Several weeks ago, I attended a science fiction convention where the guest of honor was a writer who spent some 20 years as what one might call a “high mid-list author,” someone able to work full-time as a writer and pay the bills. Except… several years ago, this came to an end for the writer. Oh… the writer in question still publishes two books a year, but they aren’t selling as well as earlier books, although those who read the books claim they’re as good, if not better, than earlier work, and now to make ends meet requires outside additional work as a consultant and educator. To make matters worse, at least from my point of view, this writer produces work that is more than mere entertainment and mental cotton-candy.
Interestingly enough, more and more of the books cited by “critical” reviewers in the F&SF field [with whom I have, as most know, certain “concerns”] seem to come from smaller presses. This is creating, I believe, an almost vicious cycle in F&SF publishing. The more the books praised by reviewer come from small presses, the more larger publishers get the message that “good” or “edgy” or “thoughtful” books don’t sell as well, and the greater the almost subconscious pressure to opt for “fiction-fun” or “fiction-light.” To their credit, certain publishers, including mine, thankfully, are resisting this trend, but I’m still seeing more of those novels that are gaming and media tie-ins or endless series. And yes, the Recluce Saga is long, but… as I keep pointing out, no character has more than two books. I don’t have eight or ten or fifteen books endlessly spinning improbable stories and extensions about the same character or characters.
With the drastic changes in wholesale distribution over the past decade or so, virtually no mid-list books receive such distribution, except perhaps lower-selling titles of big-name authors. As a result of these trends, the midlists of at least some large publishers that were once the home of “thoughtful” books are shrinking. Some such midlist writers have found homes with the smaller presses, but small press distribution systems often are not as extensive. That has resulted in lower sales for the authors who wrote those books, and lower sales means lower incomes, and either cutting back on writing or holding down more other jobs… or… trying to re-invent one’s self with another form of “fiction-light.”
I’ve heard many who believe that e-book sales can help here, but the sales figures I’ve seen suggest that e-books do more for those books that have high sales levels and wide distribution in hardcover and paperback – and those aren’t the midlist books.
It almost appears that the midlist F&SF titles are going to become a ghetto within a genre… and that concerns me, and it’s certainly affecting all authors, but particularly those who once wrote good midlist books and made a living at it… and now can’t.