The Vanishing/Vanished Midlist?

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.

7 thoughts on “The Vanishing/Vanished Midlist?”

  1. My thoughts,

    A few years ago, I was listening to NPR and they were doing a piece on the rise, fall, and re-rise of the Harley-Davidson motorcycle company. Specifically, they were interviewing one of the controlling-interest guys who helped save the brand, and he said basically H-D had to realize that, quote, “There are only so many big fat old guys with beards.”

    Ergo, as long as HD marketed itself as the ‘outlaw fringe’ bike for a shrinking number of older, outlaw fringe bikers, the company was facing financial oblivion.

    So they “sold out” and began a heavy ‘retro’ marketing and design effort that specifically took the ‘outlaw’ image — Brando and The Wild Ones — and sold it whole-hog (pun intended) to suburbia: affluent, young, yuppie riders with squeaky-clean police records and gobs of liquid recreational cash, who wanted to play at being ‘tough’ or ‘outlaw’ on the weekends without having to be part of an actual biker gang.

    It worked. Between bike sales and brand name merchandise, Harley-Davidson rose again to become the premiere large-bike maker in the U.S. H-D went mainstream, and it saved the company.

    Does Science Fiction — as a written genre — want to keep being a ‘fringe outlaw’ genre for a select, shrinking “ghetto” of writers, editors, critics, and readers? Or does SF want to “sell out” and go for the broader market, with non-esoteric product that is easily accessible and easy to sell to kids as well as readers who wouldn’t ordinarily pick up or look at an explicitly SF book?

    I came into the genre reading media books, at a time when it was fairly easy for me to ‘jump’ from media SF to original SF. I am not sure the jump is so easy these days. Too much SF is deliberately written for the closed circle of the SF establishment. I am not sure how a younger reader — picking up a media book — is going to make the switch to the original SF stuff. It still happens, but not nearly as often as it should.

    Probably, the younger reader is going to stick strictly with the media fiction and not bother with original SF; because original SF actively mocks and shuns media SF as being unworthy of the genre.

    In fact, the more popular an author or a project becomes — Crichton being a good example — the more SF as a genre seems to disapprove. To the point of disowning the author, or the project, and vice-versa. I don’ think Crichton cared if SF as a genre accepted him because he was too busy being wildly successful writing nominally SF books which were mass-market friendly, easy to make into movies, etc.

    We need more Crichtons, not less, and we need SF as a genre to blow itself ‘open’ again, not continue the long, twighlight retreat towards high literary obscurity.

    Just my 2¢

    Oh, and I just picked up a copy of HAZE at a Barnes & Noble in Sandy. Looking forward to it, L.E., as you’d recommended it to me at CONduit 2009 — for being similar to The Eternity Artifact.

  2. Matthew Erdmann says:

    I feel despair for humanity. Mr. Modesitt, you are by far my favorite author and reading your blog depresses me. I see a general decline in both writing and reading of literature, both SciFi and more mainstream works. I have two children and I am doing all I can to instill a love of reading. I can’t wait to introduce my children to your works and the works of so many other tallented authors. BTW, Adiamante and Parafaith War have been replaced 3 times (in hardback) so feel comforted that your work is greatly appreciated greatly (at least by this avid fan.) I an always looking for new authors, so if you keep the “what I’m reading” section updated, I will be happy to explore new authors. A great example of someone an author who should be making a big impact on readers is Susan R Matthews, very interesting plots and character development. She has lost her publisher twice now I believe. Keep of the work and don’t despair, between my family members, we have purchased about 80 copies of your work.

  3. Michael Heintzelman says:

    While I can believe, and easily too, that thought provoking SF is begining a decline, I have doubts that it is due to marketing. In fact, I also doubt this is due to an ‘outlaw fringe’ view, and that dense SF doesn’t need to change it’s image.
    Rather, I would guess that the problem more often lies in the language used, and the method of conveying thought provoking material. Some of the best books I have read were sublte with the thoughts the author wished to instil. However, I have also noticed that many of the books refered to as ‘thought provoking’ tended to pass those ideas with a culb, not with sugar. From my experience, trying to force people to accept an idea doesn’t work well.
    From that, I would assume much of the problem (but likely not all) with dense SF sales is that the authors uses cudgels, and still expect the reader to want to continue. This is fine, if the readers are willing to accept that club hit, but many of us younger readers, originally brought up on mental ‘cotton candy’, are not willing to be forced into accepting an idea under force. With the proper incentive, we will think over the ideas, but there is no need to push the boundaries of acceptance merely to make a point. Sometimes, SF is edgy to be egdy, and alienates prospective readers. Yes, those of us dedicated SF readers might like it, but that is still only a *might* from the dedicated readers. Can anyone expect more of those already leery of the genre?
    What I am trying to say is that using the wrong method, not necessarily force but the wrong tone, prose,or characters, makes thought provoking SF inaccessable to casual readers. Mr. Modesitt, your SF is thought provoking, but it is also entertaining. I was only introduced to Recluse last december, but I fell in love with it instantly, because it managed to entertain me, and hint at ideas, such as consequences and cause and effect. Subtlety, not a hammer, often works quite well in most situations. As you have said elsewhere, such details as POV and style details such as past or present tense can change how a reader views the entire work.

  4. A round of applause for your blog.Much thanks again. Want more.

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  6. Manuscript: something submitted in haste and returned at leisure. Oliver Herford (1863-1935)

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