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 likethe 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 devastatingemotionally, financially, professionally, spiritually, and creativelyto 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 Bordersor 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 worseand 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.).