Today's New York Times had an essay called "Promotional Intelligence" by Rachel Donadio. The article focused on the hard row that literary fiction has to hoe in today's harsh publishing field. "Like an elegant but impoverished aristocrat married to a nouveau riche spouse, it has long been subsidized by mass-market fiction and by nonfiction ripped from the headlines."
The author quotes an editor at Harcourt saying, "The whole system is set up for impatience." He is referring to the fact that, if a literary novel doesn't sell well in the first two weeks after its release, it is unlikely to gain momentum.
One publisher of literary fiction claimed that, until recently, it has been very difficult to get ordinary readers "to take a chance on new writers." Supporting this contention, the Times points out that, in 2005, about half of all literary fiction sales came from the top twenty best-sellers. Familiar names usually win out over new ones.
Donadio describes the dynamic as a "delicate dance: buyers use a writer's past sales to determine how many copies of a new novel to order; publishers try to convince buyers that a book has potential even if they can't justify spending the money to promote it in the way they would a commercial title." The publishers know that the superstars of tomorrow have to start out on the bottom of their list. Even if they don't have the dollars to promote these newer voices, they try to build a buzz around their names.
A literary agent was quoted as saying success in launching a new writer/book is fifty percent hard work and fifty percent luck.
In order to build that momentum for a new book, publishers work to build enthusiasm inside their own walls, send out copies of the manuscript to booksellers and critics long before publication and try to secure "prominent placement" with booksellers.
The Times outs "the single most powerful person in American literary publishing." This powerhouse is Sessalee Hensley, Barnes & Noble's only literary fiction buyer. "Publishers are reluctant to talk about Hensley on the record, for fear of jeopardizing their rapport with the gatekeeper to a company with 799 stores and 17 percent of the United States book market."
My favorite quote in the article was from Jonathan Galassi, a literary publisher: "much of the best writing is the work of the odd, uncooperative, intractable, pigheaded authors who insist on seeing and saying things their own way and change the game in the process. The 'system' can only recognize what it's already cycled through. What's truly new is usually indigestible at first."