The Business Rusch: Midlist Writers (Changing Times Part 11)

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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

5. Tie-In

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.

33 thoughts on “The Business Rusch: Midlist Writers (Changing Times Part 11)

  1. Wow. Good stuff. Is POD viable at the cost of production? Doesn’t Amazon level the playing field with the publishers competing for space in bookstores? It’s always in stock (POD) at Amazon. Then the challenge (DIY) is promotion, driving the buyer to the product. Your thoughts on PR and POD would mesmerize me …

    1. Thanks, Mel. Yes, POD is viable for the cost of production. If you go through CreateSpace or Lightning Source, you get charged per book shipped. So if you don’t do anything silly and order 1000 for yourself, you’ll get charged only when they (not you) ship a sold book. There are some fees for proofs, which I suggest you pay (about $5 per proof, depending on size), and a $39 per book to get into the professional program which again I suggest you pay because it gets you distributed outside of the online stores, and that’s it. So for less than $50 (and not even that if you don’t want to do the pro program), you can have PODs of all of your books. No worries about too many copies or too few or about a big cash outlay. And more importantly, the readers who want a print edition (and right now, that’s most of them) can find one for a reasonable price.

  2. Well, Kris, I don’t know who your friends are but my friends have had a different experience over the last ten years. The interests of musicians and songwriters as a professional class have been set back, undoubtedly. Although there may be reason to hope for an indie writer, it can’t be gained from looking at the career of the post-napster musician, who gives away his recordings free to promote his concerts (in the ever decreasing number of paying venues, I might add). First of all, for now, people will pay for books because the demographic is more mature. Secondly, readings promote books, not the other way around.

    1. I think it depends on whether or not they had a career with the labels. Most of my friends are folkies or jazz musicians who couldn’t get a label deal after the first. So they’re making 10s of thousands more than they’ve ever made. Before they made nothing. Now they’re making 100K per year. But you’re right about people who had many deals with the labels. Their income went way down–much like we’re discussing with certain kinds of bestselling writers. (later posts.)

  3. Here, there are paralells between big publishing and the music business of a decade ago. By the late 90’s big box retailers were selling CD’s at a loss putting further downward pressure on prices. This forced even more independent stores out of business. With less shelf space and less promotional space available, and fewer players in the market, labels promoted fewer artists, and demanded more sales from each artist. The musical equivelant of the ‘mid list’ disapeared. This left the music companies very vulnerable to the piracy that hit them with the ‘sharing’ craze.

    All of this should look very familiar to anyone in the publishing business because it’s happening to you, now. A difference between the music business and the publishing business is that music companies can license and stream their content on a routine basis, and music artists survive now by selling concert tickets. Two things that are not true of publishing and authors.

    1. Um, no, Jason. The midlist is not going away. The economics of the music industry and the economics of the publishing industry are vastly different. The contracts are different, the way that the artists are treated are different, the amount of money it takes to launch an artist is different. It’s really not a good comparison at all, although everyone thinks it is. It’s like comparing apples and apple pie.

      The fascinating thing that happened to the music industry, the thing no one talks about in the press, is that all of the indie musicians started to make a living–a real living, not a concert living–off their downloads and music sales once the internet and mp3 players became big. Because the industries are so different (I have friends in both), I didn’t start paying attention to that until I suddenly realized my indie friends were actually moving to nicer digs, taking care of health problems they’d long neglected, and turning out more music than they ever had. That’s where the good comparison can be made–with indie musicians and (soon) indie writers. But from publishing houses to music labels? Not so much. Those Big Businesses are exceedingly different.

  4. Yes, I do. This is such a fascinating industry. All these voices. All these stories to be told. A sea of story is about to break upon us. I love film and TV, but for right now, it can’t even begin to touch publishing for the breadth and variety.

    BTW, thanks for the mention of MAKING THE LIST. I’ve almost finished reading through it. I’ve found his intros to each decade the best part.

    1. You’re welcome, Mike. And so are you, John. The introductions are great, but I had fun figuring out which books/authors I’d read as well. I’d read an amazing number of them. 🙂

  5. Kris,

    Thanks for that response.

    The idea that the in house breakeven and the advance are NOT the same is really insightful. I got my masters in accounting and worked for one of the big national accounting firms for a few years. Oh, how I wish I could plow through a number of P/L statements.

    As is the notion of speed, I’ve read yours and Dean’s comments on the produce model, but I think this discussion has finally brought it home.

    I think I can see some of where the next posts on ebooks and midlist writers are going to go. It’s seems the steady producers whose books don’t have the display of the bestsellers are going to win BIG with ebooks as the produce model begins to go away.

    Furthermore, with more choice, I believe it’s going to be like what happened when cable, sattelite, and now the internet hit TV. Except the effects will be much larger because there are still significant barriers to producing programming. Which is why we don’t have 50,000 English lanugage programs to choose from in our satellite packages. Yes, the networks still get large numbers, but nothing like the penetration they did before, when they were the only games in town. For example, there are guys in my small town “stealing” eyeballs from the networks by broadcasting the state 1A school sports games. Nobody could have ever imagined 20 years ago that Monday Night Football might have to compete with Piute vs Green River Utah.

    So if the visibility constraints are comprable, there are only so many slots in the bookstores. Only so many books can get a chance at being seen. I believe this has been a recurring point you’ve made in your posts.

    Although it seems there will still be limits. Consumers can’t sort through 6,000 – 12,000 titles in a sub, sub, sub genre. It’s like all the music singles listed on Amazon. It’s too much data. And so I still see visibility limitations and mechanisms playing a role. A huge role. But when your product never expires, it gives it so many more opportunities to be discovered. And it really allows you to build repeat business. At least, those are my thoughts.

    I’m very intersted to read the rest of your insights on this.

    1. Your thoughts are accurate, John. I mentioned some of that in my early posts–the TV model–but rising above the noise is and will be a problem. (I have a solution which I’ll mention in the next few weeks…)

      I’m glad that I’ve helped a bit with your understanding of this very strange business. Another thing to remember is that each writer’s name is a brand. So, for example, Frito-Lay has Lays Potato Chips and Tostitos and Fritos, and the subbrands in each type of chip, and those need to be marketed, and the consumer knows what she’ll get. But…in publishing, each author is a brand and sometimes each book is a brand. So instead of, say, 10K products in, say 1K brands, one publishing company may have 20,000 brands in three years, all needing to be launched, all needing special care, all very, very different. (Like toothpaste and chips and flashlights) See why it can’t be uniform?

  6. Kris,

    It’s scary to me how easy it is for publishers now to keep rights to a book FOREVER with just the right clause allowing them to do POD. ugh.

    And I look forward to future posts on this series. I’m going to be radio silent in January, but I’ll lurk. (I went into OMG-crazy-long-posting-not-working mode, and I have to quit commenting places cold turkey for awhile. lol.)

    1. Boy do I understand the lurking thing, Zoe. I try not too comment too much myself for just that reason. I hope you write a lot in January. Of fiction, that is. 🙂

  7. Thanks for this and all your posts, Kris. I just received a print copy of your “Freelancer’s Guide” – a present to myself to reread and study. This past year one of the most significant events for me was the discovery of Dean’s and your blogs. They changed my writing life and I want to thank you for sharing your knowledge. I recently published my first print story collection at CreatSpace and all the stories individually at Kindle and Smashwords. Just finished this evening, actually. And have already had sales. It’s very exciting. All the best to you and Dean for the new year.

    1. Thanks, John. I’m glad that Dean and I have been helpful. We have all this knowledge; we both feel we should share it. I’m so pleased it helps others.

      Congrats on getting the short story collection done and out–and congrats on the sales! Isn’t this new world of publishing fun?

  8. Kris,

    Love these posts. A few questions. The 10,000 hardcover hurdle you mention in the post.

    Was that just at the one rumored house? I’m assuming that’s a general ballpark, but that it varies quite a bit by imprint and house, even among the big 6, and by author.

    In fact, I wonder if that number is bogus even as a ballpark.

    I assume that publishers use the contribution margin approach when deciding which products to continue and which to drop, i.e. as long as a project is making money over its variable and fixed costs and contributing to the fixed costs and profit of the whole business unit, it’s worth keeping. If you drop a project with contribution margin, you just have less revenue to cover the broader fixed costs, which directly impacts your bottom line. So this talk of changing units sold levels really doesn’t make sense to me unless the costs for each book project have gone way way up, much faster than the revenue, and the only way to increase income is to sell more (versus reduce fixed or variable costs for the project or increase price).

    Furthermore, it seems book projects have a wide range of cost structures. I assume the big variables on book projects are advance and promotion costs, and that editing, cover, and printing costs don’t vary much with fiction projects at a given imprint. So a midlist author with a $7k advance and correlating promotion package has a far lower breakeven than does one with a $20k advance and correlating promo package.

    This means that 10,000 figure seems to be almost useless because it has no context. 10,000 might be great for one project’s cost structure. It might be terrible for another. Likewise, because imprints seem to generally produce the same types of projects, that would mean 10,000 for one imprint would be go, go, go while for another it’s a disaster.

    As far as SFF imprints go, my understanding is that a breakeven for an average $7k advance book is currently around 4,000 – 5,000 hardbacks sold. But I’ve never seen a publisher P/L statement, so I don’t know.

    Can you shed more light on this?

    As for “growing” authors/projects, are you saying that they used to keep more authors who weren’t making their breakeven even though they were growing and approaching a point where they would have some type of contribution margin at some time in the future?

    1. Thanks for the comment, John. Let me see if I can answer you.

      First of all, despite what everyone says, there is no Big Six. I have no idea who the “Big Six” are and I’m sad that that term is even creeping into Publishers Weekly blogs. It’s not an accurate term. There are many players at the big level, and not all of them are U.S. based. That’s why I use Big Publishing instead.

      It sounds like you have actual business experience in another business from the way you ask this question. Here’s the sad truth of publishing: Taking another business model and applying it to publishing does not work. So your second paragraph about the contribution margin approach is, of course, how it should work, but isn’t how it actually works in most companies.

      You are right in asking if it varies from house to house or imprint to imprint and it does. I’ve stated that many, many times. However, publishing is focused on units sold. That’s how it measures success and failure of a book. Again, if the book sells fast, makes the New York Times list and barely makes a profit (however the internal beancounters figure profit–and that varies from house to house too), then that book will be deemed “successful” while a book that sells double the number of copies for the same publisher over a year-long period of time might be considered “unsuccessful.” The second book might not go out of print, but it might, again, depending on velocity of sales over a relatively short (six month) period of time. Yes, I know that’s not logical. Yes, I know it’s confusing. That’s publishing.

      What you have to remember–always–is that big publishing is focused on speed of sales as much as number of sales. Big Publishing is designed as a produce business, so long-term sellers don’t get as much respect as rapid sellers. YA authors suffered through this disparity for years until J.K. Rowling changed the picture and made backlist sales jump for most YA fantasy writers.

      The other thing you need to know about publishing is that publishers have a frontlist (the current year’s list) and a backlist (the books that sell continually). There is a number that sends a frontlist title to the permanent backlist. Again, that changes from company to company and year to year. It’s a constant moving target. And if the imprint gets a new publisher (person), or if it merges with another imprint, those numbers might change again.

      I didn’t mean for that 10,000 number to be hard and fast. I went back and looked at my wording and saw how you can think it is. You’re asking from an sf/f perspective. What you have to realize is that in fiction publishing, sf/f is the second-lowest selling genre (Western is the lowest). So all the threshold number in sf/f, particularly for science fiction itself are significantly lower than any other genre. Honestly, when I was thinking of that 10K number, I was looking at the PW article I quoted from which focuses on the mystery genre. That number is more or less accurate for that genre.

      Again, it’s a moving target. Some genres, like the big-selling romance genre, doesn’t have many hardcovers at all. I have no idea what the sales figures are for romance hardcovers, but I suspect they’re high, simply because the hardcovers mostly (always?) go to the bestsellers in that genre. Whereas in mystery, the hardcover is the place for midlist series.

      As for advances, they don’t have to earn out for a book to be profitable. So many writers never earn out their advances but sell the next book. That’s because the previous book sold exactly as planned, and that means the advance was an accurate loan against royalties. (In other words, the advance predicts the number of copies the book sold, and the book sold that number of copies.) With deep discounts, reserves, etc, it might be years before a writer realizes that the advance earned out, or the writer might never see another dime. However, the publisher knows that the book made its (required) in-house profit.

      So…to answer the question in your last paragraph, remember that the breakeven is a number that (sadly) the writer (and her agent, if she has one) will never know. It’s an in-house publishing number, not the advance itself. What I’m saying is that in the past, publishers (in general) kept writers whose sales figures were growing. This is determined by contract, not by book. (Even more confusing, I know.) So if a midlist writer sold three books to Company A in the same contract, Company A would look at the sales figures for all three books when it came time to buy books 4-6. If none of the first 3 books made a profit, then chances are the writer would get dropped, recession or not. But if the first book didn’t make its in-house profit, the second book came close, and the third book hit the profit, then the writer would have sold another two- or three-book contract (at the same or slightly higher advance) because the writer’s sales were growing.

      In the current market (and please, remember that things will change, so I use the word “current” on purpose), a writer with that growth pattern (probably) will not get another contract. And that’s the change. Even though the company has “grown” that writer, and the writer is on the cusp of success. The growth isn’t large enough to take the risk. So instead, the company will take the same money it would have spent on that writer and instead put it into a new writer in the hopes that writer’s first three books will sell faster and grow more than the previous writer.

      I hope that makes my point a bit clearer. It’s hard to talk about this level of publishing in detail because, as you mention, it differs from company to company. I know of one mystery imprint that’s canceling series left and right, then asking the authors to change their names and start a new series to get around this. I know of one sf imprint that has moved to single-book contracts to get around this. It varies. But the truth is that it’s harder and harder to sell a low-level midlist book right now. I’ll talk about the future in the next two posts. I suspect the things that factor into a sale will change for midlist writers and change relatively rapidly (in publishing terms, that is.)

  9. I always had a “vague” sense of what the “midlist” was, but this post made the whole concept a lot more clear. I also think publishers have shot themselves in the foot because what’s going to happen is they are going to end up directly competing with all the authors they cut through ebooks. And if ebooks begin to dominate, they’re going to quickly regret a lot of those cuts, IMO.

    1. Zoe, they do regret the cuts and they don’t regret the cuts. I’ll explain that in a future post. Right now, because of the recession, houses are running on minimal staff and trying to do three times the work. Figuring out which old novels should go into e-books is slow-going because the e-book sales figures aren’t there yet. So prioritizing is tough. Of course they’ll do all the books they have still in print, and then they’ll look at books still under contract that are out of print.

      One house I know of put all of its books that were OP but still under contract in POD versions with the hopes of getting the e-versions up in a year or so. They haven’t yet gotten any (or many) of them up in e-version, just expensive POD. But they won’t release the e-rights. It’s frustrating for the writers involved. So writers, if you sell a book to NYC, make sure you add a clause to your contract that a POD version of the book does not count as an in-print version of the book. (Make sure it’s in the right place and in the correct legal language, of course.)

  10. Thanks for this series, Kris. I’m learning with every post. This fall I waded into the ebook market, and will start experimenting with print-on-demand in the New Year. It’s been interesting!

    1. You’re welcome, Linda. It’s amazing to me how hard this information is to come by. Fortunately, I had all that editing/publishing experience, and I learned all sides of the desk. A lot of this stuff no one talks about. People have to find it out bit by bit. So I’m trying to consolidate. 🙂 Congrats on getting into the e-book market, and moving toward POD. That’s the next part of this midlist section.

  11. Does the buying to net chain bookstore system figure in that “growing fast enough” either? I’m thinking of an excellent post by Holly Lisle on that issue and wonder your take on it.

    1. Good question, Megs. Yes, buying to net figures in that as well. For those of you who don’t know what that is, chain stores–for years–bought according to what sold before. So, if Novel A had 5 copies in the store, but only sold 4, then the chain would only order 4 copies of the next novel by that author. It’s a law of diminishing returns, because studies have shown that people don’t notice a single book sitting on a shelf. They really don’t notice the novel unless there are 5 copies on the shelf (or five copies of books by that author). It guarantees that an author’s sales will go down–provided, of course, that the Novel A did not sell all copies in the store. Some books sell five copies and then generate a reorder. So while it’s bad, it’s not bad for all authors universally.

      I’ve seen articles that say chains are abandoning this process, and I’ve seen some evidence of it too, because it doesn’t work for anyone.

  12. Thanks for this post, Kris. It’s a real eye opener and it’s something I can show to my boyfriend when he has questions about best seller lists. I’m one of those lucky folks who has a partner that’s 100% behind my writing and he’s always trying to figure out ways for me to be the most successful. This is something he can read and start understanding the business right along with me.

    1. You’re welcome, Amanda. I always think it’s helpful to have information, particularly for significant others. This is a tough and weird business, so the more understanding you & your family bring to it, the better you will do.

  13. Great post, Kris. I’m one of those midlist writers who is likely to get hit by the recession belt-tightening. I’m bracing for the bad news, but meanwhile I’m putting out ebooks which is good news for me!


    1. You’re welcome, Pati. And you never know–the publisher might surprise you. Just wait for the rest of this part on midlist writers, however. I think our choices have never been better, our career possibilities golden if we want to take the chance with the new tech. And I’ll be getting to that…next year. Thanks for the post.

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