The Death of the Mid List

funeral

has not been highly exaggerated.

As megabestsellers command more of publishers’ marketing budgets and retailers’ shelf space, breaking out the next crop of hit makers has become a challenge.

Book publishing has long been a hits-driven business. The bestsellers, the logic went, paid for the flops. And it was the authors of those in the middle—the so-called midlist—that publishers hoped to build into the next crop of bestsellers. But midlist sales have faltered enough in recent years that there is a growing concern among publishers and agents about how the business can create new hits when the field they once turned to is, well, disappearing.

Simon & Schuster CEO Carolyn Reidy, during a discussion of the company’s second-quarter results, pointed to generating interest in midlist books as one of the biggest challenges facing all publishers.

Though the hits-driven nature of publishing has not changed in recent years, the nature of those hits has. Due to a number of coalescing factors—including a shrinking physical retail market and an increase in competing entertainment driven by the proliferation of streaming TV platforms—book publishing has watched as a handful of megaselling titles have begun to command an ever-larger share of its sales.

According to NPD BookScan, which tracks an estimated 80% of unit sales of print books, sales of the 100 bestselling adult titles increased 23% in 2018 compared to 2017. All other titles ranked below that top tier either fell or remained flat. On a 52-week rolling basis through Oct. 5, 2019, the sales of the top 100 books rose another 6% over the comparable 52-week period ending in 2018, while, again, all other sales levels either fared worse or stayed flat. Taken together, sales of the 100 bestselling print books rose nearly 30% over a period of about two years, while books that ranked between 101 and 10,000 saw their total print unit sales fall 16%. Books that ranked below 10,000 remained flat in the period.

Where have we seen this blockbuster-chasing mentality before?

Oh yeah, in the likewise floundering Hollywood film and AAA video game industries.

As Western civilization rapidly burns through the cultural capital inherited from Christendom, expect to see more industries falling into hit-obsessed death spirals.

It’s a seductive trap. A company stumbles upon a big hit, scrambles to replicate what is in fact a black swan event, and cannibalizes its own seed corn in the process. It’s an old story.

If publishers were really in the storytelling business, they’d know how that tale ends by now.

Those suffering from the famine are, to an extent, a group once known as the midlist. Ironically, if you ask most editors or literary agents to define the term, you’re unlikely to get a specific answer. Few can say, for example, how many books one needs to sell to be considered midlist. The only thing sources agreed on is the fact that the term is negative.

“You want to be debut, literary, or bestselling; you don’t want to be midlist,” one literary agent said. “The midlist is like the middle class; it’s the group that gets squeezed. They don’t get the support from their publishers. They don’t get their due [as writers]. They don’t get the attention they deserve from reviewers. Everybody wants to break out of the midlist.”

The fatal flaw with squeezing blood from the mid list in a misguided attempt to fuel blockbusters is that the midlisters were always more profitable than the A listers. The former received more modest advances, lower royalties, and lower marketing budgets. Yet their books consistently earned out. It doesn’t take a genius to understand that lower costs plus more consistent earnings at a higher percentage–from the publisher’s point of view–is a healthier business model than rolling the dice on unreproducible hits.

Oldpub’s current model is a scattershot Darwinian sink-or-swim meat grinder. Agents funnel starry-eyed new authors into the hopper. Acquisitions editors–and increasingly, the marketing team–consult the augurs to divine which of the fresh meat has the stuff megastars are made of. The publisher throws millions of dollars into making these hopefuls’ debut books the new hotness. Out of a hundred such books, perhaps one will become even a modest hit. The authors who fail meet the wood chipper.

The received publishing wisdom invoked to justify this crab basket mentality was that the lone hit more than made up for the ninety-nine duds. That was only ever a cope, but publishers could always dip into the mid list cookie jar to keep the pyramid scheme running. Now they’re running out of reliable earners to fleece.

Best selling newpub author Nick Cole’s prophecy is unfolding before our eyes. Oldpub is eating their own mid list to service their A list clients. B&N won’t save them. James Daunt’s installation as CEO is too little, too late.

Of course, Amazon is proving a less than reliable partner for newpub authors to the right of Corey Doctorow. Independent creators are increasingly earning the bulk of their income directly from their audiences.

Just as Nick’s prediction of oldpub’s demise is being vindicated, so is my prediction that a new patronage system will emerge to replace the historical aberration that was the author-publisher rights for royalties model.

If you’re fed up with out-of-touch New York publishers pushing books by Clarion Workshop grads who can’t string two sentences together, support the fun, exciting work of newpub authors like me.

Combat Frame XSeed - Brian Niemeier

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