Book publishing has long been a hits-driven business. The bestsellers, the logic went, paid for the flops. And it was the authors of those in the middle—the so-called midlist—that publishers hoped to build into the next crop of bestsellers. But midlist sales have faltered enough in recent years that there is a growing concern among publishers and agents about how the business can create new hits when the field they once turned to is, well, disappearing.
Simon & Schuster CEO Carolyn Reidy, during a discussion of the company’s second-quarter results, pointed to generating interest in midlist books as one of the biggest challenges facing all publishers.
Though the hits-driven nature of publishing has not changed in recent years, the nature of those hits has. Due to a number of coalescing factors—including a shrinking physical retail market and an increase in competing entertainment driven by the proliferation of streaming TV platforms—book publishing has watched as a handful of megaselling titles have begun to command an ever-larger share of its sales.
According to NPD BookScan, which tracks an estimated 80% of unit sales of print books, sales of the 100 bestselling adult titles increased 23% in 2018 compared to 2017. All other titles ranked below that top tier either fell or remained flat. On a 52-week rolling basis through Oct. 5, 2019, the sales of the top 100 books rose another 6% over the comparable 52-week period ending in 2018, while, again, all other sales levels either fared worse or stayed flat. Taken together, sales of the 100 bestselling print books rose nearly 30% over a period of about two years, while books that ranked between 101 and 10,000 saw their total print unit sales fall 16%. Books that ranked below 10,000 remained flat in the period.
Kristen McLean, executive director of business development at NPD Book, noted that the sales growth of the top sellers in 2018 is owed, in part, to the outsize success of political books. However, as political book sales cooled in 2019, the 100 most successful adult titles of the year have still gained more readers, posting a 6% sales bump over the previous year.
The cause of the widening gap between the best and the rest is a system in which the only thing that seems to beget success is success. So what, many are wondering, can they do to turn their promising lower-tier sellers of today into their established bestsellers of tomorrow?
The cycle that creates this system is a frustratingly circular one. “The top books—[which are] most often [earning] the highest advances—require serious capital and resources to push them into the top slots,” McLean explained. And publishers, she added, “are under serious pressure to recoup their investment” on their most expensive acquisitions. The situation, she went on, “is amplified by the need for books to earn their shelf space in mass market retail—big books are a better bet” for those types of outlets.
A publisher at a major house agreed that, to an extent, publishers have contributed to the gap between the top sellers and those below. With social media offering a variety of ways to promote titles that are selling, publishers usually put more resources behind books that are succeeding in order to maintain momentum. As these books get the lion’s share of the houses’ focus, other titles are left to find audiences on their own.
As one Big Five editor who specializes in commercial and literary fiction said of his category, “There used to be a lot more books that could sell 40,000–50,000 copies. Now more sell fewer than 10,000 copies.” It seems, he said, that “it’s either feast or famine.”
Those suffering from the famine are, to an extent, a group once known as the midlist. Ironically, if you ask most editors or literary agents to define the term, you’re unlikely to get a specific answer. Few can say, for example, how many books one needs to sell to be considered midlist. The only thing sources agreed on is the fact that the term is negative.
“You want to be debut, literary, or bestselling; you don’t want to be midlist,” one literary agent said. “The midlist is like the middle class; it’s the group that gets squeezed. They don’t get the support from their publishers. They don’t get their due [as writers]. They don’t get the attention they deserve from reviewers. Everybody wants to break out of the midlist.”
Editors concurred: “Midlist pushes buttons because no one ever publishes a book intending it to be midlist,” said one high-level editor at a Big Five house. “Publishers live on the hope that the next book they publish is going to break out.”
Another Big Five editor, who honed her chops at smaller and midsize houses, offered a similar take: “Midlist is absolutely not a term I ever use. I know it exists and is a thing,” she said, before positing that publishing is essentially a business built on hope. “You have to imagine that [this book] will make its way, whether or not there’s anything realistic about that.”
For one literary agent at a major firm, the woes of the midlist is very much front of mind. “This, in many ways, is the story of our business,” he said, explaining that he feels the issue “speaks to the challenge of breaking out authors and sustaining careers.” Citing the fact that major authors of today publish at an increased “velocity and frequency,” he feels that this rarified group now gets an outsize amount of the limited spoils: bigger advances, more of retailers’ limited space, and more of publishers’ time and attention. “The more big authors a house publishes, the more they take away from all of the other authors,” he added.
The agent feels that moving a client to a different publisher is too often his only way to build excitement about (and get resources for) a new book by an author with middling sales. He then added, “We’ve been looking into all manner of ways to attack this problem.”
His worry? How these writers survive.
“There is no doubt that it has gotten harder to sustain a career as a midlist author,” the agent said. “You used to be able to have a vibrant career in magazines. That market has largely gone away. The market for short fiction has gone away. So there are external pressures, as well.”
For Steve Zacharius, president of Kensington Publishing, the middle is truly dead. “Numbers have become so compressed and so reduced that the term midlist isn’t really applicable anymore,” he said. “Now you really have super-bestsellers and bestsellers, and everything else.”