The Murky Art: an interview with Dan Cafaro, publisher of literary fiction

Great Barrier Reef, Eddy Reef off Mission Beach
photo credit: Paul Toogood via flickr
Being a publisher of literary fiction can sometimes draw a big question mark for a variety of reasons. What is “literary fiction” exactly, and who are the snobs that get to choose what it is? It’s easy to find ourselves in some dark waters once we try sorting “good” from “bad” fiction according to plot lines. What differences, if any, occur once a press deems itself a publisher of  literary fiction versus genre fiction? In the following interview, Atticus Books publisher Dan Cafaro tries his hand at describing his process of sorting out the weird from the blah.
*Interview originally conducted by Michelle Fisher for her MA dissertation in Publishing at Oxford Brookes University (UK).
Can you tell me a bit about the literary fiction you publish and your target market?
It seems like we’re establishing a reputation as a press that publishes quirky fiction, which I’ll take as a compliment. Ours books lie outside the mainstream only in the sense that they are inventive and ask a little more of the reader. The narratives we produce do not fit neatly into the formula of what others might consider traditional storytelling. However, as experimental as we may sound, we like to err on the side of accessibility. I like to think of our work as genre-busting literature for the unconventional mind.  With decorative hermits (The Bee-Loud Glade), modern-day messiahs (Nazareth, North Dakota), vagabond orphans (The Tall Tale of Tommy Twice), re-imaginings of classics (The Snow Whale and The Great Lenore), we tackle a good bit of territory. Our target reading market is freaks and geeks and anyone who appreciates a good, slightly skewed yarn.
Do you think genre fiction sells more than literary fiction in the publishing industry, and if so, from a publishing perspective, why do you think this is?
Genre fiction typically is easier to describe and therefore simpler to market and sell to a general audience. However, some science fiction/fantasy and mystery/suspense writers are beginning to have fun with the craft and are blowing up the old formulaic model. It’s difficult for a writer to pull off a cross-genre tale without spoiling the medicine, but this mash-up method is gaining in both credibility and popularity. Kino, the debut novel of German author Jürgen Fauth, would be a fine example of a writer effectively blending genres and helping us as a publisher to fill the crevice between commercial and literary fiction.
How do you ensure your literary books sell well and reach your target market? E.g. marketing techniques, blurb, book design etc. How might these differ to the marketing used for genre fiction?
It doesn’t really differ at all.  The same rules apply in independent publishing as it does with the Big Six, be it literary fiction, romance or horror. In fact, what’s increasingly happening is that the Big Six beg, borrow, and steal mostly social media ideas that originate from the indies because the Big Six are supremely adept at data collection and exploitation. We, of course, would reciprocate if we could, but our advertising budgets often fall far short of being able to compete and hence, we lose the battle for store space at B&N and the larger indie shops. Community building, both online and in person (when possible), is about all we can do to level the playing field.
Do you think literary fiction would be more popular if booksellers and publishers designated individual categories for literary books based on content as is done for genre fiction?
The storylines may seem to be too disparate to organize literary fiction in such a manner, but I do think it would benefit publishers and booksellers to connect the dots for readers as much as possible. For example, I mentioned earlier that we have produced highly imaginative re-tellings of classics: these should be merchandised to individuals who enjoy satire, parodies, and in some cases, irreverent humor. I think it also would help to set these titles next to their standard bearers. Another way to position titles by debut writers (or obscure mid-listers) might be to find more popular titles that are similar in nature and pair them off as companions, if not bundles. There are acres of fertile ground for demarcation on the bookshelves — we just need to be redefining how we think about classification, particularly with fiction.
Do you feel that literary fiction, like genre fiction, has a built-in market which can be targeted, or is this an aspect where these two categories might differ? Do you, instead, market to a mainstream audience?
You market to anyone who can read and has a credit card. Honestly, as much as I’d say our books are perfect for creative writing majors and MFA students, there is no reason that they can’t appeal to others who need an escape from predictable outcomes.
Art belongs in murky waters.
What kind of impact do you think literary fiction has had in the publishing industry in comparison to genre fiction?
Literary fiction has had as much, if not more, of an impact on modern society and future culture than commercial fiction, but we should not equate or conflate commercial fiction with genre fiction. Even though the NY Times Bestsellers list may be filled with genre-specific titles (e.g., Dan Brown’s mystery/thriller Inferno), many of these books have nowhere near advanced the discussion around the water cooler, nor profoundly shifted and influenced the mindset of generations of readers and writers, in the same way as literary fiction. Numerous so-called genre books, such as The Time Machine and Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, have changed the course of history because their innovation and outlandish notions transformed the way people looked at the world and what may be humanly possible. On the other hand, it seems safe to assume that the thinking of young men and women and our nation’s intellectual discourse have not been enriched in quite the same way by Fifty Shades of Grey.
On your website, it says you publish ‘genre-busting’ literary fiction – what exactly does this mean and do you therefore feel that the label ‘literary fiction’ is no longer useful in this context?
Writers and editors continue to struggle ad nauseam over how to define literary fiction. I recently heard the editors of one indie house (of like mind and spirit to Atticus) speak of their goal and mission in terms of just knowing idiosyncratic work when they see it. You might say we’re all curators and perhaps even taste makers in this business, but the truth is we’re not in hard sciences here. Art belongs in murky waters. You can never describe how extraordinary marine life is to a person who has no interest in snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef … without getting frustrated. Some things are better left to be experienced than explained.

It has been stated by some that literary fiction is dead or in trouble, especially in light of genre fiction dominating e-books. (It has been stated that only five percent of literary books are being sold in e-book format.) What do you feel is the future of literary fiction in the digital age, and how can publishers encourage digital sales of literary fiction when it seems that most people are looking for something quick and easy like a romance or crime novel to read on their e-readers? Can literary publishers learn something from the success of genre fiction?

All categories of publishers need to think a lot more differently about how they conduct business. It has less to do with genre and more to do with understanding consumer behaviors and exploiting the technology at our fingertips.

As successful as genre fiction may appear, the best sellers are the exception (indeed, the distracting outliers) to any strategies that should be formed around operating a viable publishing house. Consider the piles of schlock that get published every day. You may say it’s a matter of cultural tastes (high-brow and low-brow) and that some publishers are bent on profit while others are focused on literary merit (both true), but the game isn’t going to be won by trying to hit the lottery with a runaway bestseller. The game is won by building a compelling and addictive product that people keep returning to the well to experience.

When you’re dealing with a concrete product deliverable like a book (or e-book, for that matter), the 80-20 marketing rule still applies (roughly speaking, 20 percent of your inventory brings in 80 percent of your gross revenue). But as a publisher you don’t need to be held captive to that theory if you: (1) throw out the old playbook; (2) blow up the distribution model; and (3) build your audience by developing a brand that differentiates you from the competition.

It’s not that literary publishing is dead; it’s that publishing itself has fundamentally changed. Literary publishers need to help embrace and drive that change and steer its readers to the next exit on the information highway. The music and gaming industries have circled us on the track but instead of leaving us in the dust, they’ve picked up our pieces and sold us off for parts. Now that we’re tarnished and disassembled, it’s time for indie publishers to reinvent the wheel. The beauty of this meandering metaphor is that we can still define a book as a contoured box of words with meaning under its hood. Now it’s our job to refurbish the vehicle. What shape is it? Who’s opening it and why? How do we deliver it?

Do you think the label “literary” deters people? As it is sometimes unclear what this actually means, do you think the label needs to be reconsidered?

All labels need to be reconsidered. I didn’t know I admired literary journals until I noticed that I tend to gravitate to them whenever I was in a bookstore. I didn’t know that I favored literary fiction over genre fiction until I noticed that most of the books in my private library weren’t showing up on the New York Times bestseller lists. I didn’t intend for my publishing house to specialize in literary fiction. I call what we produce “good writing.” Does that mean that genre fiction is bad writing? Heavens, no.

I suppose we all need to put a label on things so we can speak to them and communicate in a semi-intelligent manner. Should we retire the label “literary” to help us sell more books? Would calling a Persian cat an alley cat make the alley cat more attractive to some people? I don’t know. How about we all just refer to what we read as “literature” and call it a day.

Dan Cafaro is the founder and chief imagination officer of Atticus Books, a small, independent publishing house that started in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., and is now based in Madison, N.J., where Dan resides. He also is the founder and publisher of Atticus Review, a weekly online journal, where he writes about modern man for the column, “From the Attic.”

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