The Future of Literary Fiction Is Self-Publishing

Scott Semegran
Feb 24 · 22 min read
Photo by from Pexels

Recently, writer and contrarian Will Self declared that literary fiction is not widely read anymore. I couldn’t agree more. Sixty years ago, the likes of Lolita, Doctor Zhivago, and Catcher in the Rye were bestsellers; nowadays, a recent NYT bestseller list is filled with mostly crime fiction and thrillers. You’d be hard-pressed to name a literary fiction novel that has sparked the imagination of the masses recently in the way The Da Vinci Code, Fifty Shades of Grey, or any Harry Potter books did. In fact, I’ve recently had to explain to many curious readers just what exactly literary fiction is. As a writer of humorous literary fiction, I find this to be very disheartening.

Literary fiction is a catch-all category of fiction, an umbrella category covering a broad range of themes; it is a spectrum of literature. Many of you may be asking: What is literary fiction? NY Book Editors define literary fiction as a type of fiction that “doesn’t adhere to any rules. Anything can happen which can be both exciting and unnerving for the reader. Sometimes, literary fiction takes a common theme in genre fiction and turns it on its head.” This is opposed to genre fiction, such as mysteries or romance, which is also “known as popular fiction… Genre fiction is more appealing to a wider audience. It’s written for the mainstream reader” and typically follows a storytelling formula and is plot-driven: Boy meets girl, boy falls for girl, boy loses girl, etc.

“Literary fiction can be fun and entertaining while exploring the human condition.”

Many works of literary fiction plumb the depths of the human condition and could be described as serious and dour. When many readers look to reading as a form of escapism, a book that is “serious and dour” can be a hard pill to swallow. Genre fiction can be easier to consume and therefore more appealing to a wider audience. But this an oversimplification. If literary fiction “doesn’t adhere to any rules,” then it doesn’t have to be serious or dour. In fact, two of the three examples of literary fiction I gave above are hilarious, and that’s not just my opinion. Huckleberry Finn and Holden Caulfield have endeared themselves to countless generations with their humorous and witty observations. So why is literary fiction now perceived as “serious fiction” and more substantive — therefore not as entertaining? Why does exploring the human condition have to connote that literary fiction is “depressing?” Defining a type of fiction that doesn’t follow any rules as depressing is, in itself, depressing. Literary fiction can be fun and entertaining while exploring the human condition. Literary fiction can also have happy endings.

And indie writers are leading the way with radical literary fiction that is free from constraints. Indie writers are breaking the rules, not only with their writing, but with the way they publish literary fiction: self-publishing.

Indie writer Larry Brill spent twenty-five years as a TV news anchor in Oregon, California, Colorado, and Texas before shifting gears to writing humorous, literary novels. His background in journalism fostered his passion for fiction writing. Larry was able to acquire two different literary agents for two of his novels, although neither books sold to a publisher. Disappointed, his second agent suggested self-publishing. When I asked Larry what roles he plays in self-publishing in addition to writer (editor, typesetter, eBook creator), he said, “I let the experts handle all of those tasks.” When I prodded Larry about which he preferred, selling books or writing novels, he quipped, “No brainer. Writing a new novel.” He echoes the sentiment of a lot of indie writers I talk to, the money aspect of publishing books isn’t at the top of their priority list; creating lasting works of literary fiction is. Larry publishes through his imprint Black Tie Books. His latest novel is titled Déjà vu All Over Again.

This novel is a fun mix of comedy and romance but from a decidedly male perspective, a middle-aged lonely-heart using whatever bits of wisdom he’s gained, with hopes of rekindling a youthful romance. It’s a perspective that is refreshingly comedic and this exceptionally crafted literary novel turns the romance genre on its head as noted in its BlueInk Review starred review as well as its IndieReader IR-approved review.

“Their ruminations about life and love bring a weightiness to the novel from a decidedly more mature place in their lives, a perspective that is sorely needed in our youth-obsessed culture.”

There’s a breezy quality to Brill’s prose that is reminiscent of a finely tuned screenplay, a snappiness that initially gives the narrative a similar pace to rom-com movies. But in between comedic high jinx and situational comedy is deep reflection from both Nate and Jules. Their ruminations about life and love bring a weightiness to the novel from a decidedly more mature place in their lives, a perspective that is sorely needed in our youth-obsessed culture.

UPDATE: On April 5, 2019, this novel won the Gold Medal for the Fiction: Romance category in the 31st Annual IBPA Benjamin Franklin Awards, a prestigious award that honors independent publishers and self-published authors for excellence.

Deja Vu All Over Again by Larry Brill

Self-publishing has a bad rap. Many assume that self-publishing is the path chosen by people who think they are writers but are actually delusional, self-absorbed losers. Why is that? I think there are a couple of reasons for this. One: self-publishing is seen as one evolutionary step away from vanity publishing, a derided publishing path chosen by the rich with dreams of seeing their books sitting on their personal library shelves. If some rich guy decades ago wanted to see his personal tomes about his astonishing business acumen, then rather than have an actual publisher acquire his work, the rich guy just funded the entire publishing process himself. $20,000 to print 100 leather-bound, hardcover books with linen paper adorned with gilded edges? “No problem!” the rich guy said and bankrolled the entire lot. Two: self-publishing is seen as a process that is so easy that a monkey could do it. It’s also been said that a team of trained chimps could write Hollywood screenplays, but I digress. Do you want to self-publish? Then simply create an Amazon KDP or Smashwords account, upload a Word document and a book cover image, fill out some metadata fields, set a price, then click the Publish button. Done! “I’m a published author!” the self-absorbed monkey said, then posted a video of himself on Snapchat making his house cat play an organ. The simplicity of self-publishing does have these steps in the process, but a serious writer knows the other steps not mentioned: editing, proofing, layout design, book cover design, PDF creation, eBook creation, photograph and / or illustration creation, and so, so much more.

“They have to be entrepreneurs. They have to be fearless. They have to want to break the rules.”

“But,” you may ask. “If a serious writer is so good at writing, then why don’t they get a literary agent and get picked up by a publisher? Shouldn’t their talent speak for itself?” Aha! If only it were that easy. That’s like saying, “Shouldn’t every single qualified job applicant get the job?!” In reality, there are only so many writers that big publishers can take on. Big publishers do not have unlimited space and resources for all the talented writers in the world, although it seems like that sometimes. Also, some writers who have gone the route of traditional publishing have discovered they are not the publisher’s priority; the marketing effort from the publisher was sub-par, the money was not as good as they dreamt, or they are required to spend way more time on marketing and promoting their books than they would like. They can learn from this bad publishing experience and parlay that into self-publishing. Writers who once were traditionally published authors can become very savvy self-publishers with a little motivation.

But still, self-publishing gets a bad rap.

Brian Kindall began his indie writing career at 11-years old, creating adventures of a boy who was surely his alter ego. Brian spent his college years studying literature and film, which inspired his writing style — one that is both literary and action-packed. Brian was able to acquire a literary agent for his novel, Delivering Virtue, but felt changes suggested by the agent would neuter his creative vision. Inspired by independent writers like Walt Whitman, Brian publishes through his imprint Diving Boy Books, with his talented wife as the publisher. They outsource the services of copy editors, proofreaders, and book cover designers. “We’re painstaking in the process because we are determined to create the highest quality product that we can, in both content and packaging,” Brian states. I also posed this question to Brian: inspired by the recent craze from tidying-up expert Marie Kondo, which inspires more joy in you: Selling books or writing a new novel? “The discoveries I make during that adventure [of writing] — about myself and the cosmos — are just so dang exciting. I don’t know if I would call it ‘joy,’ but something more intense and life affirming. It’s the main reason I write, and I know I’d keep doing it even if I never sold another book.” The novel of Brian’s I recommend is titled Delivering Virtue.

This novel of literary fiction is a ribald and adventurous mixture of humor, magical realism, Old West historical fact, and dream-like self-reflection. It’s quite difficult to categorize this book. But author Brian Kindall skillfully unspools a literary tale worth reading. There’s a reason it was selected as a Finalist for Literary Fiction in the 2015 Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Awards as well as received a starred review from BlueInk Review and a 5 out of 5 rating from Foreword Reviews.

“The narration is pitch-perfect to the period of the 1850s while Rain’s observations, inquisitiveness, and creative indulgences are mesmerizing and humorous.”

The narration is pitch-perfect to the period of the 1850s while Rain’s observations, inquisitiveness, and creative indulgences are mesmerizing and humorous. He quickly grows close to Virtue the baby while he cares for her on the rough trip as well as to his animal cohorts, which endears him to the reader. I found myself laughing out loud a few times at the predicaments Rain fumbles into and the magical elements that organically develop through their journey, as Brian Kindall masterfully revealed in the most seemingly natural of ways. As Rain reveals his past to his cohorts as well as to the reader, his cynicism becomes justified. He has an unsavory past, yet his abhorrent history gives way to his loving care for the young woman Virtue as well as the animals under his watch.

Delivering Virtue by Brian Kendall

Many writers still believe that to be taken seriously, then they must be published by a traditional publisher. One author, Ros Barber, declared that she’d rather starve as a traditionally published author than risk appearing amateurish as a self-published author. This ruse is perpetuated by literary agents, publishers, and mainstream publications as well as by many uninformed writers. Sure, if you want to appear amateurish, then you can self-publish books with typos, grammatical errors, and unedited narratives. But there are countless self-published authors who know the publishing process inside-out; they hire editors, proofreaders, layout designers, and book cover designers, maybe even perform some of these tasks themselves if they have the skills. The fear of appearing amateurish is the fear of those unwilling to take on more than simply writing a manuscript and waiting for a paycheck.

“But in reality, there are actually dozens of prestigious awards for indie and self-published books… Even the Pulitzer Prize accepts self-published books.”

Many writers also feel that to be taken seriously, then they must be eligible for prestigious awards and assume there are not prestigious awards for self-published books. But in reality, there are actually dozens of prestigious awards for indie and self-published books, several of which offer monetary prizes in the thousands of dollars: the North Street Book Prize, the Eric Hoffer Awards, and the Next Generation Indie Book Awards are just a few. Even the Pulitzer Prize accepts self-published books. What’s more prestigious for American writers than the Pulitzer Prize? Among the seventeen titles in contention for the 2018 Prix Renaudot in France was Marco Koskas’ Bande de Français, which was self-published on Amazon’s CreateSpace platform (now Amazon KDP). When Koskas couldn’t find a traditional publisher, he self-published instead. He believed in his work when traditional publishers didn’t. More and more self-published books are receiving similar accolades.

So, why do self-published novels still get frowned upon?

Selraybob is the least concerned indie writer of the few I interviewed for this article when it comes to traditional publishing. He is indie all the way, never having approached literary agents or traditional publishers. His two closest friends not only help him with editing and publishing, they also appear as “characters” in his novel. The unusual style of the novel combines a freewheeling first-person narrative about friends drinking beer and fixing cars with contemplative musings about what constitutes Time. This novel, titled The Unlounging, is a strange yet creative amalgam that Selraybob figured mainstream publishers wouldn’t want anyway. “The Unlounging isn’t like other books. And mainstream publishing wants the latest trendy book, or something that fits in a genre box,” Selraybob stated. “So we kept it quiet and put it out independently.” Selraybob and his friends Herm and Susy Liu Anne published the book through their imprint, Cur Dog Press.

The Unlounging is a humorous novel that received starred reviews from both BlueInk Review and Kirkus Reviews, even landing on the Kirkus “Best Books of 2018” indie list. Color me impressed. Usually for me, if someone says a novel is very funny or laugh out loud funny, then it isn’t. I know that humor is subjective and very different for everyone. But I rarely find books declared “hysterical” to actually be hysterical — until now. The Unlounging is funny — really funny. I burst out laughing often while reading it and — let me tell you, folks — that means something to me. It really does.

“Sel the author puts a master-class on display for character development; Sel the main character is full-blooded and alive with pathos, humor, insightfulness, and humility.”

There is an easygoingness to Sel’s storytelling that is fascinating and endearing. His ruminations about Time are interesting in that he seeks the simplest explanation possible — even creating an internal feud with Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein, two “loonies” whose explanations of Time are too complicated — and his kindheartedness endears the reader to him, making his penchant for oafishness easy to overlook. Sel the author puts a master-class on display for character development; Sel the main character is full-blooded and alive with pathos, humor, insightfulness, and humility. If there was one weakness in this novel, it’s this: the plot is simply an armful of months in the life of Selraybob; Sel grows in wisdom through the duration of the story but the stakes and obstacles in his life aren’t much higher than the hill he trudges up with Carl the wannabe footballer. But what a fun armful of months we readers get to experience. The Unlounging fosters the absurd, the philosophical pondering, the beer-drinking, the classic car fixing, and the shit-talking yet loyal friendships we all yearn for in one fun novel.

The Unlounging by Selraybob

I must admit, until recently, I hadn’t read many self-published books. Even being a self-published author myself, these books were not on my radar when I was looking for something new to read. (I know this is somewhat hypocritical of me but I am in a confessional mood. Don’t judge.) When I looked for new books to read, I checked the bestseller lists for literary fiction, or I dove back into the classics, a routine that began in early adulthood, assuming this would net me the best new books to read. But after reading a few of the literary fiction bestsellers of 2018, I was dissatisfied. I’m not naming names because this article isn’t about bashing other authors, but I did find these bestsellers to be profoundly dour and overly showy with their literary style, novels that seemed to be going through the motions of literary greatness but left little satisfaction in me. Plus, I had so many questions. Why were these novels on the bestseller lists? Why were all the retailers heavily promoting these unsatisfying books? I couldn’t figure it out.

“These novels by Larry Brill, Selraybob, and Brian Kindall were tautly written, lovingly crafted, highly entertaining, and thought-provoking works of literature that satiated my need for literary greatness.”

As a reader, I discovered that these novels were not hackneyed, typo-laden, meandering borefests. These novels by Larry Brill, Selraybob, and Brian Kindall were tautly written, lovingly crafted, highly entertaining, and thought-provoking works of literature that satiated my need for literary greatness. As a writer, I also discovered that I was not alone, that there were writers out there in the indie universe publishing humorous, literary fiction of the highest quality, with every aspect of their novels matched in equal measure to their mainstream counterparts: excellent book covers, carefully edited interiors, well-crafted narratives with few to no misspellings or grammatical errors, properly formatted eBooks, and high-quality paperbacks. But most importantly, these books had adventurous storytelling that took chances. Why were these writers and their novels not being promoted more visibly?


I am what some folks call a hybrid author. I’ve published in traditional ways and self-published through my imprint Mutt Press. I’ve had short stories published in literary journals. I published a comic strip for two years titled Near Oltorf in the Austin-American Statesman, the daily city paper of Austin, Texas. I published a weekly comic strip titled Mr. Grieves in alternative weekly newspapers. I had a literary agent for a non-fiction humor book that didn’t sell to a publisher. The glacial process of continually looking for a different agent for my novels was maddening. I discovered I had the skills to create eBooks and paperbacks from years of experience as a webmaster and graphic designer, so I took the self-publishing leap. Nowadays, I hire editors, proofreaders, and book cover designers for my new books. I want to publish the highest quality books that have a lasting legacy. My book of short stories titled BOYS: Stories about Bullies, Jobs, and Other Unpleasant Rites of Passage from Boyhood to Manhood was the winner of the 2018 IndieReader Discovery Awards for Short Stories. My novel Sammie & Budgie was the First Place Winner for General Fiction and First Place Winner for Fiction Book Cover in the 2018 Texas Authors Book Awards. My latest novel is titled To Squeeze a Prairie Dog: An American Novel.

“It was a huge challenge to write a novel that was quirky but not snarky and endearing yet not saccharine.”

I wanted to write a novel that explored the human condition, but I also wanted a narrative that had hope in its bones, while using humor to diffuse the more unsavory aspects of the lowly employees’ lives. It was a huge challenge to write a novel that was quirky but not snarky and endearing yet not saccharine.

Rather than review my own book (that would be quite pretentious of me), I’ll quote some of the recent book reviews for To Squeeze a Prairie Dog: An American Novel.

“An amusing yet heartwarming romp… To Squeeze a Prairie Dog is an entertaining slice-of-life story that’s humorous yet uplifting at the same time. By the novel’s last page, readers will be longing for more.” — BlueInk Review (Starred Review)

“A comic sendup of state government that remains lighthearted, deadpan, and full of affection for both urban and rural Texas.” — Kirkus Reviews

“To Squeeze a Prairie Dog paints a rollicking story that careens through the office structure to delve into the motivations, lives, and connections between ordinary individuals… an uplifting, fun story.” — Midwest Book Review

“An accomplished tale… a recommended read for fans of humor, drama, and office politics.” — Readers’ Favorite Book Reviews. 5 stars.

To Squeeze a Prairie Dog: An American Novel by Scott Semegran

The biggest issue self-published writers face is lack of exposure. Marketing and promotion is a herculean uphill battle for writers publishing outside of the mainstream system. There are examples of self-published novels rising to mainstream recognition then being acquired by mainstream publishers, but none of these are categorized as literary fiction. So what are writers like Larry Brill, Selraybob, Brian Kindall, and myself to do to get exposure? We procure the services of book reviewers willing to critique indie writers and we scour the internet for additional marketing resources. I know from my own experience that mainstream publications generally refuse to review or promote self-published books. Why? The untrue notion that books of quality are only published by mainstream publishers is frustrating. That’s like saying quality food is only created by corporations. Although, what corporations do excel at is marketing; they have established connections and a marketing staff. Self-published writers have to break the rules to get exposure. And what’s their best tool for breaking the rules? The internet. And what ushered in the recent boom of self-publishing in the first place? Also, the internet. And where will these self-published writers mostly reside? Again, the internet. But there is another often overlooked avenue for self-published writers: their local communities.

“All of these writers have eBooks for sale that are cheaper than a fancy cup of coffee, but the nourishment you will receive from these books can last a lifetime.”

Novel Night display at Malvern Books in Austin, Texas. Photo by Scott Semegran.

So, if literary fiction is at its essence about breaking the rules, then self-published writers are breaking the rules with writing and publishing. They are creating novels that the mainstream publishers are not brave enough to publish, artful novels with pathos, humor, intelligence, and entertainment. They are writing for the love of writing and publishing to create a legacy. Even if financial success eludes them, many continue to write and publish more at the highest level. If they were under the umbrella of a large publishing house and did not meet projected sales figures, then they would be summarily abandoned. But art and commerce should not be the same; great works of literature stand the test of time despite their sales receipts in the first three months of their initial publication. Readers deem books classics despite their initial status of bestseller or commercial flop.

For all the curious readers out there, I would like to challenge you to step out of your preconceived notions about self-published novels. Try one of these novels by Larry Brill, Selraybob, Brian Kindall, or myself. The barrier to entry is extremely low, as close to free as possible. All of these writers have eBooks for sale that are cheaper than a fancy cup of coffee, but the nourishment you receive from these books can last a lifetime. If you like one of their novels, then try them all. And if you find you love them (please, PLEASE leave ratings and reviews for these books), then venture to your nearest local indie bookstore. Ask the booksellers there who they recommend that are publishing in your vicinity. Attend events they host: fiction readings, poetry readings, or Q & A’s. Support indie writers through indie bookstores. Do it now! These talented writers and fantastic bookstores need your support and you’ll be glad you did.

Here’s where you can find these indie writers online:

Larry Brill: Website, Amazon, IndieBound, Goodreads

Brian Kindall: Website, Amazon, IndieBound, Goodreads

Selraybob: Website, Amazon, IndieBound, Goodreads

Scott Semegran: Website, Amazon, IndieBound, Goodreads

Scott Semegran

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Award-winning Writer. New book out now — To Squeeze a Prairie Dog: An American Novel. For more, go to