According to Rachel Donadio:
. . .These days literary fiction has to contend with two factors that are increasingly central to the publishing process: timing and volume. In a market dominated by the big chain stores, if a novel doesn't sell a healthy number of copies in the first two weeks after its publication, its chances of gaining longer-term momentum are slim.
"The whole system is set up for impatience," said Drenka Willen, an editor at Harcourt whose authors include Umberto Eco and José Saramago. That "system" also favors the familiar name over the new voice.
The average number of weeks that a new No. 1 bestseller stayed top of the hardback fiction section of the New York Times Bestseller List has fallen from 5.5 in the 1990s, 14 in the 1970s and 22 in the 1960s to barely a fortnight last year -- according to the study of the half-century from 1956-2005.
In the 1960s, fewer than three novels reached No. 1 in an average year; last year, 23 did.
“The blockbuster novel is heading the way of the mayfly,” says Bob Young, CEO of Lulu.com, referring to the famously short-lived insect.
The plummeting life-expectancy of a fiction bestseller, says Young, reflects the way that the publishing industry is unravelling, in an age of over-production, plus media fragmentation and now disruptive new technologies such as the Internet and print-on-demand: “The publishing revolution is nigh.”
Whether the "pubishing revolution is nigh" remains to be determined, but I certainly cannot see how writers are acting in their own best interests by giving in to this culture of impatience. And they do so when they trade off the greater control of their own literary destinies they might retain by going with a smaller press or with self-publishing for the residual distinction a known-name press must still offer. It's hard to know what else aside from this boost in self-esteem the large publishers do offer, since if the above numbers are to be believed, writers are not getting any greater visibility from them. Surely the more focused attention a smaller press might give an individual book would give that book more than the two-week window it apparently now has to gain notice in the prevailing "system." Writers could also help themselves by starting blogs, but if they have to do this even when being published by mainstream presses, it is again hard to see what good those presses are doing them.
Free-standing litblogs could also work against the culture of impatience, as I suggested in a previous post. Perhaps if we got away from the model of book blog as compendium of daily book news--whereby we are inherently dependent on the publishing business and its media voices for content, and thus implicitly sanction this business even while we occasionally question its practices--and thought of it as truly an opportunity for individual and independent voices to discuss literature and engage in a form of literary criticism, there would gradually develop a new model of "promotional intelligence" that values books for their long-term relevance rather than their short-term status as commodities. As Donadio herself says at the end of her article, "There is, after all, a difference between a reader and a market."
Ralph Waldo Emerson once advised that one should wait at least a year before reading any "new" book. I don't know that I would take it that far, but the principle he is enunciating is sound. Read the book for what it has to offer as a work of seriously-intended writing, not for its merely fashionable prominence, its place in line among the newly-printed. I, for one, have resolved to discuss more new works of fiction, but to do so at a sane and measured pace. I may discuss books that were published months if not years previously but that from such a distance still seem worth readers' attention, even if the two-week window has long fogged over. I would hope that some readers would be willing to rub away a clear space for them.