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.