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The final death of the midlist?

13 June 2011

An article in last week's Bookseller looks at the long-heralded death of the mid-list. Discussions about this have been going on as long as anyone in the business can remember, but this time it really does look as if we're on to the last rites.The economics of contemporary publishing dictate that it's more efficient for publishers to publish fiction at a higher level and to focus on new authors, rather than going for the long slow build, as they used to do. This means a bigger up-front investment in a new author, in terms of both advance and promotion, to build them into an instant bestseller. The reason for this seemingly risky strategy on the part of publishers is the way the book trade will support or not support the author in question.

Generally, if the publisher produces enough hype, retailers will give a new author a go. This will mean promotion, a pr campaign and also buying space on the retailers' shelves. The latter may shock some and is not always acknowledged, but there's no doubt that this 'contribution to promotional costs' does still prevail.

Once the book is published it does more or less well, depending on a number of factors - not least, one likes to think, how good it is! The problem then is with a second book, if the first one has not come up to expectations, as the bookselling chains will refuse to stock it, although independents may give more leeway.

Dan Franklin, Jonathan Cape publisher, explains it this way: 'Publishing the midlist has got tougher. It's got tougher to the extent that subscriptions are a half, sometimes even a quarter, or what they used to be. Nobody buys the books upfront anymore. All of our efforts have to be made after the reviews have appeared, whereas in the old days we used to be able to subscribe 1,500 or 2,000 copies of the book before it was published. That has completely disappeared.'

Giles Foden, a literary author, says: 'The idea that one will simply progress from better book to better book, to better remuneration is not the same any more. Publishing is a business and no one can forget that, but it is also a culture as well. There is a slight danger of the bifurcation of the market, not into three pieces but into two: bestsellers and then everything else.'

Both Franklin and Foden are talking about literary fiction, but the same dangers threaten more middlebrow books and also genres such as crime fiction and fantasy. In the category publishing areas there is more emphasis on building series with the same main characters or a continuing theme, or building an author's name. But it's hard for publishers to do this unless they can make a reasonable success of the first book.

None of this is very cheering for unpublished authors, but it does go some way to explaining why it is so extremely hard to find a publisher for a 'perfectly good' first novel. It needs to be real bestseller material to stand much chance in the market. And even then that first book has got to be a success for the author's second novel to stand a real chance.