January 15, 2014

Is the mid-list, “publishing’s experimental laboratory,” disappearing?


Why have books when you can have brands?

Why have books when you can have brands?

Two recent articles, one for The New York Times by OR publisher Colin Robinson and one in Monday’s Guardian point to what may soon be a dismal reality in publishing, and one that those in publishing have been anticipating for some time: the disappearance of the mid-list author in preference for author “brands”.

A “mid-list” author can be described as any author who does well but not spectacularly for a publisher: someone who might be consistently well-reviewed, will even be shortlisted for major prizes, but will not, or has not yet taken off to become a household name. In other words, “mid-list” describes very many good and talented authors.

As the Guardian notes, Hilary Mantel is a textbook example of a mid-list author who hit the big-time. Mantel was once a well-respected author with glowing reviews to her name and many fans. After the success of her Thomas Cromwell series, Mantel is still a well-respected author with glowing reviews to her name and many fans.  But now she’s also something else. Charlie Redmayne, CEO of HarperCollins UK, now counts her among the authors “who have transcended being an author and are brands in their own right”.

What Redmayne means by a “brand” is an author who sells in huge numbers and who secures blanket media coverage and fawning upon publication. Other such brands include obvious names like JK Rowling and Dan Brown, as well as those who have made the recent transition to brand-dom, such as Gillian Flynn, after the success of Gone Girl. Children’s publishing does extremely well with brands such as The Hunger Games, the Twilight series, and for younger readers, the Wimpy Kid and David Walliams’ series, mostly because authors create a world that young readers can inhabit, but also because kids want the same thing again and again. Repetition should be no model for adult books.

As all of these examples show, being a brand means one of two things: the book is secondary to the celebrity that existed before the book, or the book is left behind or appropriated for bigger mediums: film, television and theatre, and these continue to ensure book sales and coverage, but may also become more important than the books themselves. Brands also lock-in publishers who find themselves attempting to repeat the success of one –or a series of books– again and again, feeding readers with the same proposition repeatedly until there is nothing original left. In these cases, publishers make the dangerous assumption that readers want the same thing they wanted before, which is both patronising to the reader and takes away any idea of creative license from the author.

While there have always been big brands in publishing, as the industry becomes more reserved in order to cope with the monumental changes taking place, publishers are relying more heavily on these big brands to fund everything else. And despite being the books that demand the highest advances and are the biggest risk, publishers now consider them to be crucial to business success.  The mid-list is being squeezed out in order to make way for this handful of big risks, despite the fact that it is a series of small, long-term risks that builds the career of a mid-list author.

Colin Robinson traces this movement across the industry:

“Overall book sales have been anemic in recent years, declining 6 percent in the first half of 2013 alone. But the profits of publishers have remained largely intact; in the same period only one of what were then still the “big six” trade houses reported a decline on its bottom line. This is partly because of the higher margins on e-books. But it has also been achieved by publishers cutting costs, especially for mid-list titles.”

According to the Guardian where once “the top-selling 20% funded the rest, some of whom, hopefully, would become the bestsellers of the future”, agent Jonny Gellar now thinks of the balance as “closer to 4% v 96%.” Andrew Franklin, founder of independent publisher Profile, positions the situation in a wider landscape:

The large bestselling authors are taking a bigger and bigger share of the market…Just as in every branch of late post-industrial capitalism, the rich are getting richer. New authors and struggling authors and mid-list authors are finding it harder.”

But there are other factors at play, including the reduced spaces for readers to discover new books. As bookshops shut down due to competition from Amazon and arts coverage in print journalism is slashed, it becomes harder for readers to find out about any new books apart from the biggest ones. As Colin Robinson puts it:

Faced with a dizzying array of choices and receiving little by way of expert help in making selections, book buyers today are deciding to play it safe, opting to join either the ever-larger audiences for blockbusters or the minuscule readerships of a vast range of specialist titles. In this bifurcation, the mid-list, publishing’s experimental laboratory, is being abandoned.

Publishers cutting their budgets for mid-list authors is detrimental to the variety and invention they can offer their readers, making the contemporary literature landscape more boring and less intelligent as a result. But ultimately publishers cut their mid-list authors at their own financial risk, and if they don’t care about cultural damage, they should remember their bottom lines are part of an industry that is notoriously difficult to second-guess. Jonny Gellar again,

“If publishers focus too much on the obvious hooks or names, then the new or unsuspecting will disappear,” he said. “All the major success[es] of the last few years, or the majority, have come from unexpected places.”




Zeljka Marosevic is the managing director of Melville House UK.