Decimation of the Midlist

During the discussion and issues raised by the issues surrounding copyright over the last two blogs, I realized that literally for years I have been pointing out that piracy is decimating the ranks of the midlist authors, but without explaining how this works in practice. I’ve heard all too many readers say words to the effect that, “my reading a pirate copy here and there won’t make any difference.” Unhappily, when thousands of readers take the same view, the results can be rather dramatic.

The example I’m going to give is based on the experiences of several midlist writers who are no longer midlist writers because no publisher will now publish their new books [unless they’re doing it under a pseudonym, which I know is not so in any of the cases I know].

Let us say that a midlist author named Aubrey [and if there is an author named Aubrey in this situation, I apologize, but I’m picking the name because I don’t know one] has sold five books. The first book lost money, but not a lot, and got good reviews. Based on that, Aubrey’s editor convinces the publisher to buy the next book, with an advance of $15,000. That book sells just over 6,000 copies in hardcover, and 15,000 in paperback, so that Aubrey receives slightly over $23,000 over essentially two years. But Aubrey works hard and can manage writing a book and a half a year… just enough to scrape by after paying her agent 10% (he’s cheap; most cost 15%). The sales on the next two books go up a bit, but only slightly, to perhaps 6,500 hardcovers, but the paperback sales drop off to around 12,000 copies on the third book (which is exactly what has been happening over the past 10 years), leaving Aubrey with about the same income, and to 10,000 copies on the fourth, which drops the income from the fourth book to less than the second book. At this point, the publisher is getting worried, because his break-even point is based on selling 5,000 hardcovers and 15,000 paperbacks. But since Aubrey’s hardcover numbers are above the break-even point, and the publisher and editor like Aubrey’s books, Aubrey gets a contract for book five. By now, ebooks have really come into play, and Aubrey’s fifth book only sells 4,500 hardcovers, and 1,000 ebooks at the initial price. From the publisher’s cost point of point of view, that’s close to the equivalent of 5,500 hardcovers, but the paperback sales drop to 6,000 copies plus another 1,000 ebooks at the paperback price. The 6,000 paperbacks are below a cost-effective number to print. That drops Aubrey’s income for that book to around $18,000. Unfortunately, Aubrey’s sales trend is down, and the publisher has lost money on the last book. Given those trends, much as he and the editor like the books, Aubrey doesn’t get a contract for the next book.

The result is that the publisher’s revenues drop some 20% on Aubrey’s books, and Aubrey’s income drops to zero. The readers who have switched from hardcovers or paperbacks to pirated editions of those books can say that the publisher’s revenues didn’t go down that much and the authors and publishers are still making plenty. No… the best-selling authors are, but the reduction in less popular midlist titles means a greater reliance on the best-sellers and the generic look-alikes.

This isn’t fantasy, or even science fiction. I could name at least five authors who have gone through similar scenarios over the past several years. In general, hardcover/’initial ebook sales have not declined that much, and, in fact for the big-name authors, those hardcover sales may have held steady or increased, but the farther an author is from the first few spots on the best-seller list, and the more unique a little-known author is, in general, the greater the decline. This also explains the rise of generic look-alike books, such as urban fantasy chick-lit, vampires, action-thrillers, etc. For mass-market paperbacks, pretty much everyone’s sales are significantly down, and some big-name best-sellers, while hitting new highs in hardcovers, are seeing sales losses in the millions in paperbacks.

For the struggling midlist author, the near-stable hardcover sales just aren’t enough to cover the huge decline in mass market paperback sales. Of course, there are always new authors, but, frankly, most of them follow Aubrey’s pattern, except more quickly these days.

Paperbacks used to be where readers picked up “new” authors, or those they had not read, that and the libraries, but library budgets and acquisitions have been drastically slashed, so that all too many only acquire the best-sellers, and not enough paperbacks of midlist authors are being printed these days to filter into used bookstores or to be widely traded by friends. The ebook situation doesn’t allow for easy browsing – except through pirating – and the result is, in general, the domination of the market by the established and popular, and their imitators, leavened by the occasional pop-flash writer, while the talented midlist writers, the ones who produced good books, or unpopular great books, are slowly vanishing. Some keep writing on the side, for small presses or self-publish, but because they must make a living doing something else, their output drops even farther… and they continue to lose readers until every wonders, “What happened to Aubrey [or whoever]?”

If pirated ebooks only resulted in a turnover of authors, one could say that it’s a matter of taste and the market should prevail… and, of course, in one way or another, the marketplace will. But the problem is that the turnover in “new” authors is accelerating because it’s more and more difficult for new authors to distinguish themselves and establish a presence, and a growing percentage of those who do aren’t necessarily the best writers – they’re the best self-promoters and the best at imitating whatever’s popular… and, as I’ve said before, even excellent imitation is never as good as good original work.

But then, given how little time so many people have to read anymore, maybe a lot fewer people really want to read good original work that makes them think.

18 thoughts on “Decimation of the Midlist”

  1. j says:

    To put things into perspective, do you think your writing career would have survived The Green Progression’s sales if state of the market at that time had been similar to the market now?

    Some of the best selling SF authors of the past decade spent the early part of their career on the midlist while they improved their writing craft–I believe Jordan and Martin are among their number. If the market can no longer support authors like these until they are ready to make a popular breakthrough, it seems like even the sales of bestsellers are bound to decline in the long term. Very few authors are skilled enough out of the gate to have instant success, and those who do often stumble on their second or third book because they weren’t yet prepared to live up to expectations.

    1. It would have been a lot harder. I wrote mid-list books for more than ten years before I got a best-seller.

  2. Therman says:

    Let me preface my statement with the fact that I agree with you that stealing from anyone is wrong and I do not condone it, regardless of the format. Regarding this blog, is it your contention that ‘piracy’ is the root cause of the difficulties facing the mid-list author? I would agree that piracy plays some role but i would guess it is a minor one at best regarding the mid-list author. For best selling authors, it might be a significant amount but whether a majority of the downloads would result in actual sales if the piracy was prevented is questionable. I have no doubt that sales of books are declining, particularly among authors below the best selling category but I would guess that this has more to do with a wide range of factors from education to more popular forms of entertainment and less from possible lost sales due to piracy. As you have pointed out, this process has accelerated since brick and mortar bookstores have become much less common than even 5 years ago. Also, as you stated, marketing hasn’t found a way to translate advertising for the e-book format to the traditional reader’s buying habits and this is a big reason that e-book sales haven’t made up the difference in paperback losses. We have a situation where the paperbacks are no longer widely available to browse (flashy cover art and blurbs that reel you in, etc…) and where it is difficult to find a new book you are actually interested in reading if it’s not from a well known author that you are actively searching for. When it is difficult to find a new book that is, sort of, being marketed to you, I think it’s a stretch that people are beating a trail to the torrent sites to find books from mid-list authors. As previously noted, there are probably quite a few that are looking for the best selling authors and constitute a significant number of thefts. I think this a very difficult time for authors and publishers but I don’t think piracy is a major factor. However, if you have access to facts that show x numbers of mid-author y’s new book were downloaded from torrent sites a-c, that would give the maximum lost sales. Actual lost sales would probably be a tiny fraction but at least this would give us a starting point. Until I see that sort of data, I’m not convinced piracy is that big a problem (notwithstanding what it says about out society as a whole).

  3. I believe that piracy is a significant factor, but as you’ve pointed out, it’s certainly not the only factor, and the massive loss of brick and mortar bookstores certainly is another significant factor. The massive decline in paperback book sales may have started with the decline in bookstores, but it accelerated greatly at the time of the growth of ebooks — and easily pirated ebooks. My point with this blog was that even a modest decline in sales, which I believe piracy has caused, can topple a lot of midlist authors.

  4. StevenH says:

    I think that the greatest threat to midlist authors is the way you search for ebooks. As noted above, brick and mortar stores have been disappearing. Ebooks are typically searched-for online; this means that you use a search engine of some sort, which means that you only find what you are looking for. You don’t browse, you don’t glimpse a cool cover out of the corner of your eye, you don’t show up at a bookstore where a lesser-known author just happens to be doing a book reading that draws you in. The lesser known authors used to be able to make a decent living because people were actually able to stumble upon their books. With targeted searches, you don’t stumble upon those kinds of things any more.

    Personally, I much prefer real books as opposed to ebooks, both from aesthetic reasons (feel of paper, clarity of print, even the smell) and for philosophical ones (I like to support bookstores, and thus authors, and I have been reading your blog for years).

    When you add to all that the current state of the economy as it pertains to what’s left of the middle class, you find that what used to be a huge market has shrunk quite a bit, and those who are left have less to spend.

    So what we have is a confluence of factors: piracy, lack of economic market, piracy, lack of “stumble-ability”, focused searches, other media (video games, the internet, and such), more hours working (in an attempt to hold onto living standards), etc. It all adds up to fewer books being bought, and fewer authors being supported. (And then there is, at least in my case, the fact that when I read at night I manage to only get a few pages read and I zonk out, and not because the books are boring!)

  5. DerekD says:

    From my view, I think the decline in sales is from people just not reading as much anymore. I know from experience where I lived when I was growing up, there were only a handful of kids in my class that actually even read for enjoyment. Which honestly still saddens me.

    When bookstores started closing, I know I found I had to go out of my way to actually find new authors to read. Basically 30 miles out to a bigger city, which had the larger stores. Mostly because the store nearby started carrying fewer authors, and basically just the best selling.

    I think ebooks are one of the better ideas to have come along, since then. I know I buy all my books digitally now, first because I can keep my library with me, and second because I was running out of space to put them!

    Does anyone else have an issue with how you find books online though? I know I find it difficult to just browse for books to read unless they’re either popular, or recent. Not from not being listed, but just no way to really sort through and find something interesting.

  6. Reader says:

    I know that in days past, I used to go to the local used bookstore to search for books from a new author once the authors whose works I followed ran out of new material for the time being. I went to the used bookstore, because I didn’t want to pay a lot for a book I might end up not caring for. (The Ghatti’s Tale comes to mind)

    Over time, the Barnes & Nobles and the Books-A-Millions started allowing for better extended browsing than the B. Daltons/Waldenbooks or local independent booksellers, and so I would occasionally spend a weekend afternoon looking for new authors with well-established series already in print that I might like.

    I don’t do any of that any longer. I read several authors mostly regularly, but I don’t look for new ones. I have four books in one series that only survived the mass sale I held when I converted to eBooks because I still have not read them. I read the new eBooks I get (and re-read the old ones I have) more readily than the books sitting on my shelf. But the main point is, I no longer look for new authors/series to read. The authors I enjoy are suitably productive (our host massively so – still don’t understand how he can produce so much with such quality so fast) that the little time I get to read is filled by the new titles, or in some cases a re-read of the old titles.

    If the authors I read currently all stop being published, I will likely stop buying books altogether, and just continue to re-read the ones I have.

  7. Tim says:

    So it seems to me that the senior and established authors who have the same strength of feeling as LEM could help and provide an online site listing new authors of note. Your collective view will go a long way to helping such authors. Also people like myself can become aware of them.

    I realise that this could mean a deluge of outpourings from wannabes of very mixed quality, but surely there are enough people available who would willingly act as a first filter – as with scientific journals.

    What about it LEM?

  8. I already list new authors I’m fond of in the “What I’m Reading” blog section of the website. I’d be reluctant to comment on any author I haven’t read, “old” or “new.” I understand the “collective” business, but, frankly, I’ve discovered that my tastes don’t match those of many other authors.

  9. Corwin says:

    One point I haven’t seen made is cost. I’ve been buying books for over 50 years and I have many on my shelves I bought brand new for $.50 That was 5 bottles of coke, or 5 ice-creams back then; I preferred books. Today, paperbacks cost me anywhere between $10-20, so I have to be selective. I’m fortunate that I have a great local library (it’s actually 5 linked ones) They purchase 3 copies of every LEM new release. I read those and buy the paperback for re-reading once it’s released. It also enables me to try out many mid-list authors for ‘free’ and I have used this to add several to my must buy list. I own several thousand books.

    My advice is to support your local libraries, ask them to purchase books by new authors (I do) and then support those writers you discover.

  10. Steve says:

    The internet can be a wonderful tool for browsing books. Just give your search a little thought. Search best new author in a genre. Search literary awards. Search top ten or hundred lists. I’ve been reading more than ever and discovering “new” books that I missed without the internet several decades ago.

  11. Brad says:

    I have to agree with some others that the drop seems more due to less reading on the whole by the masses. There are so many gadgets and other easily accessible / consumable media to take up one’s time now, it’s no surprise that sales have dropped.

    In regards to piracy, just from my observation of every day people and my friends / family and how they use computers – particularly at work – I believe most people have zero clue on how to even get a pirated book. People don’t even know how to properly use a Windows computer, much less install bit torrent programs, find pirated material and load it manually onto their eReader. Young people are very tech savvy, so they could easily do it… but it doesn’t seem to me they would even be reading it to begin with.

  12. Wine Guy says:

    StevenH’s insight into browsing is right on the dot. Search engines are designed to focus in on things – to be exclusionary. I love my Nook Simple Touch, but when I want to buy books, I wander B&N with it in hand and buy through the wireless Nook instead of buying the paperbacks. The search mechanism on the nook brings up German language books – even in the dam’ store.

    Having a close friend who is a midlist author, Mr. Modesitt might as well have put the name Christopher in the hypothetical story instead of Aubrey. The only reason he is surviving as an author is that he has a full time job doing something entirely different. Anecdotal, true, but I doubt that anyone besides the publishing houses keep statistics and they certainly wouldn’t share them with anyone.

  13. LibraryThing says:

    Try It tells you that people like you liked this or that book. It’s quite good.

  14. Tim says:

    I checked out and joined Librarything, then tested it with Roger Zelazny, one of my favourite authors. I will admit I am impressed. However, similar to browsing, you need to know what you are searching for. So all I now need is some URLs to new authors so I know what to look for on LibraryThing. I can start with LEM’s own evading list but I suspect this is a lot wider than F&SF.


  15. Doug says:

    The biggest problem I’ve had with finding new authors is the big focus on vampire/witch type books. Even before the physical stores started to disappear there was very little new fantasy/sci-fi that appealed to me.

    I’d also echo what Brad said above. Most people I’ve known who mess around with bit torrent type sites aren’t getting books. I’m just not sure people read as much these days. I don’t know anyone among my friends who read who pirate books.

  16. Alan says:

    I utilize to track my own library, due it’s size. Good Reads does send me updates on various authors, not just ones in my collection or best sellers. I too would you LEM’s reading list to point me in a direction, but the last time your reading list was updated was September 11th, 2012. 🙂

    I am a huge advocate of the browsing the store method. Any visit to B&N or BAM typically winds up with me spending an hour or more just browsing. Reading flaps and a chapter here and there.

  17. Mike H. says:

    Your post regarding eBook piracy prompted me to take an informal survey of my workplace. We have around twenty-five guys in their twenties that work in my department and I asked about their downloading (piracy) habits over the last couple of months. Almost all of them admitted to downloading music, movies, TV shows and computer games and software. Not one of them had downloaded an eBook. Admittedly not a scientific survey but I think it is indicative of typical downloading habits. As a follow up I asked how many had purchased a fiction book during the same time period. The answer again was none, though some had purchased textbooks or some other technical publication.
    I first became addicted to science fiction in the sixties. At that time a typical science fiction paperback was selling for around 35 to 40 cents or about the cost of a gallon of gasoline. Today a paperback runs 7.99 to 9.99 or two to three times the cost of a gallon of gasoline. There are just so many demands on my entertainment dollar that I can’t justify buying 4 or 5 paperback books a month that was my habit back then. I now buy no more than one a month (sometimes none).
    Of course there is also the lack of bookstores to take into consideration, not counting the grocery store or Wal-Mart, both of which have extremely limited selections. There is only one book store within a 45 minute drive time from me and that is Barnes & Noble. As much as I like browsing in Barnes & Noble, this is not a casual or spur of the moment trip.
    You can make a good case for the similarities to the decline in fortune of newspaper and magazines. In this case there is no serious effort to blame electronic piracy for their respective loss of market. Reading for entertainment is simply on the decline in all publishing industries. There is so much more entertainment choices available today that tend to dilute the spending in any one area.
    My opinion is that eBook piracy is overstated and pales in significance to other factors such as book cost, lack of retail outlets and a vast availability of alternative entertainment choices.

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