Guest Post by By Catherine Czerkawska
If I were to define midlist, I suppose it would be that huge, fertile, centre ground of well-written fiction which doesn’t slot neatly into any particular genre. It might be written by authors who like to experiment with crossing the boundaries and don’t see why they should always have to change their names to do so, especially when the ‘voice’ remains much the same.
I write historical and contemporary fiction, but the style is undoubtedly mine. Midlist readers are often, but by no means exclusively, female, often middle aged or older. They seem to be voracious readers.
The midlist used to be the seed bed from which the occasional (almost always unpredictable) blockbuster would spring. Screenwriter William Goldman’s much quoted dictum that ‘nobody knows anything’ applies just as much to fiction as to film. If the publisher got lucky, it might be an author's first or second book that made the breakthrough. More frequently it would be their fifth, sixth or seventh book. And if a book did become a bestseller or spawn a number of sequels, some of those profits would be ploughed back into nurturing other seedlings. Broadly speaking, that’s how it used to be, before the big corporations ate the smaller companies and changed the whole ethos of publishing in the process.
The past decade or so has seen traditional publishing presiding over the slow decline of the midlist. The slump occurred because many publishers (now part of huge corporations with shareholders to consider) began to be reluctant to buy books which weren’t certain to make shed loads of money from the offset. And this at a time when eBooks were in prospect, POD was becoming a reality and profits from the ‘long tail’ of niche markets were already being exploited by a handful of far-sighted companies in collaboration with creative practitioners in other fields.
The experience of many older writers, even those with agents, is that publishers are now looking for instant gratification in the shape of a ‘stunning debut bestseller’. If the books don’t sell in industrial quantities within a surprisingly short space of time, the author will be quietly dropped after a handful of titles and will find it almost impossible to publish elsewhere. More likely these days, he or she will not be taken on at all. Writers – and agents – tell of deeply frustrating rejection letters from editors all essentially saying the same thing: 'I love this, I think it's wonderful, but in the current climate, our marketing department doesn't know how to sell it.' It is rather as though a company allowed sales – however competent – to consistently override all product development decisions.
Over the past few months, I’ve found myself reading several novels published in the 1980s and 1990s. I suspect that most of them – however moving, insightful and original – would not now find conventional publication. They would be deemed too readable to be literary but too quirky to be easily marketed. They are, on the whole, books with no very obvious genre and with no possibility of a sequel.
These developments also help to explain why so many older writers like myself are embracing the indie revolution with such enthusiasm. We have either been dropped by publishers who were focused on instant gratification, or by agents because we weren’t making them enough money. We have no chance at all of producing a ‘stunning debut’ because in most cases, our debuts were rather a long time ago. But most of us have a number of novels on file, sometimes reverted backlists, sometimes well edited and highly praised new work which was not deemed to be bestseller material and so remained unpublished. Yet we know that readers enjoy our work because they have taken the time and trouble to tell us so and to ask for more.
Reports of the demise of the midlist have been greatly exaggerated. It does, however, seem to have decamped, bag and baggage, to the indie side. Whether we have gone over to the dark side or simply seen the light remains a matter for serious debate.
Catherine Czerkawska is an award-winning novelist and playwright, now publishing independently under the Wordarts imprint. Her most recent novel, The Amber Heart, was released in March 2012. She is also a regular blogger.