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."
Temple also believes that a number of authors are—to their detriment—shielded from their own sales figures. Their agents, and their publisher, he said, don't always tell them that their book isn't earning out its advance. Instead, a publisher will stop returning an author's calls. "What, some 80% to 90% of the books published are not profitable?" Temple asked rhetorically. "Almost every author I talk to [who's at] a big house feels neglected. If they were making money for that publisher, they would be getting called back."
That neglect has, on some level, been good for Akashic. Temple cited a writer like Bernice L. McFadden, who published with Penguin for years, as an author he feels his small press got to bring into the fold as a result of this trend. Akashic released her novel Glorious in May and has gone through multiple printings, after the title received a winning New York Times review and was selected for the "One Book, One Harlem" program.
Although small presses give less money upfront, their model is more viable for a lot of fiction. The same book that disappoints by selling only 10,000 copies at one of the big six, is a big hit at a small press, and that, many small press publishers note, often leads to a happier author. At Akashic, for example, the author gets a bigger split on royalties to make up for the small advance. As Temple sees it, this makes for a more logical business mofel: when a book actually sells, the author starts to reap the benefits.
Dan Smetanka, editor-at-large at Counterpoint, who earlier in his career was an editor at Ballantine, said the big houses can no longer accommodate smaller authors "en masse" the way they once could. He cited books like Jim Brown's This River (Mar. 2011) and Scott Phillips's The Walkaway (Aug. 2011) as just two examples on his list. Brown's 2003 memoir, The Los Angeles Diaries, was published by William Morrow and earned the kind of plaudits that you'd think would keep him at a big house—a "best books" nod from PW as well as the San Francisco Chronicle. It didn't. And Phillips, who Smetanka originally edited at Ballantine, wrote the Edgar-winning cult hit The Ice Harvest, which was adapted into a film. Smetanka said that, among other things, Phillips became frustrated with "the big in-house system."
The big houses also can no longer afford to be as patient with their authors. Although agent Laura Langlie said "getting good reviews and being nominated for awards" can keep an under-selling author at a big house, it often isn't enough. And, as Alex Shakar proves, there's less wiggle room for just one underperforming book, no matter what the circumstances. Shakar's debut novel, The Savage Girl, was acquired by HarperCollins in a major deal—rumored to be in the $300,000 range—and was published just before the September 11 attacks. The novel, which was blurbed by Jonathan Franzen, is a satirical look at consumer culture and was, upon its release, decidedly not something readers were interested in. HC passed on Shakar's next book, Luminarium, which Soho Press is releasing in October 2011. Soho Press editor Mark Doten said the work, which he thinks would have sold in a significant deal to a big house if it didn't have to overcome the sales record of Savage Girl, will be a major title for Soho. Doten said the press plans on putting "everything" it has behind the book to make it a success.
Agent David McCormick took his author Deborah Baker to Graywolf after she published her last book with Penguin Press. McCormick, who said Baker's book at Penguin, A Blue Hand, did "okay," cited a shuffling of editors, among other reasons, for why it was time to move on. Her new biography, The Convert, which Graywolf is publishing in May 2011, is a work McCormick thinks is exceptional, with "commercial potential," but also "a tricky narrative" and it might well fall through the cracks at a big house. "The folks at Graywolf get it," McCormick said, adding that therefore he thinks "it has a real shot."
Corinna Barsan, a senior editor at Other Press, said she's seeing more submissions by authors who've previously been published by the big six. While the economy is playing a factor, she also thinks the small press world is different. "The playing field has changed," she said. "Over the past few years, indie presses have increased in reputation and number. And we don't believe in midlist—every book on our list is important in its own right."
Many indie press publishers and agents also think they're seeing an influx of debut literary fiction. While literary fiction has always been a tough sell at the big houses—as one editor put it, "debut and literary are the two scariest words in our industry"—many interviewed for this article believe the big houses used to take more chances in this arena. Ethan Rutherford, marketing and publicity manager at Milkweed Editions, said he doesn't think the press would have gotten John Reimringer's debut, Vestments, years ago. The book, which Milkweed published in September, was an Indie Next selection in October and landed on PW's best books list for 2010. "[The big houses] seem more tentative about the debuts they're signing up, and they seem to be passing on quite a bit of beautifully written, smart, literary fiction—which is exactly what we're looking for at Milkweed."