The Business Rusch: Midlist Writers
(Changing Times Part Eleven)
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
When I started this series on the changing times in publishing, I was responding to a cacophony of voices. Two of those voices were from published writers on the opposite ends of the e-book spectrum—New York Times bestselling author, Scott Turow, president of the Authors Guild, and mystery writer J.A. Konrath who, because of his successful early adoption of e-publishing, has become a kind of guru of self-publishing.
Both men are highly visible, both are firm in their opinions, and both seem to believe that all writers have the same problems.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Writers differ as much (maybe more) than their books differ. Writers, depending on where they stand at this point in their careers, have different needs, different desires, and yes, different problems.
Because Turow is particularly myopic—he has never had an unsuccessful book—he doesn’t understand the problems of the midlist writer. All published writers, as I’ve stated before, understand the problems of the beginner, because we were all beginners once upon a time. No matter how unique beginning writers believe their experience is, it isn’t. If you read Louisa May Alcott’s discussions of how she felt on her road to publication in the 19th century, you’ll see her have most of the same concerns and troubles (couched in 19th century terms) that you see from beginning writers today.
But the midlist is a strange and curious place inhabited by a wide variety of writers, some for only a few years on their way to bestsellerdom and others for only a few years before they give up in disgust. The rest of the midlist are lifers, folks who, for one reason or another, do not have bestsellers with each and every book release.
Until he self-published some of his backlist novels, J.A. Konrath belonged squarely in the midlist. The attention he’s getting for his self-publishing advocacy will get him a bestseller or two. But the changes in publishing, Konrath’s own choices, and the books he writes will determine whether or not he moves out of the midlist to perennial bestseller. The difference between those two categories is not money earned (although it used to be, just two years ago). The difference between those two categories is the number of books sold and, if we’re using Big Publishing’s definitions, how fast those books sell.
In my first post on bestselling writers, I explain the difference between a book that sells well and a book that sells fast, and why the book that sells fast often ends up on the bestseller list while a book that sells well sometimes does not. If you don’t understand this concept, go read that post. If you’re new to this series, check out the very first post and this overview post on writers so that you know what I’m doing here.
If publishing was the same as it was when Scott Turow came into the business in the late 1970s, then his concern that this new world of e-publishing will hurt writers makes sense. In fact, if publishing was the same as it was five years ago, then his concern makes sense. Turow’s concern about equitable royalty payments for e-books and pricing structure makes sense if writers’ books stay in print forever (like his do).
But the publishing world has changed significantly in just two years, and that change has its greatest impact on the midlist writer.
Before we go any further, I need to define what a midlist writer really is. The midlist is a publishing term from Big Publishing that means “the middle of the list.” That doesn’t mean the writer is mediocre or that the writing isn’t as good as, say, Turow’s. What it means is exactly what it says.
Every Big Publishing House has imprints. Imprints divide a branch of a publishing company by genre. The mystery imprint will have one name, the romance imprint another, and so on.
Pick up any recent book off your shelf and you’ll find the name of both a publisher and an imprint. As an example, I picked a random novel published in 2010 off my to-read pile. The lucky novel is The Native Star by M.K. Hobson. On its spine, it says at the top (where the name of the imprint often is—either there or at the bottom), “Ballantine Books: Spectra.” The copyright page tells us more. This is a “Spectra Mass Market Original” as well as this: “Published in the United States by Spectra, an imprint of the Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House Inc., New York.”
Remember when I told you how big Big Publishing actually was? (That’s in my third post.) This is just a tiny example. I do know that Ballantine and Spectra are hooked up. But without looking at a chart that explains the various divisions and imprints of Random House, I can’t tell you much more about Spectra, because the Spectra I knew when it was founded 25 years ago is a very different from the Spectra that exists now.
Book publishers distribute catalogues showcasing their Spring, Summer, and Fall titles. (Some publishers [not many] also have a Winter catalogue.) Those catalogues show the titles being published in a given season. So as you thumb through the catalogue (or view it online), you will notice that some titles get two or three pages of promotion in the catalogue. Some get a page or so. Some get a half a page, and some simply get listed. This seems random, unless you understand what’s going on.
First of all, the titles are placed in the catalogue by month. So let’s assume that Kris’s Publishing Imprint’s Summer List covers June, July, and August. A book may grace the cover of the catalogue. That’s the book we at Kris’s Publishing Imprint hope will do the best in the Summer season. Inside, you might see some photos of other books next to our table of contents (by month). Those books are the other titles we hope will do the best in the Summer season.
The next thing you will see is a page marker that says “June.” Sometimes the image of a book is on that page as well. Sometimes not. It all depends on the design. The next two or four pages are dedicated to a single book. This book is the “top of the list,” the book that we at Kris’s Publishing Imprint hope will sell the most copies in the month of June. We will put the bulk of our June advertising dollars behind that novel. We might have the author go on a real book tour, with the hope of getting the book velocity and putting it on a bestseller list. We will probably assign that book an actual publicist, so that someone will shepherd that book through its promotion. We will definitely print the most copies of that book in June, and we will make sure that book will be in all the major bookstores in this country on a specific publication date.
The next page will showcase another novel. It will get fewer advertising dollars and probably no tour booking. Certainly no publicist and no shepherding. But we at Kris’s Publishing Imprint still have high hopes for this book, in fact so high that we hope to someday give future books by that author the same kind of spread the first book on the June list got.
The next page has two half ads, which showcase two more books on our June list. They might be trades, they might be mass market originals, but they get what’s called “piggy-back” advertising. In other words, when we at Kris’s Publishing Imprint buy an ad for the second June novel, we’ll put pictures of these two books at the bottom of that ad with an “Also Available!” notice. And that’s about it.
At the very back of the catalogue, you’ll find a page that says “Other Titles” separated out by month. In the June listing, you’ll find one or two books that don’t get any catalogue space at all. Often they’re tie-in novels or series novels by house names (bylines owned by the publishing house), and they generally get no promotion at all.
That’s six books (which is probably one too many in this recession era), which make the list for June. That list is:
1. Bestseller (or Wannabe Bestseller)
2. High Hopes But Not a Bestseller Yet
3. Familiar Name
4. Familiar Name/Build
6. House Name/Series.
What’s in the middle of that list? Why, it’s the two Familiar Name books. If you’re a fan of the genre in which this imprint specializes, then you’ve probably heard of Familiar Name even if you’ve never read her books. She’s well known, but often she’s an Advertising Bestseller (see the Bestselling Writer post for that definition) or an award-winner or someone with a long term career.
Of course, the writers in spots #1 and #2 might fit those definitions as well, but the hopes within the publishing houses are different for those books. They might become bestsellers.
If the novels in spots #3 and #4 become bestsellers, it will be a surprise to everyone, because those books are not released at numbers large enough to hit a bestseller list rapidly. If those novels become bestsellers, it will be over time—and because the publishing house is paying attention. I’ve had more than one novel that sold out the original print run quickly only to discover that the publishing house didn’t send the second printing to the bookstores fast enough to keep the book in stock during the time of greatest publicity. In no way could those books have become bestsellers because there weren’t enough books available in bookstores during the first two months of release.
Many writers get bitter about this, but they should have seen it coming when their editor sent them the catalogue for their book. If they were in the middle of the list for the month of publication, then the chances of becoming a bestseller (based on velocity) are slim. The chances of the book selling well remain the same—so long as the publisher is good about reorders and repeat printings. (Much of this will change with the availability of e-books, but that’s for a later post on this topic.)
And if your book is published in the last two slots, the ones simply listed at the back of the catalogue, then your book will sell its (small) first printing and nothing more.
But back to books #3 and #4 in the middle of that list. Their writers are, by definition, midlist writers. So long as there is Big Publishing—and I believe Big Publishing shall always be with us—there will be midlist writers. Because there will always be a list.
Now, there are a few other things you need to understand about the midlist. First, books #3 and #4? They’re not designed to become bestsellers. If they do become bestsellers, that’s wonderful! Gravy! Cool! But no one ever believes they will become bestsellers.
Still, the publishing house expects books #3 and #4 to make a profit. The house wouldn’t publish the books otherwise. The amount of profit is key here. The better the book sells, the more money it will make.
But Big Publishing can afford to take risks. They will often invest—especially in good times (and this recession is not a good time)—in a writer by buying two or three books under a single contract. That means Big Publishing will “grow” those books. The idea is to make the writer familiar to readers with the first book. The second book should sell to those readers plus some new readers. And the third book should do better yet.
By the publication of that third book, the writer and/or her series should be doing well. Not “well” by the writer’s definition or her agent’s definition or even her editor’s definition, but by some earnings formula within the publishing house. If not, the writer will either sell the next two books to the publishing house for less money or not sell to them at all.
The other thing you need to know about books 3-6 is this: These books, the middle and the bottom of the list, is where the publisher makes its most reliable money.
Note that I said the publisher takes a risk with a writer by buying more than one book before the first comes out. I used the word “risk” on purpose. It’s a calculated risk, one guaranteed to lose a minimum amount of money if the book fails. Like any good calculated risk, the reward isn’t usually that high either. The loss might be low on a failed book, but the profit on a successful book (that does not become a bestseller) isn’t great. The best a publisher hopes for is a continual seller—a book that sells enough every month to say in print.
Books 3-6 are bread-and-butter books. They’re the ones on which the imprint is built. If the imprint’s publisher (a person) takes bad risks, eventually, the imprint will fade away. The imprint fades away (often) because the bread-and-butter books don’t sell up to expectations.
The gambles, in publishing, are always the bestsellers. They cost the most money to produce and promote, and they run the risk of the greatest losses should the gamble not pay off. That’s why publishing companies prefer Guaranteed Bestsellers to any other kind of bestseller. But there aren’t enough Guaranteed Bestsellers to keep all the imprints going. That’s why so many books at the top of lists are by new writers or writers whose previous books (often #3 or #4 on a list) did quite well. The publisher hopes he can turn these writers into Guaranteed Bestsellers.
Just as the top of the list is the riskiest, the bottom of the list has the fewest risks. Publishers actually know within a few hundred copies how many books novels in spots #5 and #6 will sell. The fans of those series/tie-ins will buy a certain number of books and no more, no matter how good or bad the novel is. These books make a profit for the company, but the profit is set and probably will never grow. (If it declines, that series disappears and another will take its place.)
The middle of the list, then, will always be there, and it will always serve its purpose: to make the publishing house a solid profit and to grow some writers into bestsellers.
Then why is everyone saying the midlist is dying?
Because “everyone” has no idea what a midlist is.
The problem is that the middle of the list is a moving target. In good years, the middle of the list may have four novels instead of two. It may have novels that sell 5,000 copies as well as novels that sell 45,000 copies. It may be more receptive to new authors or it may be willing to give a writer five books to grow on instead of two.
A recent article in Publishers Weekly illustrated this very well. In “Smaller Presses, Bigger Authors,” reporter Rachel Deahl writes, “…the definition of the midlist author has changed. A number of agents and publishers interviewed said when editors at the big houses look at the sales performance of an author’s last book in considering acquiring that author’s new book, the number they need to see is bigger than it used to be.”
She reports a rumor that “a publisher at one of the major houses told his staff” they couldn’t buy any writers whose books sold fewer than 50,000 copies. When I came into the business, books with those numbers belonged in spot #2. Other people she interviewed put the actual number between 25,000 to 30,000, and some put the number for a hardcover at 20,000.
At the moment, midlist writers whose books sold 10,000 copies in hardcover (once considered respectable) have trouble selling another book—to any major publishing house.
This, of course, will change. The biggest constant in publishing is change. I suspect that as the recession eases, those numbers will come down again (because the high numbers are unsustainable).
But at the moment, midlist writers have gone through a bloodbath in major publishing. Countless writers did not get new contracts because they no longer had time to grow their name. Even worse, in my opinion, are the series books in mystery, fantasy, and science fiction dropped because the series wasn’t growing fast enough. Note how I stated that. The series was growing—sales increased with every book— just not at the arbitrary number some bean counter in accounting established for a “successful” growing series.
A number of editors got caught flat-footed on that last development, because the editors promised their midlist writers that there would be a new contract, and then couldn’t come through with it. The editors were surprised—in the past, writers with a growth in sales (no matter how small) were considered successful enough to warrant at least another two-book contract. But that changed in this recession. Unless that changes back, several publishing houses will begin to cut imprints, because you can’t make bread-and-butter profits without successful bread-and-butter books.
(Some of those houses also dropped the books in spots #5 and #6 off their list for the same reason—not enough profit. Watch. In the next few years, those small books will return, because they provide the earnings foundation for imprints themselves.)
Why am I so sure this will change over time? Because Big Publishing companies tend to follow a pattern: they experiment in an attempt to improve their business, give the experiments three to five years to work, and then if (when) those experiments don’t work, they try something else.
That something else is hitting the publishers sideways. It’s the growth of e-books. And because Big Publishers have declined to publish so many midlist writers, Big Publishing has lost a huge potential revenue stream.
It’s a stream that midlist writers can exploit themselves.
Because, as a dear friend of mine said to me earlier this month, those of us with familiar names, a built-in audience, and well-loved books/series/stories are in the catbird seat. We’re the ones who will benefit the most from the changes in publishing.
And next week, I’ll tell you why.
Since this is my last business post of 2010 (!), let me take a moment to thank all of you who’ve read, commented, e-mailed, shared, or donated to this series. I appreciate all that you’ve done. Thanks for reading this and being such an active part of this blog.
“The Business Rusch: Midlist Writers” copyright 2010 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.