The midlist is dying. That sentiment has been a constant in publishing circles for years. Agents, authors, and editors claim corporate publishing has killed the author that was once an industry staple—the moderate success who was a strong seller, if not a bestseller. With the "big six" demanding bigger sales from all their books, indie presses, which have long been the province of riskier, harder-to-market literary fiction, are seeing an influx of something new: commercial authors not only open, but eager, to publish with a small house.
One major shift in the marketplace is that the publishing industry's definition of a midlist author has changed. A number of agents and publishers interviewed said editors at the big houses, who always consider the sales performance of an author's last book beforing the author's new book, need to see bigger figures to close deals. While a rumor has floated that a publisher at one of the big six told his staff they couldn't acquire authors whose last book sold fewer than 50,000 copies, most sources said they think the so-called "magic number" is closer to 25,000 or 30,000. One agent, noting there's far more variation at the paperback imprints of the big six, said most hardcover publishers today "would settle for 20,000."
Munro Magruder, publisher of New World Library, believes presses like his have become the beneficiary of this trend. In the past few years, Magruder has seen an influx of midlist authors who spent years at the big houses. He cited two books NWL published in October—Alice Walker's poetry collection Hard Times Require Furious Dancing and Michael Krasny's Spiritual Envy—as books he thought he might not have been able to acquire years back. (Walker wrote the megaseller The Color Purple, and Krasny is the host of KQED's Forum out of San Francisco.) NWL considers both books to be successes—Krasny's title has already sold out its first printing of 8,500 copies, and Walker's collection sold out its 7,500-copy first run.
While authors often find that they (and their books) are paid more attention at indie press, there is the little matter of advances. Most of the smaller publishers PW spoke to cited $5,000 as a high advance, and others acknowledged paying as little as $1,500, figures that are drastically lower than what the large publishers tend to pay.
Johnny Temple, at Akashic Books, thinks it's unfortunate that the big houses can't afford to publish books on a smaller scale, but is a reality of today's publishing industry. Temple also thinks it's a reality that not all agents and authors have fully accepted. "These big companies, every book they do they're trying to knock it out of the park, and they don't have the flexibility to publish books at different levels," he said. "The flip side, though, is authors and agents like to have big advances and don't like to think about what the fiscal reality of that is." Temple believes the big publishers have offering inflated advances for years and now and, as a result, "some agents and authors got a little soft, and too comfy, being overpaid."