By definition the audience for literary fiction — for difficult, or as Ralph Nadir would prefer ;-) “challenging” books — is smaller than the audience for mainstream books.
It’s probably impossible to know for sure how small, but that doesn’t stop people from speculating. Via Publishers Marketplace, in Saturday’s Globe and Mail, James Adams writes that 15 years ago, it was estimated that about 3000 Canadians read “serious” books. Adams speculates that number has since fallen by as much as half.
The adjective â€œseriousâ€ was never precisely defined, but it was understood to describe those readers who could be counted on to go to a bookstore at least once a week and buy one or two titles on each occasion, mixing purchases of fiction with those of non-fiction. Since then . . . that estimate has dropped, I’m told, to between 1,600 and 2,000, the result, one imagines, of the competing distractions-attractions of the Internet and the rise of digital media.
In 1993 (about the same time the 3000 figure was being floated for Canada) Kurt Andersen wrote an essay for Time, “It’s a Small World After All,” in which he attempted to suss out the size of the market for “high end cultural artifacts,” including the market for literary fiction. He noted that
250,000 Americans bought Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera in hardcover. Every thoughtful reader in America did not, despite Knopf’s best efforts, buy the Garcia Marquez novel, meaning that the potential audience for any given book is larger. “It might even be a million,” says Knopf’s Ann Close, who edits Alice Munro and Norman Rush, among others. On the other hand, all the actual buyers of any typical serious novel would fit in Fenway Park, or even a Vegas showroom.
Presumably, a “typical serious novel” would be one written by someone without the sort of reputation Garcia Marquez enjoys. So how many actual buyers might this novelist count on?
If we extrapolate from Adams’ figures we can just multiply by ten (since Canada’s population is roughly 1/10 of the United States’). That would put the US lit fic market size at somewhere around 20,000 people today.
Think that’s low? I dunno, maybe it is. It’s a long way from that quarter of a million figure for Garcia Marquez’ book. What possessed all those people to buy Love in the Time of Cholera? Were they all shopping for I’m-quite-the-intellectual coffeetable tchotchkes? Why aren’t they buying other lit fiction? Hey, why aren’t they buying serious Canadian books?
By way of context, some 280 million copies of Nora Roberts’ novels have been sold to date. Granted, she’s prolific (this registration-required NY Times article mentions her next book as number 166) but that still averages to over 1.5 million copies per book.
OTOH, most commercial fiction doesn’t scale those heights. John Scalzi* cites the New York Times as his source for this fact: a mainstream novel is considered a bestseller if it sells 25,000 copies.
(Scalzi also says that anecdotally it seems publishers offer larger advances on lit fiction than on genre fiction — despite the fact that lit fiction may have poorer odds to earn out. Gambler’s fallacy perhaps?)
* AKA the guy who just won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.
[tags] writing, literary fiction, commercial fiction [/tags]