If you’re published, but are already on book number two and haven’t hit the bestsellers lists, chances are you’re what’s termed a midlist author. To publishers, midlist authors are the least exciting category of writer. Their first books weren’t hotties. They’ve been bought again because they did okay their first time out, but are often pushed to the back of the bus in favor of those at the top, or the next potential hottie to come along.
Editors and publishers have been shouting about the death of the midlist since dinosaurs were harnessed to run printing presses, sometime in the mid-1980s. Publishing industry pundits at the time urged their readers to cup a hand to their ear and listen for the death knell, as corporations began gobbling up publishing houses and sought to “trim the fat” off their operations.
Why should we publish people who aren’t going to be runaway bestsellers? was the prevailing corporate wisdom of the era.
In truth, I suspect that the history of the midlist over the last twenty-five years could provide hours of lively debate. Is it less than it once was? The proverbial mere shadow? Or is it even stronger today?
Lori Devoti’s “The Death of the Midlist” revives the old arguments at Romancing the Blog, with news that two publishers are supposedly sending their midlists to the gallows. In addition to providing an excellent Midlist for Dummies-style primer, Devoti asks an important question.
…when I heard these two publishers were eliminating their mid-list I thought, “How?” Are they dropping everything that isn’t an A to them? Are they getting out their crystal ball and only buying the “big” books? Or are they just gouging out the middle? Keeping the A’s and the D’s but dumping those darn B’s and C’s?”
The answer, I think, would be yes. If publishers wanted to cut their midlist, there are a number of ways they could put the squeeze on the middle. They might raise the criteria for purchases of an author’s second and subsequent books, requiring higher sell-through rates or even a back-to-print order before an author was bought again. They could contract fewer new authors, selecting just a handful at a time, those they perceived as having the potential for mass appeal; whereupon they made those lucky few into bestsellers.
Where would all the unwanted authors go? It’s a sure thing that they wouldn’t stop writing, or attempting to see their books published. I know I wouldn’t. My guess is that more and more of them would turn to eBook publishers and even self-publishing as an option.
Which makes me wonder, will the large New York houses decide not to eliminate the midlist, but transform it instead?
What are the chances they’ll release most of the dinosaurs from the printing presses and put them to pasture, or swamp, or the Brontosaurus graveyard, and choose not to print, warehouse and distribute midlist books? What if they looked forward a decade, to when print book sales will be on the wane anyway, and came to the conclusion that the midlist should be eBook-only?
In this scenario, print would be reserved for two categories of books, the A-list, and those whom publishers visualized as having the potential to A-list, whether they be first-timers, or long-time eBook only midlisters who have found a large enough audience to merit the luxury.
Devoti makes a good argument in her post when she wonders how the buying public would react to a total evisceration of the middle:
…my guess is a lot of authors who live on the mid list would just disappear. This would be okay for a while. There is a never ending supply of new hopeful writers, but eventually wouldn’t that get old? There are a lot of really good books on that mid list. (Seriously, none of us believe only best-sellers are good, right? Or even all best-sellers are good.) If you could only pick between the new and the big, I truly think you would miss what used to be in the middle.
Regardless of what choices corporate publishing makes, to transition their B- and C-list authors to another format, or allow a great migration of the same to smaller eBook-only houses, my belief is that the midlist will never truly die.