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The Death -- or the Evolution -- of the Midlist Author?

Is the publishing crunch killing midlist authors? Or just forcing them to move on?

If you’ve ever walked around a bookstore, chances are you’ve picked up a midlist book. Midlist books take up the majority of the shelf space, filling in the gaps between bestsellers and popular books we love to hate (*cough* Twilight Saga *cough*). According to James McGrath Morris over at the Huffington Post, though, e-books are killing midlist authors everywhere, rearing their ugly, easily read e-ink heads to take chunks out of the reader-bookstore relationship. Fortunately, the slow death McGrath Morris predicts may never come to pass, if e-books and e-rights are handled with care. In fact, e-books could well be the savior of the midlist book, perhaps even the writing life itself.

Midlist books are exactly what they sound like -- the middle sellers, middle catalog books that make up the bulk of a publisher’s output. If you imagine publishing as a cake (as I often do), bestsellers are the frosting, midlist books are the cake itself, and poorer, unpopular books are the burnt bottom crust. Midlist books are the titles which sell well (10,000 - 20,000 copies), their authors the arguably lucky folk who make their living writing, though many still need to supplement their income with day jobs.

(Full disclosure: I am, for the most part, pro e-book (the iPhone Peter Rabbit app still freaks me out). I have a kindle, and I’ve been reading Project Gutenberg downloads since my first taste of the internet, back in the '90s.)

Authors, contrary to popular belief, do not laze around all day thinking up stories, or sit at keyboards tapping away as The Next Big Thing flows unhindered from their fingers. Publishers don’t throw them giant book launch parties, and their sales information isn’t always as forthcoming as they’d like. In 2004, Salon.com posted an article by a midlist author known only as Jane Austen Doe, detailing the difficulties of life as a not-quite bestseller.

From Doe’s piece:

In the 10 years since I signed my first book contract, the publishing industry has changed in ways that are devastating -- emotionally, financially, professionally, spiritually, and creatively -- to midlist authors like me. You've read about it in your morning paper: Once-genteel "houses" gobbled up by slavering conglomerates; independent bookstores cannibalized by chain and online retailers; book sales sinking as the number of TV channels soars. What once was about literature is now about return on investment. What once was hand-sold one by one by well-read, book-loving booksellers now moves by the pallet-load at Wal-Mart and Borders -- or doesn't move at all.

If that’s not disheartening enough, here’s James Kirvin’s 2002 take (via the Salon piece):

Publishing today is a business, dominated by stockholders and profit margins, run entirely according to the hard, cold numbers. Investors in the major megacorporations that own nearly all of the New York majors want profit, and lots of it. In a business that traditionally makes maybe 4-6 percent profit in a good year, today's stockholders are demanding 15-18 percent. Gone are the days when a publisher could nurture a writer with potential through several lackluster efforts. Today's editors can't afford a single flop.

Since 2004, the situation has grown yet more dire. With the exception of children’s publishing, numbers are down across the board, and publishers are scrambling to make do, struggling to get a foot in the door of the new digital domain and cement their rights lest they go the way of the music industry. Advances are lower, print runs smaller, promotion almost non-existent. As print media fights the good fight (and dies the slow death), midlist reviews, once fairly common, are dwindling, replaced by blog reviews which, while useful, simply don’t pull the same numbers or respect as their print counterparts (yet). Authors and publishers are each looking for a savior, a game changer, a way to have their cake and eat it, too. And they may have found one: the e-book.

Saviors are notoriously hard to recognize, often greeted with disdain. The Gutenberg press? Met with disdain by the nobility and the Pope. The industrial revolution? Bad, bad, bad, let’s destroy the machinery. But e-books offer the industry a chance to reassess and start afresh, for us to move beyond older standards and ideas and rewrite the way we think of publishing economics in general. And it’s understandable that the industry is afraid. The 1979 Supreme Court ruling on Thor Power Tool Company v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue changed publishing economics for the worse -- and was the beginning of the end for midlist authors (to read more about the case and its ramifications, check out this SFWA article by Kevin O’Donnell Jr.).

What’s so great about the e-book? Much as I hate to say it, the iPad. Prior to Apple’s iBookstore, Amazon had set a 9.99 price cap on e-books, the source of much griping from publishers. Apple has, however, changed things up by offering houses the chance to sell books under the agency model.

Pre-iPad, most e-books were sold on Amazon, via the wholesale model -- i.e., the publisher sells the book to Amazon, then Amazon sells it to the reader. As the retailer, Amazon then set the price -- $9.99 with their cap -- taking a loss to corner the e-book market and, to many houses’ chagrin, setting up an expectation amongst readers that all e-content should be cheap. In contrast, the agency model cuts out the middle man, setting the publisher up as seller. This means the publisher gets to set a book’s price point, and retailers, such as the iBookstore, get a commission for sales. Between the savings on actually publishing an e-book (no inventory and warehouse costs, no printing costs etc.) and the ability to control pricing, the agency model offers a much greater revenue stream, creating more money for the industry -- and authors.

How does this affect the midlist? The obvious way is profit sharing -- if publishers make more per sale, authors can drive up their advances and royalties. While it’s unlikely this will benefit midlist authors any time soon, professional organizations such as the Authors Guild and SFWA, alongside literary agents, will be pushing publishing houses to better the terms of standard authors’ agreements, changes which will ultimately help authors everywhere.

And then there’s the less obvious, but arguably more important, change. Midlist authors, while making up the bulk of a bookstore, do not make up the bulk of the promotional tables and racked (facing out) books. In a bricks-and-mortar store, they’re mostly discovered by browsing. They’re also not carried in great quantity -- if the couple of copies of any given book shelved have been sold, readers simply move on to the next title -- fine for a publisher if they have a lot of titles in the same genre. Not so fine for an author. E-books, however, level the playing field. Amazon, the Barnes & Noble’s online store, and other e-retailers don’t discriminate between bestsellers and midlist authors. The "Customers Who Bought This Also Bought" halfway down each page throws up books based on similar buyer sales rather than publisher promotion, meaning midlist books have a greater chance of popping up and making it into a reader’s cart.

McGrath Morris laments the lack of reader connection in buying an e-book. There is no browsing, no enticing cover, no sticky note proclaiming a book a staff favorite. There are also no reviews. And while McGrath Morris’ view of Amazon reviews -- "a mix of commentary written by friends (every author makes sure of that), irrelevant gripping [sic] about the price, format, or the publisher, and a large assortment of diatribes" -- is not too far from the truth (there are some worthy reviews nestled between poor ones on most pages) -- online reviews on blogs and reading sites look GoodReads are only a couple of clicks away. And as anyone with a decent internet connection can attest, it’s frighteningly easy to click through items and load up your cart, largely because there’s no cart to push or basket to carry, no visual connection between your wallet and your brain when shopping online. With a Kindle, Nook, or iPad, it’s even easier to spend a fortune on books. See something you want? One click, and it’s there, ready to read. Want the sequel? No problem, just another click or two. (I’ve spent so much on Kindle books this year my husband has started hiding mine.)

More important than browsing, though, is communication. I don’t just shop in bookstores because I love the smell of books. I shop there because of the staff (I’m fortunate enough to live in Cambridge, MA, between The Harvard Coop and The Harvard Bookstore), and the other readers. The format in which we read a book doesn’t change the story, or the author’s ability to tell a story. If I read a great novel on my Kindle, I’ll tell my friends. If they like it, they’ll tell their friends. (And so small-publisher Pulitzer worthy books come to the fore.) Where and how I read the book doesn’t matter.

E-books aren’t for every reader, or for every author. But midlist authors aren’t dying, they’re simply evolving, moving into a new era and a fairer format while still doing what they’ve always done: writing good books.

What do you think? Do you read much on the midlist? Who’s your favorite author?

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