The Business Rusch: More About Midlist Writers
(Changing Times Part Thirteen)
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Two weeks ago, I promised you that I’d tell you why midlist writers will benefit the most from the changes in publishing that we’ve been discussing. Last week, I stepped out of the model to discuss the rapid change that happened over the holidays and this week, I am refraining from discussing the possible loss of a wonderful indie bookstore (LA’s Mystery Bookstore). Rapid change continues, so those of you in publishing should read the trade journals every single day. (For example, check out the cool changes in university publishing here.)
But I don’t want to leave you hanging. I ended that first post on midlist writers on what we in the trade call a cliffhanger. Then I used thriller writer techniques and moved to a completely different section to distract you. Now I’ve returned. (And yes, I know, thriller techniques really don’t belong in nonfiction, but I ran out of space.)
If you haven’t read the previous post on midlist writers, please do so now. In that post, I explain what the midlist is and why it will never disappear.
I also said that midlist writers will benefit the most from the changes in publishing.
Remember the publishing business model? The one I discussed in the second post in this series? Until electronic publishing, online bookstores, and rapid print-on-demand publishing made their impact all of two years ago, the only viable way for a writer to get her books to readers was this:
Writers provide content (product) to Publishers.
Publishers distribute that content to Distributors.
Distributors distribute books to Bookstores.
Bookstores distribute that content to Readers.
Writers had to work within that model unless we wanted to tour the country and schlep our books with us, selling them out of the trunk of our cars. John Grisham actually tried that with his first novel, A Time To Kill, and discovered that “selling books was more difficult than writing them.” (Dedication to Ford County Stories, Dell, 2010)
Writers depended on publishers to sell the books. Sometimes publishers did a good job. Sometimes they did a terrible job. And sometimes bad luck hit. Bad luck, in publishing terms, is called “a book from hell.” There’s nothing wrong with the book itself, but everything in the production goes awry, and no matter how hard anyone tries to fix it, it doesn’t get fixed.
I have one spectacular book from hell story for my novel Hitler’s Angel, which I recounted here on my blog when Max Crime in England released a new version of the book (and did the publishing right). You can see that here. If you’re a writer, you probably have your own book-from-hell story or you know many other writers who do.
Sometimes writers’ careers survive despite the adversity. Look at the original cover for my first book in my fantasy series, The Fey: Sacrifice. The art is terrible. Bantam Books slotted the book as a midlist build, so didn’t have the budget to redo the cover. Instead, they put all the weird graphics around the crappy piece of art, got a better artist for the second book, and did the best they could to salvage a bad situation. Bantam did just fine: they saved the series and it went for its scheduled five volumes.
But that was a different publishing environment. I have no idea if the series would have continued today after that terrible-cover debut. Remember how I mentioned series get canceled by Big Publishing now if the growth isn’t big enough? Big Publishing is cutting its losses pre-emptively, and that will hurt the bottom line down the road.
However, in this post, we’re not concerned with Big Publishing’s bottom line. We’re concerned with midlist writers.
And because of all of the things I discussed in the previous midlist writer post, midlist writers have been buffeted by Big Publishing for as long as there’s been Big Publishing and midlist writers. An open-ended series, like mystery novels, which feature the same characters but have stand-alone stories, will end abruptly after two or three books, just as the readers are discovering the series. A romance writer, publishing linked books (in which a group of friends meet their significant others, each book covering a different friend), might see only two of the five planned linked books published, leaving the other stories untold.
Worse, I think, are the three-book fantasy series, in which the story doesn’t end until you get to the third book, with books one and two ending on cliffhangers like my last midlist column. The publisher, seeing that book two didn’t live up to expectation, cancels book three and tells the writer to keep the advance.
That’s all well and good for the writer’s finances, but up until the recent changes in publishing, the writer was left explaining her publisher’s stupid decision to readers who want to finish the story. Meanwhile the writer would search in vain for a new publisher. Twenty years ago, a midlist fantasy writer could move from, say, Bantam to Daw in the middle of a continuing series. But in the distribution collapse in the late 1990s (discussed briefly in my earlier posts), publishers stopped being willing to take on anything except a guaranteed bestseller.
So publishers would try to poach a bestselling fantasy author away from his previous publisher with an offer of more money and even better promotion, but the same publisher wouldn’t take a growing series cut off at the knees by the original publisher.
Why? Because the bean counters in Big Publishing don’t understand how essential slow growth is to the book industry. (When Big Publishing got overrun by Big Business, which focuses on short-term profits at the expense of steady growth, this change became all-pervasive. It’s one of the many things hurting Big Publishing at the moment. Remember, however, Big Publishing will change. It always does.)
I make it sound here like mistakes that the publisher makes are the only reason midlist series end prematurely. They’re not. In fact, the primary reason these series end early is because of the writers themselves.
I’m going to gloss over the main reason a series doesn’t sell well because it’s not relevant to our discussion, but I am going to mention it at the risk of being pilloried. The main reason that a series doesn’t sell well is that the series isn’t very good. If the series declines significantly after the first book, it’s because the majority of readers didn’t like that first book and don’t want to buy the second.
The best advertisement for a writer’s work is the writer’s work. If the writer’s work is mediocre, then the work won’t sell well. Remember, publishing works on a book-by-book basis—and that includes readers. If readers don’t like the first book, they’re certainly not going to spend their hard-earned dollars on the second book, no matter how much promotion that second book gets.
Ah, promotion. This is the second primary way that midlist writers kill their own careers. The writers go out and do heavy promotion on their books. Promotion, done at the wrong time, is a career-killer.
If the writer does a lot of promotion on her first novel, going to fifty bookstores, and jacking up sales artificially, then is unable to spend the money to do the same level of promotion on her second sale, the writer will make her sales numbers go down. What happens to a midlist writer whose sales go down? Her series gets canceled. Her third book might never even see print.
Writers who do extensive self promotion of their Big Publishing novel create havoc. It’s even worse if the writer is a good salesperson. A good salesperson in a bookstore setting will convince a bypasser to buy a book she wouldn’t normally buy and she might never read. If that book is the first book in a series, then that sale is wasted. If the writer does that repeatedly for her first book, she sells her book to readers who would never ever buy another book by that writer.
This is such a destructive pattern and it has become so prevalent that my current romance publisher mentions in their promotion letter to authors new to the publishing house that the house does not recommend doing a lot of booksignings unless the publishing house itself plans them. If the publishing house plans them, then the writer isn’t midlist (at least on this book). See the previous post.
The interruption of series in the midlist happens all the time. Readers know that. They haunt bookstores, trying to find the next book that never comes. They search for the books in the series that they missed, and they often write angry letters to the author, begging the author to continue the series.
Until the recent changes in publishing, continuing that series was out of the author’s control. Usually, the author couldn’t continue the series because no other publisher would buy it. (This depends on genre: in mystery, specialty presses sprang up to solve this very problem. The presses published the next book in a midlist series—at a significantly smaller advance and with promotion only inside the mystery field itself. In romance, the author was encouraged to change her name and try again with a new series. In science fiction/fantasy, the writer often continued the series in the large short fiction market.)
In the last fifteen years, editors started to talk about the “natural life” of a series. The series would run four, five, six volumes, and then the sales would drop off, and the series would get discontinued. In these cases, the fault was usually not the writer’s, but the fault of the publishing house itself. The midlist series didn’t make enough money to warrant a cover redesign or a new push to bring in new readers. So only the readers of the previous books bought the series. If a reader didn’t see the book for the few months it was in the chain bookstore, then that reader didn’t buy that book, and sales decreased. Once sales decreased, well, you now know how that works.
The “natural life” of a series is hogwash. Back when publishers supported midlist series, series went into ten, twenty, even thirty volumes. Ed McBain published the influential 87th Precinct series for decades before the series ever got close to a bestseller list. The series ran for forty years and stopped only with his death. John D. MacDonald’s highly popular and highly influential Travis McGee series started at the low end midlist series and took more than a decade to hit any bestseller list. Many popular and well remembered science fiction and fantasy series were also midlist books, supported by their publishers.
Because of the previous changes in publishing—the decline of the distribution network, the emphasis on bestsellers, the increased focus on big profits—publishers no longer had time to slow-grow anything, including a series. Readers didn’t change their habits. Publishers did.
And that left readers in the lurch. Readers would fall in love with a series or an author and would be unable to find new books by either. Writers who weren’t nimble suffered as well. They tried to sustain their series and were unable to sell it or they refused to get a pen name. They refused to start new series or to write books in a new genre. And their careers ended.
The “death” of the midlist wasn’t the death of a booklist at all, but career “death” of writers who got discouraged and quit because publishing had become excessively hard.
Do I blame Big Publishers for the death of so many dreams, so many careers, so many wonderful books? I wish I could, but I understand too well what caused these losses.
Full disclosure here: I have had four series that struggled at one point or another. One got canceled because I was stupid and made a bad business decision. (I listened to my agent at the time who swore that the publisher wouldn’t buy the next book. Instead of checking that statement, making the agent mail the book anyway or trying with some other publisher, I figured the agent knew best. Whoops. Years later, the editor told me she would have bought the book if she but had the chance. Lesson learned.)
Another series got canceled because…I don’t know why. No one ever gave me a reason and sales on the titles were just fine. New editor? New plans at the publishing house? Something I did? I don’t know.
A third series got canceled because it wasn’t growing fast enough. And the fourth got canceled despite glowing reviews and growing sales because the sales force had no idea how to market the series (and that’s why they decided not to continue).
I could easily be angry about these. Most writers are when this happens to them. But I’ve owned businesses, and more to the point: I’ve owned publishing businesses. I understand all sides.
Publishers have an in-house sales threshold per genre below which no book—no matter how good, no matter how beloved, no matter how acclaimed—will survive. At some point, the book simply does not repay its investment. Go back to my posts on Big Publishing. Their overhead is mighty. That sales threshold is the price writers pay for getting into the large distribution system.
Or the price writers used to pay, anyway.
Because established midlist writers can now distribute books on their own, at the same numbers as Big Publishing did (for the midlist: remember we’re discussing the midlist), and make more money, keep the books in print, and slowly grow audience.
This fact is what has J.A. Konrath and so many other midlist writers excited. Books and series that seemed long dead can be revived and, even better, can breathe new life (and new income) into a long-lost career.
For those of us with on-going careers, things look even better.
First, let me be clear about what I’m discussing. It’s relatively easy now for a established midlist writer to publish her own book electronically. Sure, she has to do a cover, convert to the proper e-format, and find someone to copyedit. But the enterprising midlist writer can publish her electronic books herself.
And with minimal effort, she can also publish a print-on-demand copy through CreateSpace or Lightning Source and, with minimal investment, have the book show up on Amazon.com. (It takes a greater investment to show up in other markets, but can be done. More on that next week.) Suddenly, a writer who has a completed series book (say, Book Four in a seven-book series) can publish it, distribute it worldwide, and encourage her fans to find it.
Will the book sell the same number of copies that it sold out of a Big Publishing house? Initially, no. But midlist writers who self-publish don’t have to work on the produce (or velocity) model. The book can—and should—stay in print for years.
So…will the book sell the same number of copies that it sold out of a Big Publishing house? Eventually, that book will sell more copies than it would from Big Publishing. A writer can measure her sales over years instead of over the few short months that Big Publishing uses. And there’s another aspect to this.
Weirdly (and I mean weirdly. There’s no business sense to this), Big Publishing often takes early books in a series out of print before the next book in that series appears. Let’s assume the series is a loosely related one like a mystery series, with the same detective and supporting cast, but with a stand-alone story. Reader A discovers this series on book four, loves book four, and wants to read all the books that come before it. In the past, Reader A had to troll used bookstores and online stores like bookfinder.com to find an earlier book in the series.
If the publisher only sold 10,000 copies of book one, and half of the readers of book one kept their copies, only 5,000 copies appeared on the secondary market. If the same numbers hold—half of the book’s readers keep the volume—eventually, the number of copies available will be 2500, then 1250, and so on. That is why so many used copies of early books in a series will sell on Amazon or Alibris for hundreds of dollars. It’s because the books are so scarce, no one can get their hands on a copy—and the publisher never reprints.
It’s not worthwhile for the publisher to reprint 500 copies of a title if those 500 copies don’t sell in the first month. Remember, Big Publishing works on speed of sale as much as size of sale.
But now, midlist writers can—with little or no upfront cost—keep that book in print. And those five hundred readers who buy over the space of a year will recommend the book to their friends and will encourage five hundred more readers, who’ll encourage five hundred more—all of whom will read through the rest of the series, and then buy the latest book when it comes out.
If that new book comes out of a Big Publishing house, it will look like the midlist writer had a series with explosive growth. But really, that growth just built slowly.
Here, however, is where the math gets tricky.
Remember that when a writer partners with Big Publishing to sell a book, the writer only gets about 10% of the retail price of that book. (To find out how I come to that number, look here.) Let’s say the book sells (in all venues, electronic and paper) for $6.99. The writer gets 69 cents of every copy sold. Big Publishing sells 10,000 copies. Eventually the writer will get $6,900, probably spread out over a few years.
Now let’s assume the writer published the book herself. Because she can’t advertise as well and she doesn’t go into the big accounts as easily, she only sells 5,000 copies of that book in the first year. She prices it at $4.99, lower than Big Publishing would, and of that, she gets 70% or $3.49. Over the space of that year (not years), she would get $17,465—and the book would stay in print for the following year. (Meaning she’d make more money the next year.)
Looking at the sales figures of self-published writers on Kindle, it’s not realistic to expect 5,000 sales on a single title in the first year of publication. Most books from successful self-published writers seem to average about 1,000 copies over the space of a year. Same price, same math — 1000 copies at $4.99, 70% of which goes to the writer. So she’s earning $3,490 in that first year—less than she’d get from Big Publishing. Until you factor in this: the book is part of a series. The series is growing. The book will remain in print, and chances are, it will sell the same number of copies—or more—in the following year. But let’s assume the sales remain the same. She’ll see $3,490 in year two and $3,490 in year three—and suddenly, she’s earned more money than she would have earned from Big Publishing. She’s building readership and the book is still in print.
In the Big Publishing scenario, this book will have earned for the writer $6,900 over ten years, the bulk of the earning in the first few months. No reprints, no reissues. In the self-publishing scenario, this book will have earned for the writer $34,900 in ten years with no growth at all, and the book will still be on sale. Granted, that $34,900 will be spread over the entire ten years, but we must assume that our midlist writer is writing other books and they’re also earning. Suddenly, we’re looking at game-changing money for midlist writers.
And in that ten-year period, the writer will have sold 10,000 copies of her book on her own, just like Big Publishing did before it took the book out of print. (Probably in year two) So the writer makes roughly five times the money for the same number of sales—and here’s the bonus—her readership continues to grow. Plus, the writer gets to continue writing what she wants to write—her series, the way she wants to write it.
See why so many established midlist authors are wondering what they’re getting out of Big Publishing these days?
It’s a valid question, and since we’re out of space, one that we’ll explore next week.
“The Business Rusch: More About Midlist Writers” copyright 2011 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.