Thursday, January 13, 2005

Hotdogs, Chickenhawks, Mustard & Cream: Two Editors Talk Midlist


Executive Editor-At-Large, Broadway Doubleday

To paraphrase "Born Under a Bad Sign" (and isn't it wonderful that Cream is reuniting at the Royal Albert Hall?), if it wasn for midlist, I wouldn't have no list at all. Well, that's not precisely true, but it is true enough. I don't know what it says about me, but the majority of the really successful books and authors I've published started life as midlist fodder -- and sometimes just barely that. To wit: Robert Mason's CHICKENHAWK, Chuck Palahniuk's FIGHT CLUB, Walter Mosley's DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS, Irvine Welsh's THE ACID HOUSE , James Welch's FOOLS CROW, Paul Auster's IN THE COUNTRY OF LAST THINGS, David Foster Wallace's THE BROOM OF THE SYSTEM -- no sensible accountant would have looked at any of those books in their gestational period and said, "You know, I think this one's going to be a moneyspinner." Just one of many many differences between accountants and editors. Furthermore, the whole midlist-who cares? mindset scants the highly profitable activities of trade paperback editors, a lot of whose work involves careful list maintenance and below-the radar reissues that really pay off in the long run.

A story: In 1983 my friend Luann Walther, then at Bantam, gave me a tip that they were letting go a perfectly wonderful oral history of the civil rights movement by Howell Raines, MY SOUL IS RESTED, in its mass market edition. I was at Penguin and we both knew that this book could find a nice place in the high school and college adoption market. So we paid Putnam's, the original hardcover publisher, $5000 for reprint rights and off we went. That book is still in print in Penguin after twenty years and twenty reprints and I'm sure has sold well north of a hundred thousand copies.

Stick to your knitting and you eventually get a hell of a lot of sweaters.

* * *

VP & Executive Editor, HarperCollins

There are, as I see it, two different definitions of midlist. There are books that, by their very nature, represent the dreaded kind of midlist--and quite honestly, as an editor, it's this variety that I try to avoid. These are the books--and we all know them--that are often very readable, but in the end, just don't seem necessary. And I don't know any editor who wants to spend the kind of energy and time a novel demands on a book that's not necessary. Doesn't mean we don't like it--just that we can live without it.

Then there's the other kind of midlist, the kind that is necessary, but for which there might not be a huge demand. Think about a grocery store. While a grocery store might carry a great many jars of mayonnaise--everyone uses mayonnaise, and lots of circumstances call for mayonnaise--it's important to carry mustard too. Even, perhaps, in greater variety (spicy; Dijon; good ol' fashioned yellow...)--because while fewer people use mustard, those who do have a passion for it are very particular about which style of mustard best suits them. And furthermore, what would a hotdog be without mustard?

So, to twist this metaphor around somewhat unconscionably, midlist books--the good kind of midlist--are like the mustard of the bookstore. Maybe not as many people want those books as want you-know-which-book, but still, they exist--and they exist in part not because their commerce is instantly obvious, but because an editor is unable to walk away, unable to say no. Which, by the way, is what is called love--and what's meant when editors say "I have to LOVE a novel to buy it." That's not just something we say, it's true; furthermore, if I love a novel, isn't it logical to think that there's some small (or even not so small portion) of the readership who will love it too? Yes. Most definitely YES.

But how to reach them? What's the difference between a very good, freshly told coming-of-age story from the midlist and THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES? Is it marketing? Word of mouth? Does that book have something that no other coming-of-age book that was published that year have? What's the difference between a book like THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB and any other non-romance "smart women's fiction" (yes, that's how I would describe that book and NO, it's not a pejorative)--the title? That's the big question.

The optimistic me is always looking at books like the two mentioned above, and others that find their way onto the bestseller lists (THE LOVELY BONES; THE CURIOUS INCIDENT...) or even just break out of the clutter that makes up the New Releases wall at B&N (THE FAMILY TREE; LITTLE CHILDREN...). These are books that through whatever magic, are neither "literary" or "commercial"--the standard neither-fish-nor-fowl derogatory definition of midlist--and yet, they found "their" readership...and beyond.

So yes, for two reasons, the midlist is the back bone of publishing. One, because everyone needs to spice up their hotdogs, even if they don't eat hotdogs every day; and two, because you never know, one day everyone wakes up and on the very same day, has a taste for something that cries out for mustard. And then you got yourself a bestseller.


Anonymous said...

Marjorie Braman's commentary was a wonderful explanation of midlist -- one of those "aha!" moments.

Thank you for sharing,
(soon-to-be-pubbed author)

Larry said...

Here's a link to an interesting article of a midlist, anonymous writer. If you don't have a subscription, I can email you the text.

Anonymous said...

Oh, yes, the curious, even spurious, nature of those more resistant-of-definition bestsellers. Those elusive birds that refuse to be pigeon-holed.

I appreciate the need for editors to call on their love of a book in their search for the next quasi-literary bestseller. Totally with you there (may I hand sell Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty… or will the Booker people take care of that?). And it seems a virtuous stance, too; making it all the more palatable. Or is it a good fa├žade? Because, tell me… I need to know… just who is it that fell in love with Patterson’s writing? Or Baldacci’s? Or Brown’s for that matter.

But let us not cast green-eyed aspersions on the Dan Brown’s of the world. Which of us is bullshit-artist enough to pretend they wouldn’t love to be recognizable by one name? And arguably, our Mr. Brown has actually learned some craft since his largely-unnoticed appearance on the literary scene (has anyone *read* his freshman effort… I mean read the *whole* thing… before having to flush their heads in the toilet?). Certainly he has learned how to push a button or two. Can we fault him for recognizing everyman’s yearning for something at least vaguely textured? Can’t we take a page from his book?

Yes… books need to inform (and not just in the didactic), evoke…yada yada. You don’t have to convince anyone of the need for quality literature; a cultural legacy to be proud of. But let’s not fool ourselves. Authors that earn 12% percent of the year’s hardcover bestseller slots, who (greedily, she says enviously) abscond with nearly 20% of the year’s paperback bestseller slots with their backlist… let them be a lesson to us all. A model (and I mean that loosely). But if you are going to write a huge bestseller, it has to be accessible. It has to be able to reach its wormy tentacles pretty far down into Middle America, to a perhaps not-so-literate, not-so-choosy readership that appreciates not being looked down upon. Books that can be enjoyed on an airplane or a beach do have, as Mr. Brown has so ably demonstrated, an important place in this world of literature.

And which of you editors doesn’t really want to swing one out of the park? Maybe you’ll need to be more open to taking the Louisville Slugger to bat instead of feeling entitled to your romance with Old Hickory? I for one am less concerned about the smell attached to *midlist*, and would like to see some of us turn our efforts to removing some of the pejorative connotations from *commercial*, great bunch of hypocritical snobs that we are.

Oh, and … Max, dahlink… I’ll take a little spicy mustard on that hot dog, if you don’t mind.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your links. I'll add these sites to my favorite love sites.

Wendy said...

Lovely blog you haave

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."