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Mid-Listers Are “Toast”?

by Amanda S. Green

I’ll start with the admission that I’m late getting my post up this morning. Put it down to a serious case of dead brain syndrome. You know, that fuzzy, muddled state of mind that sometimes comes after you finish one project and know you have to move on to another but find it hard to focus. For me, that project was a short story that refused to be short. In fact, it fought me all the way and finally came in at something around 28,000 words. Add to that the fact I overslept this morning and am still trying to get enough coffee in me to concentrate and, well, you get the idea.

So, knowing I really didn’t have much to say this morning, I was going to put up an open floor notice. Then I started going through my email. You guessed it. I found something that left me shaking my head. So, I’ll share it with you and see if I’m the only one wondering about what I read.

Last week was the Publishing Business Conference & Expo. One of the presentations was by Marcus Leaver, the outgoing president of Sterling Publishing. You remember Sterling, don’t you? It’s the publishing house purchased by Barnes & Noble (and apparently welcomed by most everyone in the industry since it wasn’t Amazon) and that has since been on and off the sales block by B&N. Anyway, back to Leaver’s comments.

According to Leaver, the biggest challenge facing publishers isn’t e-books, but rather “adding value to authors and readers alike and staying ‘necessary’.” Wow, could it be that this is a publishing executive who really gets it?

I’ll admit, as I was reading the Shelf-Awareness coverage of Leaver’s speech, I did wonder. After all, he also said, “The world does not need another book . . . We’re still publishing far too many.” Now, if he is including all the small press and self-published e-books, he may have a point. But if all he is talking about are mainstream publishers who are trying to make the transition from purely print to a print-digital format, I have to disagree. I don’t think too many books are being published. What I think is that there are too many books pushing the “correct” way to think and too many poor clones of the latest trend book. We went through that with Harry Potter and Twilight and we’ll soon be going through it with The Hunger Games. And can any of us forget all the Dan Brown-lite books that came out after The Da Vinci Code?

One thing Leaver did say that I agree with wholeheartedly is, “Our biggest challenge will not be e-books,but in proving that publishers will continue to be necessary.” Add to that his prediction that there will be a rise of niche publishers that will market directly to readers instead of to the publishing and bookselling industries in an attempt to fight the problem of discoverability. He then went on to propose the bundling of print and digital editions of a book as a “necessary option” to give the reader the more choices in how they want to read a book.

As I said, the coverage of Leaver’s speech left me scratching my head. One the one hand, I don’t agree that there are too many books being offered now. That’s especially true if we are only talking about books published by the “establishment”, those publishers that haven’t been bucking the print to e-book trend.

But on the other hand, I agree wholeheartedly with him about publishers needing to change their focus when it comes to who they market their goods to. The target should be readers, especially with the ever increasing market share e-books are garnering. That means, as he suggested, opening events like Book Expo America to the public. And am I the only one who can imagine the groans and cries of dismay from the industry insiders when he also suggested that BEA NOT be held in New York?

Then we get back to the head scratching. When talking about book marketing, Leaver said that “book publishers should ‘go to where the audience is’ and no longer rely on mass-marketing like book publicity. Book marketing should also be ‘ubiquitous’ and rely more heavily on author participation.”

Wait a minute. I don’t recall much being done in the way of publicity for any book except those framed as best sellers or as the “newest, bestest thing”. When is the last time a solid mid-lister had any sort of real PR push for a new release? And, honestly, if authors were asked to provide even more marketing participation, when would they have time to write? As I said, this has me scratching my head.

And then I read further. Mid-listers, I warn you now. This is scary stuff and it explains so much. According to Leaver, “[t]he mid-list, however, is ‘toast’ . . . because mid-list books aren’t either beautiful and essential or workmanlike and utilitarian. Books that are neither of these things shouldn’t exist.” In other words, if you aren’t a best seller or don’t have a huge back list you are willing to let a publisher have, you are now worthless.

Sorry, but this is where I have to say Leaver is full of shit. (Sorry, guys, there’s no other word for it.) Mid-listers are the backbone of publishing and have been for years. Mid-listers have been the one constant publishers could rely upon for sales. They could always predict X-number of sales. Mid-listers aren’t the risk that so-called best sellers are. Remember, best sellers are based on pre-orders which, in turn, come from the push at such events like BEA. You remember BEA, the event Leaver said should be thrown open to the public. How many of these so-called best sellers never came close to earning out their six or seven or eight digit advances?

To be fair, Leaver may be basing this statement purely on his experience with Sterling. He admitted that 60% of Sterling’s monies come from back list titles. That, in and of itself, shows that Sterling’s business is, in my opinion, upside down. But I’ll go back to Leaver’s own words. I don’t always want books that are ‘beautiful and essential” and I really don’t want my books to be “workmanlike and utilitarian”. Beautiful is great for my coffee table books. Essential comes in with my how-to books that help me do repairs, etc. Workmanlike and utilitarian makes me wonder if those books go out and march through the streets at night after I’ve gone to bed.

Sorry, but I want books that entertain me. I want books that help expand my knowledge–and without trying to “educate” me to the “right” way of thinking. I want my mid-lister authored books because, in my opinion, they aren’t pale versions of a best seller I didn’t like to begin with.

But Leaver is right about publishers needing to market to their readers and not to one another. I’ll give him due credit for that. Now I’ll go reassure my mid-lister friends that they aren’t “toast” and are an important part of the industry. I’ll leave the legacy publishers with this question: if Leaver’s comments on mid-listers reflect the industry’s view (and I think it is clear this is the case), why are you so surprised when your mid-listers, your workhorses, leave you?

My suggestion to each of us, as readers, is to take a few minutes and find out if our favorite mid-lister authors are publishing on their own or through small presses now. Whichever route they are taking, support them. They’ve given you hours of enjoyment when publishing through legacy publishers. Believe me, they still can. In fact, you may find that the editing and proofreading of their books is better now that they are away from legacy publishers than it was while with them.

Edited to add:

Thanks to Passive Guy for the mention and link today! For those of you who haven’t been following his blog, The Passive Voice, I recommend you do so. It is a must read for anyone interested in the publishing industry.

21 Comments
  1. ppaulshoward #

    IMO the division of authors into “best sellers” and “mid-listers” is strange.

    An author who does “yoman work” and whose books regularly sell (but not to level of “best seller”) is treated the same as an author whose books are barely competent.

    March 27, 2012
    • Paul, so true. What’s worse, is they are treated worse than the newcomer who isn’t assured of becoming a best seller.

      March 27, 2012
  2. I think that as far as publishers are concerned mid-listers are toast. That is, the publishers cannot offer them deals that are anywhere as good as going indy. Therefore, the mid-list will leave them anyway.

    Arguably, most traditional publishers should focus on their marketing and push skills, which they can only do for a few “designated best sellers” per niche. Trying to push more than that saturates the market and creates an arms’ race.

    Basically, those of us who like reading will find our authors anyway. Publishers will market to those who only read a few books a year.

    March 27, 2012
    • Ori, yes and no. There are a number of mid-listers who would be leaving traditional publishing because of the opportunities presented by small press and self-publishing. But there are also a lot who would happily stay right where they are. They’d do it because of loyalty, because they feel there is a cachet to being published through a traditional house and because they simply don’t want to take on the additional responsibilities of doing it yourself. These are the ones who are really being hit.

      Also, it’s not that the publishers don’t have the money to pay mid-listers. The truth of the matter is, as far as I can tell, that the publishers don’t have the money to pay anyone the way they used to. There are so-called best sellers who are now worrying about meeting their monthly bills because their advances have been cut so far back. What that says is that all the money invested in the best sellers hasn’t paid off. There is also a very real question being asked by a lot of mid-listers about whether monies the publishers have earned through the sales of their books have been applied to help prop up the best sellers. There are a number of people out there who suspect houses will fall if the mid-listers ever demand a full accounting of where the money had gone.

      Yep, as readers, we will find books. The real question is how do traditional publishers remain relevant. What they are doing now is guaranteed to drive them into extinction.

      March 27, 2012
  3. Ori — yes, the people who don’t even read books, just carry them around and SAY they’ve read them are the mega million bestsellers. BUT it didn’t use to be like that. When the industry was healthier, mid listers grew into bestsellers and sometimes mega bestsellers. They were THEN organic bestsellers, as it were, who brought their own public with them. Tying in with my post yesterday at ATH — the industry got impatient and sloppy. Bah. We don’t need them.

    March 27, 2012
    • What can Bob Bigpub offer you that would make it worth your while to go through them? Amazon will still get its cut, so Bob has to make money out of your royalties – other than a marketing budget, what can they offer that can”t be done for cheaper elsewhere?

      March 27, 2012
      • Baen. A dedicated fan base that will buy their entire output. Unfortunately the other publishers haven’t invested in a recognizable brand, instead working on making themselves indistinguishable from each other by seeking peer and not reader approval. Sucks to be them.

        March 27, 2012
        • Sarah Hoyt: Baen. A dedicated fan base that will buy their entire output. Unfortunately the other publishers haven’t invested in a recognizable brand, instead working on making themselves indistinguishable from each other by seeking peer and not reader approval. Sucks to be them.

          Ori: True, but it is too late to do it now. Baen could build a brand because in the age of gatekeepers authors had to go through a publisher. Baen had its pick of the Science Fiction and Fantasy crop and could build a brand. The other publishers didn’t, and now they wouldn’t be able to attract authors who will be loyal to them to let them build it.

          Sucks to base you business on having a gatekeeper position and then discovering that your city wall leak like a barbarian-sized sieve and your moat is frozen over. Oh well, being stupid usually sucks. I’ll play them the world’s smallest violin to help them feel better.

          March 27, 2012
      • The answer a lot of folks will give you is editing and cachet. I’m not saying they’re right, because those are things traditional publishers have let slip almost out of their hands now. The main thing, today, the traditional publishers offer is the chance to get your print book on the shelves of a bookstore and there are still authors who would figuratively kill for that. I think that’s why so many of them don’t understand the issues the industry is facing right now. They haven’t adapted to the new demands of the public any better than the legacy publishers have.

        March 27, 2012
    • Sarah, it’s more than that. The industry decided to become the conscience of the buying public and thought it could get away with hitting us over the head with so-called socially relevant messages in fiction. Sorry, but I, for one, don’t like messages being delivered with literary sledgehammers.

      March 27, 2012
      • Tell me about it. It got so bad that an absence of sledge hammer was enough for the series to go on my “will buy if I have nothing else to read” pile. How sad is that?

        March 27, 2012
  4. masgramondou #

    Now I’ve read the rest of what is reported I think I see where he’s coming from. What he’s trying to do is keep the idea of “publisher” relevant and for that midlist doesn’t help. Right now a publisher adds the most value by identifying a good potential best-seller and going out and pushing it. That actually ties in with his other comments. Bascially the only way a publisher remains relevant is by taking a work that would otherwise languish and making it a big success. I.e making it beautiful etc. and then marketing the heck out of it to end readers and to book shops. If a publisher can build a reputation of always producing top quality best selling books then it makes more sense to concentrate on only producing such books. And plus if there are less midlist books to confuse things readers are more likely to just buy the best-sellers, hence increasing the profitability of the latter.

    Unfortunately while that’s a nice idea it’s got FAIL written all over it. First there’s this diddy problem that by cutting the midlist he’s got no way to have future bestsellers with any loyalty to him. That means he has to really cough up $$$ to convince a potential best seller to sing with him and come up with a good reason why the author should not stick with his current pub (or self-pub). In today’s market that could be difficult.

    Secondly there’s the fact that just because he wants to avoid midlist niche writers, there’s no way that the midlsit writers are going to stop writing and selling their works via indie pubs etc. and with the rise of ebooks and amazon it becomes really easy for word of mouth and the like to get these books out to the readers who want them. And of course since there’s less marketing etc. behind these books they can be made cheaper and still give the author (and any editor/publisher) more money than they get going with the trad pub. So the whole business model collapses in a heap

    Ooops

    March 27, 2012
    • Yeah. Like most publishers today his big issue is confusing the dreams in his head with the real world.

      March 27, 2012
    • There’s one other problem. The mid-list has been the all but guaranteed income for the publishers. They know the mid-listers will bring in X-number of dollars/or X-number of sales. As you said, it’s a FAIL.

      March 27, 2012
  5. jon spencer #

    What is the difference in number of sales for being Mid-lister and a Best-seller?
    I don’t know what to call a small number seller.

    March 27, 2012
    • actually the difference is not so much in numbers, but in how fast you sell. AKA laydown. At its height, a mid lister might have a laydown of 2k books and a bestseller of a 100k… or it might parse much lower. I don’t think the difference is even close to that now.

      March 27, 2012
    • Jon, For reasons no one knows there is no small-list (I’d be there, and so would 90% of ‘the midlist’). The difference is considerably smaller than the impression created. For example a few years ago (and it will be MUCH lower now) 17K hardcover got a book onto NYT bestseller list. The best I’ve ever done with Shadow of the Lion was 11K. A MANKIND WITCH, a solo book with no push at all and a really piss-poor cover, sold 3.5K in hardback at around that time. Calculated as sales/effort, most midlisters do far better than bestsellers I suspect.

      March 27, 2012
  6. Amanda! How dare you imply that El Blessed-Departure is full of shit! Why besides being a saint to the publishing industry… his model follows so many commercial examples. Look at the Newspaper industry as a close and similar example. The internet has naturally meant we’ve moved from far too many tiny little niche focused local or interest based rags to total dominance by 5 broadsheets. And their circulation is growing! Because people are all the same and want the same thing! None of this ‘Choice’ rubbish, it just confuses them. El Sexual-exit-to-Blessed-Departure has spoken. How dare you question his wisdom.
    Whaddya mean its all back-to-front?

    I’ve seldom seen such a delusional crock. If anything he’s got it back to front. It’s the bestsellers that will die. In actual truth sales/effort they’ve mostly been dead for years

    March 27, 2012
    • Dave, I most humbly apologize for suggesting he is full of shit. That was demeaning shit of all kinds. I must make abject apologies to all excremental deposits. ;-p

      March 27, 2012
    • Yeah, I hate to tell them this, but it’s the small community papers which are still turning a profit. The big metros are in the deep shit.

      None of us are doing well mind. Rather like the midlist…

      March 27, 2012
      • Yep. How he reached the conclusion he reached – besides ‘it is what I want to believe, therefore it is true’ is beyond me. It’s completely unsupported. The inevitable conclusion is a flattening and broadening of the sales curve, with success (possibly not huge, but still success) going to those with LOW overhead costs (ie. no one paying a New York rent. Not paying huge amounts of borrowed money for ‘bestseller’)
        Look, the model for ‘bestseller’ ‘spend a shedload on getting a million readers for this particular book, because a shedload divided by a million makes… well maybe not… but in theory makes more money per book. In practice, this is partly an accounting trick, where costs per month are divided by the number of books per month. Not by needed expenditure on each book. This certainly makes ‘bestsellers’ shine. but when you actually put real figures (sales less actual beneficial to book expenditure per book) Hmm. e-books where they can’t spend-skew the market… a flattening and broadening of the curve where ‘bestsellers’ might sell… 10 times what a solid midlister does (midlister costs at say a total of 15K, 10K advance, 5 K editing and cover art), and bestseller costs (total of 250K -cheap – 100K (dirt cheap) for the bestselling author 140 K for marketing that gets nowhere, and 10K editing and cover), the company with 10 solid midlisters, each earning 20K for the company is going to be profitable. Like the community newspaper, not a big profit, but profit. The company with 10 ‘bestsellers’- if they could find them! each earning 200K for the company, is not. When you start to push the equation up to what the ‘bestsellers’ (not Nora Roberts, but those on the bestseller rack you never heard of) get for advances, and the cost of NY premises, and all the extra legacy costs…

        March 27, 2012

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