Wednesday, January 12, 2005

'Does a rose by any other name....' Further considerations of the malodorous connotations of the term "Midlist"

As noted in a previous post, I've been thinking about the notion of "midlist," and recently sent out a bunch of queries to a bunch of editors and agents; and received a number of responses, which you'll find here in due course. Here's the core of my letter, followed by the first of many replies.

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.

The very first response came from Daniel Menaker, longtime New Yorker editor and currently Executive Editor-in-Chief of the Random House Publishing Group.

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.


Larry said...

When you say the term "midlist" needs a PR campaign, to whom should the campaign target? Publishers or readers? I'd say the majority of readers don't know or care what the term "midlist" means. They just want to read a book they can understand like "Da Vinci Code" or "Harry Potter", none of which I know are hardly midlist.

You're right, though, that many who hear the word "midlist" might conjure up the image of an artsy, abstract, pretentious book written by a starving, angry, obscenely literate author who gags when he/she is cornered by a Dan Brown/J K Rowlings illiterate fanatic at a writer's networking party.

And you're also correct that midlist authors are the backbone of the publishing world. But do we need to promote that image? Don't you think it would come off as a little too self important?

I would personally love to be a midlist author myself. To get published is a dream. But I don't think it's a title that I'd promote on C-Span Books.

Libertarian Girl said...


My initial reaction is: neither consumers nor publishers, but rather agents and authors. Mostly everybody in those camps is disappointed if a book doesn't ship 25/35/45,000 copies, as though the ball's been dropped--when, in fact, those numbers exceed all but a very small fraction of books published.

Ship 12,000, net 8500? Those aren't horrible numbers, providing the advance is to some reasonable degree in line with them. They're not going to buy anybody a yacht; but they will serve as a respectable showing, both when that author's NEXT book is on submission, and when the sales rep goes in to sell that next book to his accounts.

We ALL want to hit the ball out of the park, of course we do, it's human nature. Statistically, though, there are a lot more singles than four-baggers, and the wish (here) is that we recognize that swinging for the fence can, and does, have serious negative consequences... More on that later...

Chaibat said...

The Mammal approach: small litters, heavy investment. As the publisher who responded to your letter wrote: "from a business point of view you're much better off publishing one 100,000-copy seller than ten 10,000-copy sellers." So the problem with midlist is that exists. Instead of buying those ten 10,000-copy sellers, only buy one--the best one, of course!--and promote that one like an ambitious mother.

The Fish approach: ten thousand eggs, cannibalism permitted. Release as many books as possible, hoping a few will flourish. This has the added benefit that some freak mutation (read, Rowling) will emerge unplanned and take over the world. So the problem with midlist is that the advances are too high. Instead of buying ten books, buy a hundred--in no-advance, royalty-only deals.

Anonymous said...

"The Fish approach: Instead of buying ten books, buy a hundred--in no-advance, royalty-only deals..." pretty much describes independent publishing. Additional advantage in independent publishing: we're nimble enough to be able to start feeding the fish extra food when it shows signs of growing up fast.

Anonymous said...

"The Fish approach: Instead of buying ten books, buy a hundred--in no-advance, royalty-only deals..." pretty much describes independent publishing. Additional advantage in independent publishing: we're nimble enough to be able to start feeding the fish extra food when it shows signs of growing up fast.

Richard Nash

Anonymous said...

It would help everyone if we stopped calling it midlist and just went back to calling it literary fiction.

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