• Brooke Warner
  • Why Literary Writers Aren’t Getting Traditional Publishing Deals
Why Literary Writers Aren’t Getting Traditional Publishing Deals
Written by
Brooke Warner
October 2016
Written by
Brooke Warner
October 2016
This week I had lunch with an agent friend who expressed her frustration that the best manuscripts she’s representing simply aren’t selling to traditional publishers. It’s a storyline so familiar to me that I used it as the plot for my book trailer for Green-Light Your Book, in which an animated author gets rejected over and over again for her work not being commercial enough. In my new book, I write:
If you don’t know what it means to “be more commercial,” then bless you. But by the time you’re finished with this book, you will know, and you will understand why what’s most important in determining whether you get a book deal from a traditional house has nothing to do with how good your book actually is and everything to do with how commercial your book (and by extension you, your idea, your vision, your brand) is or has the potential to be.
Today’s aspiring authors are running up against more barriers than ever in their pursuit of traditional publishing. They’re getting what I call the “too” responses—where editors are deeming their books too spiritual, too niche, too literary. It’s all code for not commercial enough.     It used to be that traditional publishers were curators of what we read, and therefore, in a trickle-down way, of our cultural values. Literary books—which usually refers to books of substance, that are more intellectual, typically better written, and stylistically more sophisticated—were valued by mainstream culture. People actually strove to be well-read. There’s no question that our cultural values have shifted in the wake of twenty-four-hour news cycles, digital content, and the constancy of social media. People are still reading, but we’re (generally) more focused on being informed, staying on top of what’s trending, and interacting with online communities than we are in being well-read. Due to the busyness of the average person’s modern life, fewer of us have the bandwidth for literary works. As a result, the traditional publishing world has abandoned its mandate to publish as many of them. That these books “matter” is not a good enough trade-off for the inherent risk of publishing too many literary books. (And before anyone rushes to contradict me here with numerous examples of recently read literary gems, please note that I recognize literary works are still being published. Some of these authors have existing followings—think Toni Morrison, Jonathan Franzen, or Sue Miller, to name just a few. In other cases, like Helen MacDonald’s beautifully executed best-selling literary memoir, H Is for Hawk, the publisher should be given credit for taking a risk that paid off.)
While literary works win awards, and are the books that transcend time, they’re also becoming the least desirable projects for agents and editors. Even those who love them can’t afford to take them on. Agents can’t sell them because publishers can’t justify their publication. Here’s a quick (and rough) math exercise to understand why. When an editor offers an advance to an author, the general rule of thumb is that the book has to sell an equal number of copies as the dollar amount of their advance in order to break even. What this means is that a book that gets a $10,000 advance needs to sell through 10,000 copies to break even. These days, a book that sells this many copies is a bestseller. Most books, even prize-winning books, aren’t selling anywhere near 10,000 copies. So when publishers look at their bottom lines, the books worth taking a risk on are increasingly commercial books—those that will be big summer reads, attached to celebrities or authors with huge existing platforms, big thrillers, or that have the word “girl” in the title (just kidding—
ha ha ha).
If you’re a literary writer, or an aspiring author with a literary book, don’t for one second let rejections deter you. As much as it may have been your dream to publish with one of the Big Five publishers, or to have had an agent or editor validate your work as worthy, today’s publishing climate is in such an upside-down state that many of the best books are being rejected simply because they’re “too” fill in the blank: sophisticated, stylistically complex, dense, or “writerly,” per Sanjida O'Connell on Jane Friedman’s blog.
I’m not worried about literary writers not getting published, because I know they’re finding alternate routes to publishing, but I do have concerns (because I talk to these writers regularly) that they think they’re not up to snuff because the traditional world rejected them. Which is why it’s so important to understand that somewhere along the way “literary” got conflated with “doesn’t sell.” And doesn’t sell for a big publisher can and usually does mean anything under 10,000 copies, maybe 5,000 copies for smaller presses. Perhaps 5,000 copies can be a sales goal to strive for, but know that if you touch fewer readers than that, your work still matters and you’re not second best. Set measures of success that include but are not limited to sales, and seize your own publishing future by the reins.


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  • Purabi Das

    Thank you Brooke, for your insightful and very helpful article. My first finished work of fiction falls in the genre of literary novels. I still have not found any "takers" and its starting to bother me but reading your article has proved to me that perhaps it's not that they don't want my work but perhaps it's not commercial enough or it deals with a different background (East Indian). Anyway, I am at a point where I am seriously considering self-publishing, however, the cost involved seems astronomical since I don't earn enough (gave up a regular job to write full-time) to sink into this kind of project. Lots to think about!

  • Michelle Cox


  • Sara Mansfield Taber

    This is such an important post.  It simply tells the truth.

    Thank you for it.

  • Loved this, Brooke. May I have your permission to reprint it in my aspiring writers' Newsletter for December '16/January '17 and my social media pages?

    See, I consider myself one of these "unpublishables" for very much the reasons you outlined above. Plus the fact that I adamantly refuse to budge from my métier of worldwide plots and Afro-European MCs! Ergo, I'm "not commercial but try to submit this broadly" - whatever that may mean - over and over again.

    I finally decided to go Indie (for anybody interested):


  • Kathryn Hurn

    Thank you, Brooke, for an insightful article that precisely describes my experience this summer when I spent two intense months researching the appropriate literary agents and each's particular query requirements.  After 300+ submittals the rejection letters keep trickling in even though everyone who reads my novel thinks it deserves a wider audience.  Determined and after a lot of research, I opted to self-publish an e-book (which I did myself - thanks  Guido! ) and am engaging in social media campaigns (check out Likable Media) to drum up enough sales to get noticed by a major publisher.

    I will gladly give whatever help and advice I can to those who are thinking along the same lines.

    HELL HEAVEN & IN-BETWEEN:One Woman's Journey to Finding Love is available on Amazon.

  • Jo Anne Valentine Simson

    Thank you for this. Self-publishing and assisted publishing seem to be the way to go. Oh, and yes, there's "Lab Girl," too. Check it out. 


  • Carol Carson

    So glad that you included H is for Hawk, a nature book. I am a nature writer and I hope that more women will get into nonfiction, which sells more books than fiction. This book is interesting to both men and women, too. A few reasons to think about adding nonfiction to your repertoire. 

  • Dr. Gita Baack

    So frustrating and yet, the general public is more intelligent that the corporate world realizes probably because they're too busy looking down the money trail.

  • Barbara Ridley

    Thank you Brooke for these words of encouragement.

  • Iris Waichler

    Beautifully said Brooke: I think handling the rejection and getting caught up in the number of sales is one of the most challenging things for writers. Your message of not letting it diminish the work you have done and what you have to say is very important. Thank you.