Sunday, October 05, 2008

Why Then, This Is the Midlist, Nor Am I Out of It

This week's "Reviewing the Mail" is running pretty long -- two posts worth -- and I've still got a ComicMix review to write tonight. So content for this blog for today is in short supply. But I can dig something out of the vaults: there was a discussion on rec.arts.sf.written about that old publishing term, "the midlist," in mid-March of 2008. Here are my contributions:
"Midlist" is a term of art, and not closely defined. But, in general, if an author has the "lead" book for his publisher in the month he is published in, he's not midlist, precisely.

By that definition, Bujold, Weber, Steve Erikson, John Ringo, and Robin Hobb are all above the midlist. Cherryh is iffy; most of her books over the past decade or so haven't been obviously the "biggest" book their particular publishers put out that month.

But the "X can get this; everyone else can't" formulation more generally applies to bestsellers, which are a subset of lead titles. Rowling, King, "J.D. Robb," and Crichton are all well into "get what they want" territory. Jordan, Goodkind, Martin, and Hamilton are nearly at that level, and can probably get most of the things they really want. Writers who are regular bestsellers but not overwhelmingly so -- like Feist and Brooks -- get a lot of what they want.

Also, "lead" and "midlist" are terms from paperback publishing, and don't map exactly to the current, mostly hardcover-driven field. (It's not always obvious, in a publisher's seasonal catalog, which September book is the most important, but paperback sell-in kits are much clearer.)
And then someone complained about the delay between George R.R. Martin's books, and here's how I came back:
I got the feeling that they thought Martin was spinning his wheels and hadn't faced the fact that his conception for the book was too big to fit between two covers, and so they pushed him for a solution -- but pushed gently and in a friendly manner.

On your other point: books can take a while to write, you know.
{his point about people deserting the series snipped here}
Yeah, yeah. People said that about Jordan for ten years and about Hamilton for at least the last five. And their sales keep rising, somehow...
And then more about Martin:
As Kent said, the kind of delay a fan considers "huge" is nothing to a publisher. Dan Brown's next book is substantially later than Martin's is, for example, and his publisher will be excited about that book for the next ten years, if necessary.

Some writers have the kind of delays when they drop entirely out of contact -- those are worrying. Posting regular blog updates like "just finished this other tricky chapter" (and presumably communicating with an editor in more detail) is miles away from that.

As far as I know, Dance With Dragons hasn't been scheduled in the first place, so it's never been delayed.
Edit, Later: I should mention that all of the names up in the first couple of paragraphs were being bandied about in the conversation on rasfw at the time; I listed them to try to define who was and wasn't midlist. (And the Hamilton I meant was Laurell -- Peter sells well in the UK, but I believe Laurell comfortably outsells him even there.)

I also see that this post has been linked to by a "Song of Ice & Fire" board, which paraphrased the top of this post in not exactly the way I would have done so myself. (In particular, this isn't really "how publishers see authors," but rather how authors are positioned by publishers, which is a subtle but important distinction.) Also note that any particular author's place on a list will vary over time -- writers are often referred to, loosely, as being "midlist," but it's actually that writer's books that have been (at that point) midlist.

As the Martin fans over at that board will know well, a writer can find a large audience in mid-career and have his books leap up to the top of a publisher's list. (And the opposite can happen as well; ask Eric Van Lustbader.)

1 comment:

Adam Whitehead said...

Interesting I saw this today, as someone recently created a Livejournal specifically moaning about ADWD's lateness, about how he is losing fans and sales hand-over-fist and so on. It was amusing.

If Jean M. Auel can keep her fans waiting a dozen years between books and immediately ratchet it up a bestseller, I don't think GRRM has anything to worry about.

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