American Literature Needs Indie Presses

“For better or worse, writers and readers live in an age of the million-dollar book deal. The Big Five publishers (Penguin Random House, Hachette, Macmillan, HarperCollins, and Simon & Schuster) increasingly gamble on massive book advances in hopes that they might put out one of the biggest hits of the year. Last fall, Knopf—a division of Penguin Random House—paid an unprecedented $2 million advance for the first-time novelist Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire. Other recent million-dollar debut deals include Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers, Stephanie Clifford’s Everybody Rise, and Matthew Thomas’s We Are Not Ourselves—and the list goes on.

These large advances correlate with grandiosity on multiple levels: Each of these books is between 400 and 1,000 pages long, costs around $30 for a hardcover, and aims boldly for success on a scale that remarkably few works actually achieve. With these massive investments, which come at the cost of investing in fewer writers, mainstream publishers are trying to recreate the major successes of some recent fiction hits. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt sold more than three million copies. All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr hung around the New York Times bestseller list for months. Both won Pulitzer Prizes. Both were over 500 pages long.

But when editors and publishers feel they need to fight for every moment of planned reading, and readers are experiencing a shrinking cultural attention span, it’s surprising that large books inherently make the most market sense. With this pattern of investment behavior, major presses are inadvertently helping foster an environment where American indie presses can thrive by doing the very thing they’re best at: being small and, by extension, focusing on creativity and originality over sales.”

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