'Does a rose by any other name....' Further considerations of the malodorous connotations of the term "Midlist"
The very first response came from Daniel Menaker, longtime New Yorker editor and currently Executive Editor-in-Chief of the Random House Publishing Group.
I’d love to know your thoughts on the term “midlist”—partly because I think it’s a term that has an unfairly pejorative connotation, which, in turn, perhaps fuels misconceptions about the realities (even today) of the vast majority of the titles that are published today.
If, for instance, we were to define midlist as books for which the (actual) first printing is less than 15,000--and in my opinion a considerable majority of first printings fall into that category--then mightn’t it be argued that midlist publishing still, in some way, constitutes something like the back-bone of publishing? Or is it, in fact, our equivalent of the Mendoza Line?
I’m thinking the term is in need of a public relations campaign… I would love to hear any thoughts you have, including, even, what you see as the category’s first-print parameters.
DANIEL MENAKER: I’ll expose my ignorance and say that the only thing I know about the Mendoza Line is that it sounds like cocaine jargon. If midlist publishing refers to books that go out at 15 k or less, then the situation resembles what it was at Starbuck’s until recently, in which the smallest coffee you could get was a “tall.” Is there a term for lower-than-midlist books? What would it be? Hypolist? Lowlist? Teeny-tiny books?
Publishing seems to me at a point where it wants to be (and to some extent, for the time being, anyway, is managing to be) increasingly “hit-driven.” The trouble is that as with movies, there is no way to guarantee that the key to the ignition of the hit you’re trying to drive will actually turn and the engine will start. So I’m not sure about ["midlist as"] backbone—to rather violently switch metaphors in mid-paragraph—but I do think that books that go out at less than 15k do and will continue to function as stem cells that can and occasionally do develop into those fully formed organisms called bestsellers. And even when they don’t but receive wide critical acclaim or add in some significant way to our culture of letters, they add luster and pride to the house that publishes them and may help to attract new hitdrivers to that house.
We all have to continue to publish such books, it seems to me, and do so with pride and with as much imagination--which is not the worst substitute for a big marketing budget--as we can, in the hope that, unless what appears to be a recent change in reading and book-buying habits becomes permanent, eventually more readers will rediscover the joy of discovery. If you and your readers will visit the website of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a Random House writer and author of “Fooled by Randomness,” you will find a number of brilliant analyses of the phenomenon of outlier events, one of which is, for instance, the emergence of this or that movie star, and another of which is the surprise bestseller.
Yes, I think a useful first-print-run definition of midlist books is 15k or less.
"Writing is considered a profession, and I don't think it is a profession. I think that everyone who does not need to be a writer, who thinks he can do something else, ought to do something else. Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness. I don't think an artist can ever be happy."
PRACTICAL MARKETING [Courtesy Zornhau, 2005]
"They should put the 1st couple of pages up in subway adverts. Having read them several times, you'd feel compelled to try the book - if it was any good."
PLATE OF SHRIMP [Courtesy Alex Cox’s REPO MAN, circa 1984]
"A lot of people don't realize what's really going on. They view life as a bunch of unconnected incidences and things. They don't realize that there's this like lattice of coincidence that lays on top of everything. I'll give you an example, show you what I mean. Suppose you're thinking about a plate of shrimp. Suddenly somebody will say like "plate" or "shrimp" or "plate of shrimp" out of the blue, no explanation. No point in looking for one either. It's all part of a cosmic unconsciousness."
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