How about a little novella that we can sell for 99 cents?

Russell Scott Valentino

A writer whose name I've now forgotten came to town earlier this spring and did a little craft session on self-publicity. I think he was a memoirist primarily, with a couple of books out, one of which had sold pretty well. He had a lot of suggestions, some of them very concrete, like "tweet three times daily," and "go to book festivals," and "see who the best, most prolific reviewers are on Amazon and make contact with them." I wrote these and other things down in my notebook one by one, my heart growing heavier with each tidbit. I am still trying to make sense of my reaction.

Today I was reading Julie Bosman's NYTimes piece on the changing work of writers in the era of e-readers, and I had a similar reaction. For the most part, her piece is about genre fiction, and the attempts of publishers to stay competitive with other media: it's understandable that they would turn to their authors to help, asking their most successful sellers to produce more, write faster. This makes sense.

But when Ms. Bosman notes, in a tellingly parenthetical paragraph that,

"The new expectations do not apply to literary novelists like Jeffrey Eugenides and Jonathan Franzen, who can publish a new novel approximately every decade and still count on plenty of high-profile book reviews to promote it,"

I am struck by two images of the writer at either extreme edge of a very skewed picture. On one side is someone who works for years polishing and honing, at the other someone who tweets three times daily, or churns out two books a year and digital-only short stories as a priming mechanism for later "e-book impulse purchases for consumers with Nooks or Kindles."

The explanation that "today's readers seem incapable of being overwhelmed [by content]" has me scratching my head. Who are these readers and where are they finding the time to read all this content that they can't get enough of, I wonder? Is it just an internal market that was never properly explored before the advent of the digital? Or might the digital allow for a kind of waste that would be unthinkable in a material publishing world? It is not uplifting to imagine entire libraries' full of impulse-purchased tomes filling up the House of Fame.