Friday, January 14, 2005

"The Majority List": Agents Join the (Midlist) Fray

THERE GOES THE NEIGHBORHOOD: Three Upstanding Agents Speak Out About the Meaning of 'Midlist,' Past & Present

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.


Jenny Davidson said...

This is all extremely interesting. And since I see that my good friend & most favorite editor Richard Nash has posted a comment below, I will confess the truth: that the first time I ever heard the term "midlist" was out of Richard's mouth. He used the term "midlisted" about an author, and it was a way of persuading me (as if I needed to be persuaded, nobody else wanted my novel anyway!) that I was better off for my first novel with a small independent publisher--well, Soft Skull, let's name names--than at a bigger and more prestigious house where they would give me a $10,000 advance and then never lift a finger to help me. And Richard was right. Soft Skull kicked ass. They set up readings, they sent out an excellent press pack, etc. etc. and basically just did right by me, including getting a UK print edition. And I hope they might have made a few dollars off the whole thing in the end too. Surely a lot of the problem has to do with inflated advances for novelists who should really be happy with 10,000-copy sales, but can't possibly earn back these crazy amounts of money with them? I call for correction in the marketplace (but let it wait till after somebody gives me an absurd amount of money for MY next novel...)

Cheryl said...

Jenny is right, there is another side to this. Vast numbers of the writers I know would probably class as "midlist" by the 15,000 copies limit (particularly if they are not being published in the US). Many of them struggle along. But I am seeing a huge explosion in numbers of small press publishing houses that produce maybe 2,000 to 5,000 copies of a book. Often these are hardcovers done using traditional printing methods - no PoD in sight. Interestingly the quality of the small press publications is often much higher than that of the books produced by big publishers, who reject good novels as being "too literary" or "too unconventional" for a mass market.

Anonymous said...

Midlist isn't a retroactive term. Publishing - as agent #2 said – is knowing how many copies you will sell and printing that many. Most books will sell less than 15,000 copies – that’s midlist. It’s not something you apply retroactively – when you overprint a book and sell less than 10,000 copies it’s not like you say: “Oh, well, I guess it was a midlist title.” You say, “oh man we fucked that up didn’t we.” Agents would help everyone if they’d be a bit more honest with their clients about the business. Not every book is a bestseller waiting to happen.

Anonymous said...

Anon at 4:24: and what do you call it when you expect to sell 15,000 copies and sell 150,000 instead? Is 'best seller' also not a retroactive term?

Anonymous said...

To Chaibat...

I understand your math and I understand your point. You're basically saying that a $100,000 advance, if considered an annual income, ain't much. And I agree. But it isn't an annual income. It's an advance on future royalties.

Writers (in general) do a lot of complaining about getting small advances, but they tend to shut up when they don't earn their advance back. Hmmmm...

I see nothing wrong with extravagant advances that earn out. It's the ones that don't that worry me – no matter how large or small.

Jenny Davidson said...

Yes, Chaibat, I completely agree with your numbers, and I'm under no illusion that a $100,000 advance for a book that may well take over a year to write is a lavish amount of money to live on for that year. And I wish you lots of huge advances in the future! But I still don't see why novelists should be guaranteed that money by publishers also trying to turn a profit, not unless enough copies of the book can be sold to make the money back. I imagine most people who'd describe themselves as novelists in the US today still make much or even most of their income from other sources: day jobs of whatever kind (including teaching), journalism, copy-editing or technical writing or ghostwriting or tutoring high school kids or whatever people are willing to pay for. (And the expense of the health insurance thing, and of other stuff like the need to plan for retirement in a country with a poor safety net for the elderly, is what makes this particularly stressful.) But this is a problem that would be better solved by the government subsidizing reasonable health insurance for everybody than by publishers continuing to pay $100,000 advances for books that will likely sell ten or twelve thousand copies.

Anonymous said...

To Chaibat:

If a guaranteed salary is what you want, perhaps you should consider either getting a job with the publisher and write as a hobby, or have a professional writing career that entails work-for-hire arrangements. There are lots of options out there for people interested in writing and earning a risk-free income (well, there is the risk of being laid-off, I guess).

Kel-Bell said...

What we believe will manifest into reality.
If a publisher believes a book will be midlist, then so shall it be.

I say DREAM BIG, and reach for the Stars!

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