps that means marketing themes most likely to attract them.
I’ve already touched on the hazards of relying on aggregators such as Amazon to find worthwhile literary novels. Readers just won’t put the time into that kind of work. And most of what you find in the literary fiction category, anyway, is traditionally published novels and a few sponsored works of independently published fiction. I’m generalizing but I’m not too far off the mark.
So a new model may be helpful to authors for marketing literary fiction.
A New Model for Marketing Literary Fiction
The survey results above demonstrate how a number of attractive categories already exist that could be brought to market. The clarifications also offer ways to subdivide each genre.
Such subdivisions already happen in other genres. You know ripped bodices appear in romance novels. Vampire lovers might appear in a sub-category that might be called romantic horror. Vampire lovers on Planet X: a romantic, horror sci-fi novel. Vampire lovers on Planet X wearing Sauron’s One Ring of Power? Well, you get the idea.
No intuitive sub-categories exist for “literary fiction”; all the term does is remove readers one degree from really meaningful categories such as novels about families, or small-town life or abuse.
Now I can’t ask Amazon to change how it classifies works of literary fiction. They’re too big and I’m too small. But the marketer in me cringes at the difficulties facing independent writers as they work to find readers so I am proposing a two-pronged strategy to help do something to rectify this issue.
1. Create a survey for self-identifying readers of literary fiction to determine how they find independently published works that they are willing to pay for and read. The survey should include a question about whether they would find a classification system of novels based on a breakout of categories (such as those included in the literary fiction survey) attractive. (I recently blogged about the development of such a survey and the questions it will contain are under development).
2. So step one is market research. And the results may very well fly in the face of my argument. Readers may say: You know what, Jay, we like the category Literary Fiction, so leave it alone. Okay, that’s fine. Not every argument has much merit and, if that’s the case here, there will be no Step 2. BUT…if the idea of having a classification system is of interest to readers, I advocate starting something like a marketing newsletter where independent authors of literary fiction contribute works under a new classification system, and readers can subscribe to review works under topics of more immediate interest.
So there’s my argument and my proposal. How does this sound to those authors and readers of independent fiction reading this post? I welcome your comments below.