On alternative pathways to literary success

Could the expansion of creator tools online, and in particular via social media platforms, offer new publishing potential for a broader range of fiction authors?

I’ve had this question in mind for some time, in considering the ways in which literature is now accessed, and what might be the best way to connect with modern audiences in alignment with how they’re looking to read.

Because the truth is, readers have changed. People used to read books on trains and buses, and get through a few chapters in bed before turning in each night. But the arrival of smartphones has changed this, with everybody now glued to their devices for hours on end, which then reduces the time that they’re willing to spend with books, while concurrently increasing the value proposition that authors then need to communicate to get people to commit to engaging with longer form content.

You need to hook readers in, and the easiest way to do this is to take a topical angle, tying into a prominent discussion or trend. Then, through implicit virtue, you’re bound to get at least some readers to buy and mention your book. But without a topical hook, general fiction now struggles to gain attention, and sales traction as a result.

That’s why literary trends have changed so significantly, with thrillers and historical fiction dominating general reading trends, while literary fiction falls away. Lit fic takes more time and attention, while the faster pace of thrillers aligns better with shortening attention spans.

So what do authors do? If you don’t write within defined genre constraints, and don’t have a specific political angle for your story, how can you gain optimal attention for your work?

The truth may lie in re-imagining how you communicate, with newer, digital styles of publishing potentially providing a better fit with modern readers and their content engagement habits.

That’s why Salman Rushdie’s recent announcement that he’s publishing a new novella on Substack is interesting, with a traditional fiction superstar now looking to an alternative online publishing format to maximize his reach.

Rushdie’s planning to release his latest novella in instalments, via Substack’s newsletter platform. That could see Rushdie publishing a chapter a week, for example, which is not an entirely new concept in itself, but it is interesting given the profile that Rushdie already has, and the fact that even the big names in the field are now considering alternate pathways to audience reach.

As explained by Rushdie:

“I think that new technology always makes possible new art forms, and I think literature has not found its new form in this digital age… Whatever the new thing is that’s going to arise out of this new world, I don’t think we’ve seen it yet.

In some ways, that process is actually taking literature back to its early roots, with classic authors like Dickens and others originally publishing most of their works in serialised form, as a means to attract new readers. Now, it would be scaling things back to hold attention in the same way, with the hopes that these smaller samples of the broader work can attract new audiences – though even then, there is a question around holding reader attention, and whether such process can viably translate into a sustainable form of income through subscriber-based tools.

But I think that Rushdie’s right – literature hasn’t found its right form for modern consumers just yet.

Much of the online literary discussion these days is far less about the writing itself, and far more about the political considerations around such, leading to various debates, but too often the focus shifts away from the content itself, and onto the author and/or the topic, leaving the craft of writing, and actually creating the world of the work, as a side note. Which shouldn’t be the case, but as noted, getting people to actually engage with the work itself is more and more challenging, and in order to facilitate ongoing discussion around literature and writing, we need to find the best ways to connect with readers that will align with their behaviours, essentially making such as engaging as scrolling through non-stop social media feeds.

Nobody knows what that solution will be, but more authors are experimenting with shorter form, digitally accessible formats to maximize audience reach, while establishing community connection around your work can also facilitate more value and engagement.

These are elements that authors in times past have not had to contemplate in the same way, and it can be difficult to change your thinking around how things should work, and the importance of the relationships between publishers and authors in this respect.

But clearly, things are changing, and the authors that can change with those trends, rather than battling against them, are the only ones who stand a chance of winning out.

Otherwise, more and more debut fiction writers will simply fall away, and literary discussion will increasingly shift away from the work, and more towards tangential elements.

Because that’s what’s retaining attention, and while that’s not conducive to literary culture, habitual shifts are what they are. You either listen to that, or write for yourself, and hope that, one day, someone might, maybe, read your stuff.

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