the midlist/midlife crisis

This post is 10 years old.

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.

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9 thoughts on “the midlist/midlife crisis”

  1. It sounds awfully discouraging. I’m already thinking not only do I have to finish writing a book, selling it to a publishing house, then I have to sell it to the world too!

    Yes, I want to tell stories which is why I’m willing to try all this, but they certainly don’t make it easy, actually it sounds as though they are making it hard.

    Which also brings to mind self publishing, there are many self-publishing houses today, the cost is not cheap, but its an alterntive I guess. You can still sell your books on Amazon. How many books does a publisher print out for you?

    Once you’ve written a book and sold it to a publisher, writing shouldn’t be so hard.

  2. You know, I wish the publishers would think back. I mean, John Grisham, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, they were all like us, up and coming/struggling authors. Any one of us could be the next huge success. You’d think they’d try to promote their new discoveries, I mean, they did go through all the trouble to sign them.

    Oh well, back to plotting.

  3. While the idea of being accepted by a New York publisher (accompanied, of course, by fevered dreams of worldwide fame and adulation) is quite attractive, I sometimes wonder if finding an alternative outlet would perhaps be a better alternative.

    Something like Lulu.com, where one does not have to purchase the books for re-sale as is required by some publishers, sounds quite do-able. Their books can be sold ordered by Barnes and Noble as well as Amazon. Royalties are much higher through them, as well.

    We have thought for so long that if you aren’t “good enough” for acceptance at a large publishing house, then you should go away until you get better. Music has begun a shift in a different direction. Maybe writers should as well. Yes, I know that much of what is self-published is dreck. For an author with a proven track record to make such a shift (and another, and another…) would send a message, dontcha think?

  4. To me, the publishing problem is part of the not-so-good problems we’re having these days: teachers, policemen, firemen, nurses aren’t paid enough. Also not paid enough are musicians, composers, artists, actors, writers. Sure, a few hit the big time, but most scrape by. Good things have happened in the past few decades, but the inequity of monetary reward for these professions is not one of them.

  5. Sounds fickle and very disheartening. Must be hard in your situation when you are an established author, yet you don’t have the clout to influence the success of your novel. I have spent 20 years in marketing and I think your own efforts at marketing TTTT have been fantastic. I imagine you also have done a lot more behind the scenes work that we don’t even know about. And of the authors I like to read you actually have a website and it is by far the most vibrant. You talk to your readers every day and you always have something interesting to say. What more can you do? Jees.

    After twenty years working for corporates, or working for myself working for corporates, I’m over the emphasis on high profit margins and return to shareholders. It’s too much. There’s making money and then there’s greed and as far as I’m concerned, greed is BAD. I find it so distasteful. [And asdf I agree with your comments but IMO when actors do make the big time they get paid way too much – $20 million for a movie! Fine if they fund independent films to give others an opportunity….but…]

    I’m a bit of a recluse, partly why I’m drawn to an artistic lifestyle. But ultimately there’s no avoiding the business end if you want to make a living as a writer. Understandably you want a publisher to make money on your book, but it seems the way they handle it is a bit like Stalin’s penal battalion – one gun between two men (though in publishing perhaps 10?) and the lucky one gets to keep the gun.

    Even starting out the prospects aren’t that bright. In New Zealand a first time, unknown author will receive $2.00 a copy for their book which will only have a 2,000 print run to begin with. Four thousand dollars for all that work! I’m not going to even begin to work out that hourly rate.

    All I can say is: have faith.

  6. I imagine the publishing houses will realize(hopefully sooner then later)that spending all there money on the big names is a short term gain and at some point theyr’e going to have to find new talent.
    What’s the deal with Publishing houses anyways? Could ya all get together and start your own? I ask this knowing that it’s probably a ridiculous idea. But hey, Movies aren’t just coming outa Hollywood anymore, maybe the book business could follow along the same lines. Then again maybe it isn’t the same thing, I dunno.

  7. I think publishing is heading for a crash and there will probably be a bigger move toward independent publishers, similar to what happened with punk in the late 70s and early 80s. Musicians got tired of the same scene that seems to be occurring in publishing now — you don’t sell if you aren’t big and you can’t get big if you don’t sell.

    I’d be inclined to go with a small press initially just because of all the oddball recording labels I got used to buying from when I was a teen.

    Not that it makes you a big star — it doesn’t — and if a producer doesn’t have the budget, you won’t get the promotion either.

    But there is just something obscene about the level of profit required by publishers of all kinds these days. If all artists went elsewhere to sell their work, the publishers would have to change their game rules.

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