MARY ANN NAPLES
The Creative Culture (literary agency)
I don’t use the term “midlist.” To me, it is one of those terms that are used by people not working in publishing (or at least not working as an editor or an agent) that sets up ridiculous divisions that enable the media to make unfair generalizations about what we do.
It seems to be true that many, many books published these days have first printings below 15,000 copies. This is our reality. But behind each of those books there is an editor, an agent, and, of course, an author, who believe that the book can sell many more copies. We go into this believing that our books can strike a chord with readers and the culture, and that if the right things happen for said book, then it can take off. I don’t think that editors and agents are so jaded that when we sign books up, we believe we are signing up “midlist” books—books that will never grow in sales past a certain point. So I guess I am saying that midlist seems, to me, to be a retroactive term, one that can be applied once all the dust has settled and the book in question has either taken off and sold lots of copies or has languished and everyone is looking for someone to blame.
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LITERARY AGENT (ANONYMOUS #1)
My feeling is that the term is a holdover from a previous era in publishing, one in which midlist truly was the backbone of the industry. There was no pejorative connotation. In fact, I think the term "midlist" acquired its negative associations precisely because the word became hopelessly irrelevant and useless in describing a bookwith a certain level of sales, neither corporate-bottom-line-altering nor hopelessly four-digit.
The reason is that, today, the effort it takes to publish a "midlist" book is the effort it takes to publish a "top of the list" book. What I mean is that nobody can possibly hope to sell 15,000 copies of a hardcover novel -- by a debut author or one who's less than a brand name -- without spending the kind of marketing and promotional dollars one would associate with a lead title. In the last few years, I've had several novels get the real "big book" treatment from their publishers -- expensive marketing and advertising campaigns (let's say at a minimum cost of $75,000 and probably more like $100K+), printings from 30-50,000 copies, etc. -- all of which ultimately sold between 12-15,000 copies. And even though nobody was pretending, in each of these cases, that the sales numbers demonstrated any great success in the marketplace, in terms of establishing an author and making waves, the net results are that all of the authors are probably ones you've now heard of, unless you don't do much reading of contemporary fiction. Interestingly, all of them, without exception, have gone on to bigger and better deals for their future works (for the most part with the same publishers that made the efforts in the first place). Because what all those dollars bought were industry and bookseller attention, resulting in things like PW First Fiction picks, Book Sense picks, healthy piles of reviews, strong foreign market rights sales, etc. In other words, the money bought buzz, buzz which traveled from the industry to the general public (or at least the somewhat committed reader portion of that public), buzz that made the authors desirable and valuable commodities within the strange universe that istrade publishing -- but the buzz didn't really buy sales, or at least the kind that would have substantiated the money spent.
All of which underlines my point: to get solid "midlist" numbers, you have to publish in, if not the biggest way possible, certainly the next closest thing. Which means that the word, as used to describe books that sell 15,000 hardcovers or so, is past its expiration date. I'm not sure what word we can use to describe these books, but it does tell me that the old idea of midlist as books you love and publish and hope to get attention for, but that aren't going to get marketing dollars, is as moribund as the term itself.
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LITERARY AGENT (ANONYMOUS #2)
Descriptions of the term have always struck me as disingenuous. The first definition I remember hearing applied to authors who sold in the 25,000 copy or less range. Some other usages seemed to suggest that it applied to authors who sold in the five figures. Huh? A net 60,000 hc sale is big stuff, seems to me. I think the term "midlist" was most often tossed around by people who believed the first print announcements they saw in PW. An announced 25,000 print means an actual of about 7,500, right?
Your 15,000 figure makes sense, though I might want to say about 90 percent of authors would meet that definition. I think all it means today is an author who is not hitting a national bestseller list. So yes, the term is out of date. It belongs to an era when our P&Ls posited routine 25,000 copy hardcover sales followed by a 3x trade paper reprint. Rather than a public relations campaign, I think it needs burial in a pine box, no obit. Why? First, because when people say "midlist" what they really want to say is "bottom of the barrel." Second, because absolute numbers mean nothing in this business. A clean net sale of 25,000 hardcovers could be a considerable triumph for a first timer with low expectations, or a disaster for the next book by David McCullough. The number should not carry a label with it. I think people should be clear that we are talking "majority list" here, not midlist, and that the threshold number separating those with routine publishing experiences from with breakout possibilities has to be around 20,000 copies first year hc net. Above that, things can start to happen. Below that, and you're getting the routine print-stock-ship-and-move-on treatment from your publisher. Of course, everything is relative to expectations.
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PRACTICAL MARKETING [Courtesy Zornhau, 2005]
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