Tuesday, January 11, 2005

The Tortoise and the Hare...In Which We Attempt To Rehabilitate the Term "Midlist"

Recently I've been thinking about the term “midlist.” What does the word mean? What characteristics does a midlist title possess? Is a book born a midlist title, or does it become one, retroactively? Is membership determined by the size of the first printing? by the net sale? If an editor pays $250,000 for a book, can it, under any circumstance, be deemed a midlist title? Why is the term "backlist" viewed so favorably, when the connotations of "midlist" are so all-fire nasty? At what point did the word acquire such...smelliness?

Seems there's no insult more insulting than being characterized as a midlist author... But why? When did the term cease to mean "dependable seller" (similar in this way to "backlist"), as it had for generations? And is there any hope of "rehabilitating" the term, giving it a make-over, a face-lift--of returning to it, if not glory, then at least a modicum of its former dignity?

Hopeless, you say? [Yes, a lot of you do...More posts on this subject to follow.] I say, maybe not. Let us consider the parable of the Tortoise and the Hare...

THE HARE
I buy a stunning literary debut from Nicole Aragi for $175,000. There is much in-house enthusiasm. The author is young, smart, leggy and well-connected. Her book garners glowing blurbs from Ann Beattie, Emily (but not Charlotte) Bronte, and Rick Moody. It gets rave reviews in EW, People and USA Today--but a blah book report (errr, review--sketchy plot summary + curious commentary on dubious issues of grammar...) from Janet Maslin, and NO ANNA QUINDLEN ENDORSEMENT. There was only one printing, 14,300 copies in total; a net hardcover sale of 7900; and another opportunity (still t.k.) to pick up additional readers in the forthcoming trade paperback.

In the post-mortem, how do I grade this performance? how do I spin it? Well. It's not easy to drop into casual conversation phrases like "a memorable debut," but it can be done. Then I shrug knowingly--conveying factors that were outside the realm of my control--and explain that we gave it a genuine front-list push, generated lots of buzz, lots of good will for the author, et cetera. "It just didn't quite catch fire. " Another shrug, Tony Soprano-style--whattaya gonna do? Then I declare my passion for the writer, my determination to make hay with the paperback, and to start all over again with the next book...

We lost money, yes, but--hey, literary fiction's a tough racket, and we did a respectable job of setting the table for an author whose star is only going to continue to rise. (Next time around, though, the advance'll be a bit lower...)

THE TORTOISE
Another literary agent, Emma Parry, calls me up, says she's got this wonderful work of narrative nonfiction by an unknown historian, a book about a somewhat obscure 18th-century mesmerist. Sounds small, I say (to myself), but Emma has a good eye for this sort of thing, and convinces me that the guy has cured himself of the dread palsy of the academic writer, so I say, Sure, I'd like to take a look. And she's right, it's good. The author's not at Oxford or Harvard--try Boise State--but he's written an impressive book about a fascinating character whose life intersected with all sorts of Important Characters. Three publishers offer, but at a lower level than Emma is accustomed to; and eventually we settle on an advance of $50,000.

The timing gets screwed up--he'd committed to teach summer school when the book is published; and, smart though he is, he's neither got Clark Kent looks nor a charismatic personality. [Memo to self: talk to Au. about his comb-over.] Publicity opportunities, subsequently, are limited, but the book is nicely, broadly reviewed. Nonetheless, we're mildly surprised to hear that the NYTimes will be reviewing it, then terrified when we discover that it's Michiko Kakutani who's chosen it. But she gives it a thumbs up, and a nicely blurbable quote for the front cover of the paperback. It caps off a satisfying if modest publication.

At post-mortem time, we review the numbers. The first printing (of 7200 copies) is followed by three more; at the end of the day we've shipped 13,200 and netted 8600. With a trade paperback to follow. The author plans to write another book; with his teaching load it'll be three years at least before he delivers; but the experience is a good one, and we give him a raise to what we'll euphemistically call "high five figures."

So how do I talk about this one? Well, naturally, I describe My Guy as the next Simon Schama. But set aside the hyperbole a moment, and the answer's simple: what we've got, in this case, is a classic midlist success story.

Questions? Comments?

63 comments:

Anonymous said...

Oh, Max...I'm still kvelling over that book. It was neither hamhanded nor flatfooted. It was neither flat nor flabby. It was neither bloated nor boring. I can offer no higher praise than to say that the author really limned the shit out of his subject.

best,
Michiko

Sarah said...

Seems to me that publishing ought to take a good, hard look at this advance business. Is it like sports, where salary structure indicates supposed net worth of a player to his club? And now that those salaries are spiralling out of control, you have strikes, lockouts and salary caps. Is any author really *worth* getting a so-called major deal in the high six-figures or the million-dollar range? Why are first novelists rewarded with money just for being attractive unknowns? And at the bottom end of the scale, why would anyone be satisfied with a paltry amount if it correlates to poor in-house support?

Maybe having some kind of advance cap would be in everyone's interest. Getting a mega-advance just seems to promote failure, espec on the litfic front where backlist sales won't help promote the author as much as for bestselling suspense/thriller/romance/genre titles. And this can then go further, to change definition of what a "success" is.

It just seems that publishing bears a suspicious resemblance to something mentioned, on all places, an episode of WKRP in Cincinnati, when Gary Sandy's character finds out that Carlson's mother actually *prefers* the station to lose money, because from an accounting standpoint, it's better if some stations turn a profit and others simply do not.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I know, you'd rather here from pubfolk,hmmm, well, those in publishing, but I agree with Sarah. Cap those advances, rein in those egos. Most writers have other jobs, (I do) and most get small advances (I did) and some, (like me) spent a lot of money doing research, and now spend a lot of money doing marketing. My advance was a mere token (low four figures) but I can proudly say my books more than earned out, and the royalties still arrive twice a year. My story is reality for a lot of writers. And, when you call sales less than 10,000 good, I begin to think I must be close to a star property. Should I venture to present that idea to the next editor I contact, I'm sure it will become an amusing water cooler story.

Reams of copy about the business see the sun dimming on the publishing galaxy. Maybe so -- but matter is never lost, it just changes form. Back to Sarah: she's got the right idea -- get realistic about the business before the sun implodes or the self-published, POD and independent biz variations yet to come spin off into a new orbit.

JoAnn

Anonymous said...

I disagree with Sarah and JoAnn. Again, I'm a writer not a publisher/editor, but I don't think advances should be capped. (Yes, I also believe in supply and demand, etc., etc.). Any time you have price controls you have problems. If there was no hope that I'd make more than $XX on my first book, I may never have started writing in the first place (yes, I came into this business with a lot of delusions . . . but I've also learned that there are no rules and everything is negotiable.)

First, Max's example were literary and non-fiction. Completely different from what I write (commercial fiction). There are different rules of "literary" work -- I think publishers expect to lose money, only to recoup it when some insane college professor requires all his students to read the book or Oprah takes a shine to it.

Second, there are different reasons for offering different advances. Some authors might show more "potential" to a house -- either because of their grasp of a particularly genre or their voice or whatever. So the editor might be willing to pay more to build that author, whether or not they believe that first book will sell-through. If they see potential, they'll want to "buy" the author (with a second book and broad option, for example) because they think by the time the third or fourth book comes out, they'll be successful (i.e. making a profit).

Publishers are investors, in essense. They are making an investment in a creative commodity, similar to the patrons of the arts who supported "struggling" artists throughout the ages -- except that because publishing is a business, they need to make a profit.

Over time, a first-time author who gets a huge advance and is unable to "break out" will no longer be getting huge advances.

Either way (small or large first advances -- and let's be honest, we all have different ideas of what a "large" advance is), there are success stories for both the Tortoise and the Hare.

I view the whole deal as part luck, part skill, and a lot of perseverence. I'm glad there are blockbuster sales like Nora Roberts and James Patterson and Stephen King and Dan Brown. Why? Because those sales make the publishers money so they can take a chance on an unknown like me.

Kevin Wignall said...

Have to disagree (sorry, Sarah), but a cap on advances! This is a market and a market will find it's own level. It doesn't even matter that advances often have little link with sales - publishers pay the market rate for a given author. If someone wants to pay me six or seven figures for my work, and there are others willing to produce the same, then why on earth should I accept less? On the other hand, if the book business changes and it becomes uneconomical to pay those advances, fair enough - but that too, is in the hands of the market.

Sarah said...

Kevin, I don't know if you're actually disagreeing with me per se, but I'll just point out one thing: if the world of publishing was in line with market indications, maybe there wouldn't be as much teeth-gnashing and hand-wringing as there is.

But if someone wanted to offer me a six figure deal for my first novel? Chances are pretty damn likely I'd say yes, but I'd also want to know exactly what this would translate into and what my chances would be, realistically, of actually earning out and earning royalties at some point. Because so much of it is about "selling to expectations." Maybe the problem isn't about selling; it's about those expectations made in the first place.

Kevin Wignall said...

I think it's Andrew Wylie who says he's disappointed if any of his authors ever earn out an advance. I'd be interested to know Max's thoughts here. My feeling is that if you get a 100k advance first time round and only sell 20-30,000 books, your treatment second time round is still likely to be better than the author who was paid 20k and sold the same number of books. I agree though, that you need to find out their plans. The worst thing about the large advance is that it can induce complacency in the inexperienced author - I know the curse of which I speak!

Marjorie said...

We're overlooking an important factor here: the game of expectations.

It is much better to under-promise and over-deliver than it is to over-promise and under-deliver.Author A is positioned as a hot property with hot sales to follow (and movie options to boot!) He sells 10,000 copies and everyone is disappointed.

Author B is positioned as a risk with an "interesting" idea. He sells 10,000 copies and everyone is thrilled.

Of course, it's not quite that simple. Author A is now walking around with $$$ that is not being earned back in royalties. His next advance is paltry, but what does he care? He's frickin' rich!

Author B has mortgaged his life to pay expenses not covered by his low advance. He feels underestimated, underappreciated, and underpaid. His next book will go to another publisher who appreciates (and pays for) his genius.

Meanwhile, the editor who championed Author A is a pariah among the sales and marketing folks. And the editor who championed Author B is promoted.

But the two authors sold the same number of copies. It's all about expectations.

Marjorie
www.MomBrain.com

Anonymous said...

Kevin,

If you get a $100,000 advance and sell 20,000 to 30,000 copies, your publisher will be very pleased with you.

30,000 copies 1st year hc sales x $25 price x 13% avg royalty rate = $97,500 in royalty income.

Pile on some paperback income after year 1 and a bookclub sale and it won't be too hard to push your next advance north of $100K.

$100,000 is not a princely sum. Divided in thirds and paid out over two years, you're going to be working awfully hard for the first two years for about $33,000 less commissions and taxes.

Just a little 'rithmetic lesson and reality check from a working literary agent.

Anonymous said...

Advances seem, to me, a dicey arrangement for both publisher and author.

We rarely give advances to our authors, and when we do they are decidedly low four figures (mainly to sooth the fragile egos and virulent narcissism of academics, insofar as I can tell...) Even more rarely we give very low five-figure advances, but I can count the number of authors who get that much on both middle fingers...

As an author, asking for an advance--and especially a large one--is essentially wagering with your publisher that you can earn that money back. Yes, it's nice to have money up front, but say you get rather sizeable advances that never earn out--how long do you expect to remain a publishing author? We're simple, trusting folk book publishers, but even we know when to cut our losses on a losing prospect...

Better all around, I think, to have very modest advances (or *gasp* none at all) and let the book speak for itself in the marketplace. The best advice I ever heard an author give about advances was that you should spend every cent of your low-four figure or high five-figure advance on self-promotion and marketing your own book(s). If you do that, you might just earn out and stick around to write a third or fourth or more book and become, yes, that dependable, respectable midlist author.

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清朝美女 said...

(法新社倫敦四日電) 英國情色大亨芮孟的成人公司昨天說色情,芮孟a片下載日前部落格去世,享壽八十二歲;成人網站這位身價上億的房地產開情色電影發商,曾經a片在倫敦推出av女優色情一場脫色情衣舞情色表演。


芮孟的財產估計達六億五千萬英色情影片鎊(台幣將近四百億),由日本av於他名a片下事業大多分布部落格在倫敦夜av生活區蘇活區成人電影,因此擁有「蘇活之王」的稱號。sex


他的公司「保羅芮a片孟集團」旗下發行多種情色雜誌情色視訊,包括「Razzle成人影片」、「男性世界」以及「Mayfair」。av女優


成人光碟芮孟a片下載本名av女優a片福瑞成人影片av安東尼.奎恩,父成人影片親為搬運承包商。芮孟十五歲離開學校,矢言要在表演事業留成人網站AV片,起先表成人網站演讀心成人術,後來成為巡迴歌舞avdvd雜耍表演的製作人。
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許多評論家認為,他把情色表演帶進主流社會,一九五九年主部落格持破天荒的av脫衣舞表演,後來更靠情色著在蘇活區與倫敦西區開發房地成人電影產賺得大筆財富。av


有人形容芮孟是英國的海夫納色情a片,地位等同美國的「花花公子」創辦人海夫納。

元美女 said...

(法新社a倫敦二B十WE四日電) 「情色二零零七」情趣產品大產自二十三日起在倫敦的成人網站肯辛頓奧林匹亞展覽館舉行,倫敦人擺脫對成人網站性的保守態度踴躍參觀,許多穿皮衣與塑膠緊身衣的好色之徒擠進這項世界規a片模最大的成人生活A片下載展,估計三天展期可吸引八萬多好奇民眾參觀。

活動計畫負責人米里根承諾:「要搞浪漫、誘惑人、玩虐待,你渴望的色情我們都有。」

他說:「時髦的設計與華麗女裝,從吊飾到束腹到真人大小的雕塑,是我們由今年展出的數千件情色產品精選出的一部分,參展產品還包括時尚服飾、貼身女用內在美、鞋子、珠寶、色情影片玩具、影片、藝術、圖書及遊戲,更不要說性成人電影av女優輔具及馬術裝備。」

參觀民眾遊覽a片兩百五十多個情色電影攤位情色電影,有性感服裝、玩具及情色食品,迎合各種品味。

大舞台上表演的是AV女優美國野蠻搖滾歌手瑪莉蓮曼情色森的前A片妻─全世界頭牌脫衣舞孃黛塔范提思,這是她今年在英國唯一一場表演。

以一九a片下載四零年代風格成人電影演出的黛塔色情范提思表演性感的天堂鳥、旋轉木馬及羽扇等舞蹈。

參展攤位有的av推廣情趣用品,有的AV成人影片開展示人成人影片體藝術和人體雕塑,也有情色藝術家工會成員提供建議。

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租車公司 said...

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小吃餐車加盟連鎖「一條龍的創業模式」複製成功開店經驗
更新日期:2009/08/25 17:19

(中央社訊息服務20090825 16:19:17)大環境不景氣,工作難找,有不少人就想乾脆自己創業當老闆。為強化國內創業能量,五路財神開店總部於8月20日-9月20日舉辦「2009夢幻小餐車創業成果展」歡迎蒞臨參觀。針對國內一窩蜂創業加盟潮,餐車達人陳滌五總監提醒創業者,加盟不失為一條創業捷徑,但若選擇加盟,品牌知名度、產品獨特性及是否擁有差異化優勢就顯得格外重要。
近年來以成本低的小吃餐車最受創業者青睞。沒經驗的失業族 大部份都選擇餐車擺攤,最多人都想在創業市場闖出一片天。在台中成立的五路財神開店總部,小吃餐車用品牌方式來營運,總經理陳滌五用自己的經驗來現身說法。以國人創業首選的小吃餐車來說,如何在同質性高的市場中殺出重圍?雖然是路邊攤小餐車,營運上的重要撇步是關鍵;在企業經營戰略中,唯有領先核心競爭,保持差異化優勢才是生存之道。
陳總分享成功關鍵,「五路財神餐車與其他路邊攤最大的差異化,在於餐車外觀亮眼與眾不同的加分效果,及秉持結合好的小吃產品用品牌方式來經營的理念」。總部成立初期因觀察到傳統路邊攤想要爭得一席之地,大多考量商品創新的迷思,卻忽略創業者經營能否持久性的問題。所以五路財神餐車將傳統小吃商品,用創新工法為策略,顛覆傳統路邊攤的概念,長期下來在台灣建立起最多元品牌的餐車王國。
很多創業者最憂心沒經驗,業界首創從餐車打造、生財器具、原物料配方、技術教學、促銷廣告、開幕指導,「一條龍的創業輔導」模式,使得五路財神餐車品牌特色更為彰顯。陳總說,不景氣下小吃餐車經營是加倍艱辛,建議創業者不但要瞭解小吃經營的核心價值,凸顯產品獨特性及差異化之外還要定期和你商圈的客人互動,「好餐車、好商品、好客人」,三個好,如此才有可能成為「不敗的小吃攤」。
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A VOCATION OF UNHAPPINESS [Courtesy Georges Simenon (1903-1985)]

"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."