For nearly a decade, some say even longer, people in the publishing industry have been decrying the death of the midlist. As the story goes, the industry consolidated—smaller and midsize publishers were gobbled up and brought together into six large houses that themselves are small pieces of bigger media conglomerates—and the expectations for a title’s sales and revenue rose. With consolidation, the big players began swinging for the fences, focusing on acquiring big bestsellers (or at least books they thought they could turn into big bestsellers), abandoning a model in which they could make small amounts of money on books for audiences of varying sizes. Now, as a result of these changes, the sea of authors who sold modestly at the big six are increasingly being turned away. While a cluster of small presses have sprung up that trade in specialized categories and literary fiction, more commercial authors, abandoned by their big publishers, are finding there aren’t many options in the middle.
Todd Bottorff, president and publisher at Turner Publishing, said he thinks the recurring complaints people have been making in the industry—about advances shrinking, marketing budgets being slashed (and only provided to the biggest books), draconian and misplaced measures being used in the acquisition process (such as judging the viability of a project by the number of Twitter followers an author has)—have been happening at an “accelerated” pace in the last year. He thinks the acceleration is owing to a combination of factors: the introduction of the iPad; the adoption of the agency model; the bankruptcy of Borders; and the growth in e-books. The result, said Bottorff, is the loss of a whole class of writer at the biggest houses.
At Turner, which publishes about 1,000 titles annually (double that if POD titles and new digital editions of backlist books are counted) and focuses on first printings between 5,000 and 10,000, the upside of this is that it signed three former New York Times bestselling authors over the summer. Barbara Wood is one—she’s published with a number of the big six publishers, but her last Times bestseller, Domina, was released in the early 1980s. With many saying the big six acquire titles by focusing rigidly on the sales of an author’s last book, and last book alone—one agent told PW of an author whose proposal was turned away based on disappointing sales from a title he wrote over 10 years earlier—Wood is exactly the kind of writer the conglomerate houses are no longer interested in. Bottorff also thought it was a “coup” for Turner when it acquired the backlist of Eugenia Price from the author’s foundation; he said Price’s books have sold more than 40 million copies.
Although it’s tricky to make sweeping generalizations about the kind of books the big publishers will and will not take on—the big six publish across categories and, with so many imprints, do still take on books that will probably have small audiences—almost all the people PW interviewed said sales expectations have risen across the board. And many of the midsize houses, which often compete with the big six for titles—players like Norton, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Hyperion, Workman—publish fewer titles, across fewer categories. And these midsize players, as some insiders said, are looking for the same kind of sales from their titles as the big six.
So what sales numbers do the big six want from a title? One source told PW he thought the big six are now turning away books that look like they might sell less than 15,000 or, in some cases 25,000, copies. The same source said, recalling something an agent told him, that when it comes to advances “$5,000 is the new $50,000.”
Bill Wolfsthal, associate publisher at Skyhorse Publishing, said he thinks whole categories are falling off at the big six, and just beyond the big six, as expectations shift. “You used to be able to find books on almost any big publisher’s list about say, World War II, inspirational sports stories, or fly fishing,” he said. Although these kinds of books are still being published by the big houses, now they’re expected to be written by prominent authors. As Wolfsthal put it, the big six will happily publish an inspirational sports book, but they want it to be written by Drew Brees. And that fly fishing book? Sure, if Jimmy Carter wants to write it. But books in these categories, Wolfsthal said, written by “sportswriters, outdoor enthusiasts, college professors,” no longer seem to get traction with the big players. These are authors the big houses believe don’t have a big enough “platform,” and this is where a house like Skyhorse comes in.
Skyhorse does a little bit of everything. “I think we’re incredibly specialized, we just have 25 different specialties,” Wolfsthal said. The Skyhorse catalogue is now filled with books not by the Drew Breeses and Jimmy Carters of the world, but by the journalists and sports enthusiasts. And Skyhorse’s success—it topped PW’s list of fastest growing small presses in 2010 with a jump in sales of 127% from 2008 to 2010—indicate its model is not just viable but quite profitable.
With average first printings ranging between 4,000 and 6,000, and annual output between 500 and 600 titles over five imprints, Skyhorse is, in Wolfsthal’s eyes, filling a growing hole in the industry. “We started from scratch five years ago and our sales will be between $15 million and $20 million. We’re filling the gap the big publishers have left open.”
A different corporate structure can also benefit the midsize players. Laurie Parkin, publisher of Kensington, which releases approximately 400 titles annually, emphasized the fact tht her house is privately owned. While Parkin pointed out that not having to “go to a huge board improves our position” and enables the company to act quickly on anything from marketing plans to acquisitions, it also likely means that the numbers aren’t crunched in quite the same way. And, as Parkin explained, an author that the big six might consider midlist could well be frontlist to a midsize publisher.
Janice Goldklang, executive director of editorial at Globe Pequot, said that, surveying the publishing landscape now, there aren’t many places like her house, a midsize player that is both “highly specialized but also a general publisher.” It’s also worth noting that Goldklang, who joined Globe Pequot after restructuring at Random House pushed her out of the top perch at Pantheon, has brought a number of her former authors with her, authors like Richard Ellis and the environmental journalist Roger Stone, who both have titles on the Lyons Press 2012 list. The Lyons Press imprint, Goldklang added, is becoming more generalized, while still focusing on the core things it’s always been known for, such as hunting and fishing. Goldklang, echoing many of her colleagues, sees the Lyons list as an example of where the book industry is heading. “We are getting name authors who have been with the big houses for most of their careers, and I think the way [the industry] is going, it really does come down to the fact that [the big six] are only interested in huge books.”