This story, by Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg, originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal and was reprinted on the South Oregon Mail Tribune site on 9/26/10.
When literary agent Sarah Yake shopped around Kirsten Kaschock’s debut novel "Sleight" earlier this year, she thought it would be a shoo-in with New York’s top publishers.
"Her project was one of the most exemplary in the last decade or so," said Jed Rasula, Kaschock’s teacher, who has taught in the English department at the University of Georgia since 2001. "I certainly thought she’d find a New York publisher."
To the surprise of Yake and Rasula, the major New York publishers passed on "Sleight," a novel about two sisters trained in a fictional art form.
Coffee House Press in Minneapolis, a small independent publisher, now plans to publish the book, offering Kaschock an advance of about $3,500 — a small fraction of the typical advances once paid by the major publishing houses.
It’s always been tough for literary fiction writers, particularly first timers, to get their work published by the top publishing houses. But the digital revolution that is disrupting the economic model of the book industry is having an outsized impact on the careers of literary writers.
Priced much lower than hardcover books, e-books generate less income for publishers. At the same time, big retailers are buying fewer titles.
As a result, the publishers responsible for nurturing generations of America’s top literary fiction writers are approving fewer book deals and signing fewer new writers. Most of those getting published are receiving smaller advances.
"Advances are down, and there aren’t as many debuts as before" says Ira Silverberg, a well-known literary agent. "We’re all trying to figure out what the business is as it goes through this digital disruption."
Much as cheap digital music downloads have meant fewer bands can earn a living from record company deals, publishers and agents say fewer literary authors will be able to support themselves as e-books gain broader acceptance.
"In terms of making a living as a writer, you better have another source of income," says Nan Talese, whose Nan A. Talese/Doubleday imprint publishes Ian McEwan, Margaret Atwood, and John Pipkin.
In some cases, independent publishers are picking up the slack by signing promising literary fiction writers. But they offer on average $1,000 to $5,000 in advances, a fraction of the $50,000 to $100,000 advances that established publishers typically paid in the past for debut literary fiction.
The new economics of the e-book make the author’s quandary painfully clear: A new $28 hardcover book returns half, or $14 to the publisher, and 15%, or $4.20, to the author.
Under most e-book deals currently, a digital book sells for $12.99, returning 70%, or $9.09, to the publisher and typically 25% of that, or $2.27, to the author.
The upshot: From an e-book sale, an author makes a little more than half what he or she makes from a hardcover sale.