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...

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.

Questions? 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.


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.


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.

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.


Anonymous said...


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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Anonymous said...

Great post adding to my understanding of the term midlist.

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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."