the midlist/midlife crisis

Original post date: 14 July 2007

It’s no secret that the publishing houses are spending ever less resources on marketing and advertising novels. More and more it’s up to the author to handle these things, and most of us don’t really know how, or really don’t want to. Paperback Writer has an excellent post on how different authors handle (or fail to handle) the necessity of self promotion.

Because it’s the only way to survive, these days. Here’s the reason why:

You sell a book to a particular editor at a particular press. The offer is made, and the agent and the editor start to hammer out the details. Royalties, copyright, all those crucial matters are discussed. Somewhere in the negotiations, the agent asks the editor for details on marketing and advertising. What will the house do to promote the novel? The agent wants specifics: print and internet advertising, ARCs, media promotions.

Here’s where Alice falls into the rabbit hole. Because somehow or another, your novel is unlikely to get any real marketing no matter how enthusiastic the publisher sounded when you were in negotiations. Unless you are already a big, well known name. Then you will get a decent marketing package. There will be product placement in the big chain stores, sometimes special cardboard stands designed specifically for the novel in question, posters, national print advertising, guest spots on talk shows.

Most authors get none of that. Instead, this is what often happens:

A novel comes out in hardcover. The publisher has great hopes for this novel, but they aren’t willing to invest the funds for a real campaign; if the author wants to pay for a publicist of his or her own, great! But the house isn’t going to do it. The sales staff go to meetings with the buyers from big chain stores but they have dozens and dozens of books to pitch, and instructions on which ones to push hardest. They focus on certain novels — the ones by the big names. The chains are conservative, because they too are responsible to their shareholders. They buy lots of the new novel by the big name, and token amounts of the midlist.

From here it spirals downwards.

When the softcover comes out it won’t sell because it’s not in the stores. It’s not in the bookstores because the big chains didn’t order it. The chains didn’t order it because the hardcover didn’t do very well. The hardcover didn’t do very well because the big chains didn’t order it. They didn’t order it because it was clear the publisher wasn’t really behind it, no marketing, no advertising. The publisher didn’t make the effort, because…? That’s the mystery. Publishers these days seem to be indulging in a lot of magical thinking.

Imagine you go into a gardening center and buy a big, leafy, healthy plant. You pay a lot of money for it because by gosh, it’s exactly the kind of plant your neighbors have had such luck with. Once you get home with the plant, you put it in a closet and neglect to water it. A few weeks later you open the closet in the hope that the plant will have doubled in size and be heavy with big beautiful flowers.

Now you are peeved. The plant is dead, and you’re put out because really, if the plant had been any good to start with, it would have taken care of itself and not demanded things like sunlight and water. You clearly made a mistake when you bought that plant. It failed you completely.

That is the situation for hundreds and hundreds of novels. More every year. Every year authors get more inventive — and desperate — about self promotion. I predict wild stunts. Come see the author walking a tightrope twenty stories up, and no net! Can I interest you in this free, glossy full-color five page introduction to her newest novel? Do you think the head buyer for Barnes & Noble might like expensive chocolates?

The publisher and the bookstore chains are responsible to their shareholders; they watch the bottom line and cut back on the cost of things they hope to do without. Authors need to get their books into print and so they grit their teeth and sign on the dotted line. Thus another co-dependent relationship blossoms.

Sooner or later, something has got to give.

3 Replies to “the midlist/midlife crisis”

  1. I find this incredibly sad. I, personally, am a fan of word of mouth because when I like something I tell EVERYBODY! I’ve considered starting a blog just for this purpose, heh.

    Have you considered doing a virtual book tour? You request guest blog time on various book review blogger’s sites and you have a conversation with their readers in the comments after your post. I don’t really know how plausible this is, but I know that it works really well for indie pub’d authors.

    Of course, I know that really isn’t the point. The publisher should be coming up with this stuff.

  2. I love this entry! Thank you. It actually addresses many aspects of writing that I’ve wondered about.

  3. Wow, that wonderful explanation of the publishing business today was both convoluted and succinct at the same time. You have to pull your hair out trying to understand the madness that is book publishing/marketing today.

    I just came across one of your books at Goodwill while waiting for my sixteen-year-old daughter to find the perfect pair of jeans. I have always loved Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series and I can tell you that her endorsement went a long way to convince me to buy Lake in the Clouds (for a whopping $2.99!)

    It’s not that I wouldn’t spend full price for a good read, only that so many times, agents and publishers put so much emphasis on novels starting out with a strong hook but really aren’t as interested in anything but getting the reader to buy it before it’s their turn at the check stand.

    Sometimes I have picked up something that I thought was going to be a good read only to find that I completely lost all interest by page 68. But sometimes, hoping that the plot will pick up again I have pushed on until the oh-come-on-now, or well-that-really-sucked end and then threw it in my own donations to Good Will box. I know we all have our own tastes but novels like yours are ones I call keepers. Well-written and with characters that have come to life for me. These are the ones that stay on my book shelf so I can highly recommend them to a friend or reread them myself one rainy day.

    Because of my frustrations with the publishing industry I am a writer of historical fiction who has made the decision to self-publish. I am in the process of reviewing my proofs while the list of people waiting for my novels is growing just by word of mouth, so I know I have done something right. Besides, after attending three writer’s conferences I am no longer all that eager to jump through hoops in pursuit of what the publishing industry can’t do for me.

    What does it mean when Barnes and Noble has done away with Historical Fiction as a genre section in their book stores? Instead it is all just General Fiction now. I guess this is good overall because sometimes when I tell people that I write historical fiction I can almost see what comes into their mind. Dry, boring stories about something that happened in history. Good fiction is good fiction but some of us thoroughly enjoy going back in time to experience what life could have been like for the people who lived long before us. Many things have changed over time, human nature has not.

    Thanks for listening to my little rant. Loved your book and I am going out to buy more.

    Gabrielle Legault – author of The Illyrian Chronicles

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