What It Takes

What It Takes

Literary and Commercial

By Shawn Coyne | Published: February 19, 2016

Five years ago, Steve, Callie, Jeff and I were in the throes of marketing Steve’s novel THE PROFESSION.  In order to attract more people to Steve’s work, and this website, we decided to launch a series of posts called WHAT IT TAKES, with Callie and I trading off on our theories about what it takes to publish and market a book in today’s brave new publishing world.

As I’m on my annual goof-off at the beach, I thought it would be fun to revisit one of those early posts.  And guess what?  Things haven’t really changed all that much…  There are still two publishing cultures…and you better know which one your world falls under, or you’ll have a very difficult time finding a tribe of readers to follow you. 

If you are a publisher or an editor today in traditional trade book publishing, you have to decide which of the two cultures you want to align yourself with.

The “literary” culture is represented by these publishers: Knopf, FSG, Scribner, Random House, Riverhead, Penguin Press and a number of other houses both independent and corporate owned. These houses are known for the high end literary stuff—Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison, Jonathan Franzen, Richard Powers, Zadie Smith, Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, etc.

Young English Lit grad editorial assistant wannabes long to land a job at one of these houses. Working at these shops gives entrée to Paris Review parties and publishing street cred that says “I’m in it for the right reasons…to nurture tomorrow’s great American novelists.” Acquiring a writer who ends up on The New Yorker’s 20 under 40 can get you a promotion. A rave in The New York Review of Books or The Atlantic puts a swagger in your step.

On the other side of the street is the “commercial” culture, often referred to as genre fiction (even though every great story abides by genre conventions). Future editors in the commercial arena are the nerds you see reading The Hobbit, The Da Vinci Code, Jaws, Twilight, Lace or Dune on the beach while the other kids are body surfing. They often come from that wonderful crop of college graduates who don’t know what to do with their lives so decide to find work that pays them to read. They don’t care so much about line by line writing perfection, deep universal truths, or post-modern metafiction pyrotechnics, these editors are just addicted to narrative velocity—stories that grab you by the throat and won’t let you go.

At the top of “commercial” pyramid is Women’s fiction—big bestselling books like The Help, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, etc. Women’s fiction doesn’t mean that male writers are excluded from the category. But rather that the books written by men must have themes, characters, or plotlines that women enjoy. They scale.

Estimates reach as high as 70% of the entire book buying market being women. So in order to really hit a book out of the park, a writer/publisher needs to bring women to the party. The male writers that do count women as devoted readers write stories that often include a love story within their overarching plot. Nicholas Sparks is a terrific example of a male writer embraced by a female audience.

Male writers with female readers also feature strong female characters in their novels. Stieg Larsson’s GIRL… thrillers are an example. So too are works by James Patterson, John Grisham, Pat Conroy, David Baldacci, and Dan Brown. These guys are not seen as “boys’ book” writers. They have BIG crossover appeal.

What constitutes a “boy book?” Boy books are those commercial categories that are purely male themed—military thrillers, sports novels etc.  While it’s true that women dominate the book buying market, men tend to buy what I like to think of as “statement” books. They buy Tom Clancy, Vince Flynn, Brad Thor. They buy Robert Ludlum (Ludlum, when he was alive, was a boy book writer before Matt Damon put a sympathetic face to Jason Bourne and made the Bourne books women friendly). They buy Steven Pressfield. These are books that are on display in their home libraries.

It is true that male readers are harder to reach, but once you get their attention and they enjoy what they’ve read, you usually have a dedicated fan who will buy that author’s next book and the book after that book. That’s not always the case with breakout Women’s fiction writers…there is a phenomenon known as “Second Novelitis” that continues to haunt the industry.

If boy books, like Steve’s The Profession, are harder to scale, how might one even try?

It’s worth going deeper into what Random House sales rep David Glenn advised at the end of his interview in Selling Books in the Trenches:

Talent and desire aren’t enough to make the registers ring at retail. For that, you need to have identified your audience and have written your book in such a way as to give them the reason, or “hook,” to buy it…Ultimately, who’s the target, and why?

Identifying the audience (the people who will buy your book) is the domain of book publishing’s two Cultures, “commercial” and “literary.”

I see commercial publishers and editors as the empiricists of the industry. Whether they consciously know it or not, they use data from previous successes to support their editorial selections. They think about markets and genres and make as informed decisions as possible when choosing whether or not to publish a particular novel.

For example, years ago I was put in charge of acquiring the rights to mystery novels for Dell publishing and later St. Martin’s Paperbacks. I was given a limited budget and told to publish two, and later three, mysteries in mass market paperback per month. That’s right 24 and then 36 titles per year.  How did I do it?

First, I familiarized myself with all of the sub-genres of the mystery genre. There are quite a few…hardboiled private eye, cozy, amateur sleuth, domestic, locked room, historical, and police procedural. (I’ve probably forgotten one or two.) Then I looked at the sales figures for previous mysteries the company had published in each of these subgenres over as many years as I could get data for (back then, mid 1990s, about seven years). What I found was pretty interesting.

For the most part, each of these subgenres was profitable, but inconsistent. One year private eye novels would be on top by a wide margin, and cozies were all red ink. A few years later, cozies were in the black, and private eyes took it on the chin.

Armed with this information I decided that the best course of action to be successful, keep my job, and even get promoted would be to publish a wide net of sub-genre mysteries—the cover your ass approach. So I literally divided the number of subgenres into the number of titles I had to publish each year and came up with a number—8 subgenres, 24 titles needed per year. I’d publish 3 novels in each subgenre each year.

Then I tinkered with the list by again looking at the historical performance of the subgenres. I wasn’t the only editor publishing mysteries. I had competitors at every other major publishing house. What they published would influence the marketplace too.  One year the market would be flooded with cat cozies (yes there is a sub-sub-genre of mystery that features a cat as a lead protagonist) and while the top brand name writers in the sub-genre would still perform in big numbers (Lillian Jackson Braun, Rita Mae Brown, Carole Nelson Douglas…they all had three names for some reason), the unknowns found themselves scrambling. The cat cozy market was just about fixed. If there were too many books offered to that limited market, many would fail.

So I made the leap that each genre of mystery had a fixed number of fans. If I knew that one sub-genre was being abandoned by my competitors (back then it was the hardboiled private eye on the ropes) I’d publish more of those kinds of books into the marketplace and fewer of ones that seemed to be “over published.” The fan base would be starved for more hardboiled mysteries and I would be the only one offering them…sales would increase and I’d get a pat on the back.

So, that year, even if your cat cozy mystery was exceptional, better than even the best one on the market, your agent would have a tough sell to me. But if you had a compelling lead private eye mystery in a unique setting and a head scratching plot, even if you weren’t the best thing since sliced bread, you’d get yourself a contract. And perhaps vice versa the next year. Commercial editors listen to the market as best they can and then try and find the best books to fill a particular void.

While I can’t attest that every commercial editor uses this sort of model to help them choose which books to get behind, I can say that each one of them has some sort of inner empirical strategy they employ.

About two years after I moved out of mystery genre publishing and into the big ticket lead commercial hardcover fiction arena, I read Steve Pressfield’s Gates of Fire on submission. Of course I loved the book. I thought it was extremely well written and the sense of time and place were remarkable. But what was the “hook?” Who was the audience? If I couldn’t answer those questions when my publisher and the sales force asked me, there was no way in Hell I’d be able to acquire the book.

I went back to my mystery model.

I looked at the arena. How many war novels were being published in 1996? THE KILLER ANGELS by Michael Shaara was a huge book and his son Jeffrey’s prequel GODS AND GENERALS was climbing the charts. W.E.B. Griffin’s military novels continued to sell in big numbers year after year. And of course Tim O’Brien and James Webb’s Vietnam novels were evergreens. But few other titles stood out.

I suspected that the military fiction market was under-published. And as the Spartans were the epitome of warrior culture with Thermopylae holding the preeminent place in western military history, Gates of Fire could reach an audience starved for a brilliantly told historical war novel. The men who read Griffin, O’Brien, Webb, Shaara, even Conroy (his early novels The Boo and The Lords of Discipline are “boy book” classics), and every military nonfiction book sold would love this book.

The argument worked. But I was pitching a commercial publisher and a commercial sales force. If I had been pitching Gates of Fire in a “Literary” house back in 1996, and used these same arguments, I may have been granted approval to acquire the novel, but I don’t think the literary house that published it would have targeted the wide swath of readers we did at Doubleday.

Today, I don’t think that’s true.

Back to the two cultures (Commercial and Literary) and why I think they are beginning to merge. Publishers can no longer afford to rely purely on the “literary” category.  The audience for “literary” books has shrunk considerably over the twenty years I’ve been in the business. I think it’s because there is no longer that select New York based media industry intelligentsia that can influence booksellers and book reviewers (both rapidly vanishing) to push a particular novel based on subjective aesthetic literary excellence.

There was a time when the book publishing industry was obsessed with finding the next great American novelist and while there certainly continues to be a longing for such a thing (Jonathan Franzen, Nicole Krauss, Jonathan Safran Foer, etc.), grooming one is expensive. Every publisher wants one of these tasteful literary figures to prop up as proof that their lists are fully rounded, but the fact is they just don’t sell like they used to. As for scale, they will never approach a book like THE DA VINCI CODE.

That doesn’t mean that there is no place for the “literary” anymore. It just means that publishers have had to move the pendulum closer to commercial than literary. Knopf publishes the Stieg Larsson trilogy and has sold millions. They publish certain kinds of commercial fiction because they can pay the bills while they search for the next Roberto Bolano.

What this means is that there is a great demand for novels that can be positioned at the top of the commercial list—thrillers and or dramas that women will want to read. All of the big publishers (with a contracting list of exceptions) are on the hunt for a female friendly literary/commercial commodity.  They don’t care about genre so much as “will it scale?” A crime novel from a National Book Award nominee or a literary novelist taking a crack at a vampire trilogy is the result.

So where does this leave THE PROFESSION?

The quality of Steve’s writing (there are sentences you read again and again just to admire their content and structure) rates with all those bright young things featured in The New Yorker. And the “hook” and the “audience” for THE PROFESSION are off the charts. The book will engage and satisfy readers across many genres.

While perfectly positioned as a military thriller, a book your dad or uncle would love, THE PROFESSION is also in the tradition of science fiction writer Philip K. Dick at his best. Dick was the master of the speculative novel. The movie Bladerunner was based on Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and Total Recall was based on Dick’s We Can Remember It for you Wholesale.

THE PROFESSION speculates a future when all of the major armies are privately owned. They fight for pay. How would that impact the professional soldier? How would a warrior ballast the lure of lucre with his/her values? This question so perplexed Pressfield that he wrote THE WARRIOR ETHOS to make it make sense to himself. It’s not a stretch to see the inevitability of more and more powerful military contractors. THE PROFESSION is an early wake up call to their allure and danger.

THE PROFESSION is also a novel with incredible insight into Washington/Beltway maneuvering and maintains a chillingly plausible political thriller plot. How could our system of checks and balances be subverted to clear a path for a modern day Caesar?

THE PROFESSION features strong female characters throughout the novel who are as powerful, if not more powerful, than the lead protagonist and antagonist. These women take no shit and aren’t sexy stick figures for male fantasy. They are crucial players in the drama.

So THE PROFESSION’s hooks are numerous and its potential audience exponential. It could be positioned in any number of ways—military thriller, speculative science fiction, literary, or political thriller. THE PROFESSION bridges the commercial and literary publishing cultures to be that rare “commodity”—a novel that entertains, informs, and stays with you.

To read the first two chapters of The Profession, you can download the PDF or visit Scribd.com.

Posted in What It Takes

13 Responses to “Literary and Commercial”

  1. February 11, 2011 at 4:39 am

    Shawn I am very much enjoying (and learning from) your in depth and tightly reasoned explorations of the world of publishing. And thanks Stephen for asking him to do it.

  2. February 11, 2011 at 6:03 am

    Oh man, those first two chapters are going to be my reward after I finish writing today. Thanks to everybody who made them available.

    Shawn, in your experience are the majority of the books that scale intentionally written for that wide appeal, or is it a matter of timing and luck and a dedicated sales team?

    One of my favorite authors is Elmore Leonard, who seems to have no intention when he writes other than to tell a ripping story, yet he usually ends up with a book that appeals to men and women. Dan Brown, on the other hand, seems to have a specific formula to ensure mass appeal (and it works, obviously).

    • Shawn Coyne
      February 11, 2011 at 9:14 am

      One of the great difficulties of being a writer/artist/entrepreneur etc. is finding the balance between “listening to the market” with your rational, analytic side of your brain and “listening to the muse,” your freewheeling, imaginative side of your brain.
      I had the pleasure of shepherding the manuscripts for Elmore Leonard’s RUM PUNCH (Quentin Tarantino adapted it and changed the title to Jackie Brown) and PRONTO in the early 90s. I was the assistant to a fantastic and delightful fiction editor at Dell/Delacorte. I can’t tell you how much I learned watching her mark up a manuscript and tactfully guide a writer through multiple revisions.
      Dutch (do you believe he let a punk kid call him that?) can write anything. Really. He’s that good. One of the things I learned just by watching him move from draft to draft was his deep respect for genre conventions. If he was writing a western, and he wrote some of the best westerns ever (HOMBRE etc.), you could be damn sure that there was a showstopping gunfight at the end. If he was writing a crime thriller, he’d nail the “hero at the mercy of the villain” scene like clockwork.
      My point is that we should look at the structure of our stories from a very far distance at the beginning of our work, but let the humanity of the storytelling guide your scene by scene choices. Dutch Leonard falls in love with his characters. You can tell because they are so specific, so unique and so believable.
      I suspect that he begins his work with them. Once he has a sense of who they are, he figures out the genre or mix of genres that will reveal them in the best way. He knows what scenes are required for a multitude of genres (in a love story, you have to have a scene where the couple meet right? unavoidable) and the structures of those particular millenniums old storytelling forms. With the required scenes in mind, he lets his imagination take over. The result is a completely refreshing re-imagining of those conventions with incredible originality and dexterity.
      In fact he knows all of the conventions so well, he doesn’t even have to think about them anymore. They fly out of his pen.
      I think Dan Brown does the same thing. You can tell he loves his characters. And his choice of genre (conspiracy thriller) is perfect for that cast. He wrote a number of thrillers before THE DA VINCI CODE to far less commercial success. But he kept writing them. Why didn’t he try and write a legal thriller instead? Conspiracy thrillers were not the big commercial sales triumphs that they can be today. Like John Grisham, Scott Turow, Robin Cook, Tom Clancy etc. before him, Dan Brown didn’t set out to write multi million copy bestsellers when he started writing THE DA VINCI CODE. Rather he worked within the conventions of a genre he loved and then let his imagination run wild.
      You aren’t “selling out” if you pick your genre and learn the conventions of that genre before you begin writing. In my opinion, you should. Who wouldn’t want to write THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS? Is there a better anti-villain as Hannibal Lecter? Were there even anti-villains before Lecter? I’d bet that Thomas Harris set out to write a dark thriller before he had Lecter in his head.
      But if you cynically “listen to the market” and pick today’s bestselling genre and then rewarm leftover cliches from other writers without genuinely going off the reservation and coming up with something unique and original, you’re not going to have much fun. You probably won’t get a book deal either. And if you do, how much fun will you have coming up with another?
      There is a formula for everything. The Golden Gate Bridge and the Brooklyn Bridge are remarkable works of art…but they are bridges too. The Great Gatsby is a remarkable work of art…but it also delivers everything you’d want out of a tragic love story (the realm of the Romance genre). The art is exceeding the expectations of the formula in a completely fresh and unique way.

      • February 11, 2011 at 9:43 am

        Thank you so much for your time and expertise. So many great points — I saved your reply to keep as a reference as I press on.

        And wow, to have worked with Dutch and Steven (as well as other greats, I’m sure). Thanks again for your contributions to this series, and for making sure those books got to us! Without Pronto I wouldn’t have Justified to look forward to…
        – Jeremy

  3. Wiz
    February 11, 2011 at 7:32 am

    Talent and desire aren’t enough to make the registers ring at retail. For that, you need to have identified your audience and have written your book in such a way as to give them the reason, or “hook,” to buy it…Ultimately, who’s the target, and why?

    If you learn one lesson in your business life it should be the quote above. It doesn’t matter your line of work…contractor, real estate developer, author, bond trader, it is all the same. I would also add that being the best or having the best will always lose to the best marketing. Very well done Shawn.

  4. Tricia
    February 12, 2011 at 9:38 am

    So very helpful all these blogs and responses.

  5. Tricia
    February 13, 2011 at 10:38 am


    I was wondering how you see the publishing industry and markets in countries other than the USA — for example, in the UK and even Canada? Do you see mostly similar trends there too, or are there more obvious differences (cultural, etc) in the kinds of books written and read outside of the US (and even perhaps how they are categorized and perceived by the industry) that makes these trends somewhat variable elsewhere?


  6. February 16, 2011 at 8:27 am

    Great post. I’m curious what “Second Novelitis” is. Sounds ominous, especially since my first novel debuts in March.

  7. February 19, 2016 at 9:17 am

    Very interesting!
    Though I am not a writer, I find your articles very apropos to the other arts as well, painting in my case. And indeed there is the division of gallery/museum art and popular art, even within genres and sub-genres. It makes me wonder if gallerists approach their art inventory like publishers do…

    I would also like to know what second novelitis is.

    And just FYI, “Five years ago, Steve, Callie, Jeff and I were in the THROES of marketing…” Will you give me a job reading books?! 😉

  8. Eiry
    February 19, 2016 at 1:02 pm

    Could you explain what a ‘Statement book’ is please?

  9. Tina
    February 19, 2016 at 4:33 pm

    “Will it scale?” Does this ask if the book will sell? Will it scale heights on literary lists? What?

  10. Jean Gogolin
    February 21, 2016 at 5:36 pm

    Love this! But — small nit to pick — shouldn’t “throws” be “throes”? Ah, those pesky homonyms.