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Self-Publishing and The Midlist.

Guest Post by  By Catherine Czerkawska

There has been a great deal of talk in publishing circles about the ‘midlist slump’. A couple of years ago, I even read reports confidently predicting the ‘death of the midlist’. With the rise in indie publishing, these appear to have been exaggerated.

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.


This Post Has 9 Comments
  1. Catherine,

    A great post, thank you. There is a real opportunity for writers in the midlist. But there is a problem too. After mastering the craft of writing they must also master the crafts of production and marketing.

    I hope to help with marketing and to help readers to decide which novels they want to buy too. I offer first pages of novels of all genres, quality self published and trad published, on my site BooksGoSocial.com.

    A 50% discount on our small annual listing fee of $39.99 is offered to all viewers of this page. Simply say you saw this notice. The fee covers site hosting, quarterly Kindle Paperwhte giveaways and online site advertising.

    The aim is to use collective funding to promote midlist authors and to allow readers to taste novels they might otherwise never see. We have over 200,000 followers on various social media accounts to help us get eyeballs on the site.

    And over 50 novels are up already.

    Come and join us, Catherine.

    Laurence O’Bryan

  2. Thanks Catherine Czerkawska! I’ve been blogging about midlist, long tail, and hybrid authors for some time. A few links for you:

    How I Made This Crazy Thing Called Writing a 20-year Career… (http://readindies.blogspot.ca/2013/12/writing-as-a-career-robert-stanek.html)

    Some people are the dog. Others, the tail on the dog. Or alternatively why I’m celebrating my 1000th+ title in active worldwide distribution.


    I don’t believe the midlist is dead or dying, but do believe there is a general slump in the midlist.

  3. […] The very successful product engineering and promotion of adult world-building fantasy occurred during the enormous shift of publishing books as books to publishing books as product. One of the results of this shift has been the death of the midlist. The midlist is where you used to find sword-and-sorcery and lots of other offbeat or interesting books. The midlist represented the manuscripts chosen and fought for by editors who took chances. Catherine Czerkawska put it very well in her blog of last summer (which can be found here in its entirety: https://selfpublishingadvice.org/self-publishing-midlist/ ): […]

  4. Right on, Catherine. I can’t tell you how many times my books have been described as “too readable to be literary but too quirky to be easily marketed.” Great post. (Sue Grafton needs to read it.)

  5. Great article from Catherine Czerkawska. As to dark and light sides, both have good points and both bad, but any the idea that indies are necessarily poorer in quality is total rubbish. The key to long-term credibility for SPs is trustworthy reviewing, something which the traditional industry needs as well. I am sure such is achievable, but whether it will be achieved is another matter. With the current scandals from charlatans like John Locke it is going to be an uphill battle for readers to gain more confidence in reviews, particularly of SPs. Having good time served authors joining SP ranks is doing a great deal to take the wind out of the traditional industries sails, and giving the public a far greater diversity of reading.

  6. Great post, Catherine. I too have been returning to older fiction and I often wonder if authors like Margaret Forster and Susan Howatch would have found a publisher if they’d started submitting manuscripts in the last few years. Writing in all those different genres?… How on earth would a marketing dept. promote them as authors?

    Versatility (or a tendency to mix genres within the same book) is seen as a big problem in traditional publishing, one that’s dealt with by using pseudonyms and colour-coded covers to flag up to poor unsuspecting readers that they’re going to be exposed to something different.

    Or is it not (as I’ve often heard) for the benighted readers’ benefit, but rather for the retailers’, so they know where to shelve the books? Remember the stories about A SHORT HISTORY OF TRACTORS IN UKRAINIAN being shelved with Agricultural and WHITE TEETH with Medical?…

  7. Hear hear, Catherine. I’m another of those writers who could never get started because my books were ‘good but didn’t fit’. Even though my agent had plenty of other writers in the same boat, I thought I was in a very peculiar minority. It’s brilliant that we now have the chance to build audiences directly. If readers want to know where the interesting indie fiction is, they should look at the midlist.

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