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...
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...)
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.
"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."
- RANKIN ON RANKIN: Just when you thought it was saf...
- I [heart] IAN RANKIN!
- Riot Gear to the Ready
- There's No Accounting for Taste; or: "'Subjectivit...
- Did I say that? Really?
- sober dope. :-(
- Advancing the Notion of (...ahem...) Realistic Adv...
- "The Majority List": Agents Join the (Midlist) Fr...
- Hotdogs, Chickenhawks, Mustard & Cream: Two Editor...
- 'Does a rose by any other name....' Further cons...
- The Tortoise and the Hare...In Which We Attempt To...
- Holy Grail According to Max
- PAPERBACK WRITER: Vol. I of the Collected Response...
- YOUNG TURKS & OLD FARTS
- Young Turks
- Old Farts*
- "Hail the Litblogs"
- BEST OF BLANK: End-of-Year Ruminations & New Year ...
- 1. The Making of Lists
- 2. Data [Variety=Raw; Grade=Low]
- 3. Conclusions? Just As We Feared...
- 4. Industry Folk: A New Year's Wish
- ▼ January (22)