Is There a Market for Midlist?

Elizabeth Bluemle -- September 19th, 2013

The answer is, of course there is a market for midlist (that is, not bestselling but solid) titles — but is that market growing or shrinking? I’ve been in this field a long time, and I can’t tell. It feels a little like the economy: the top few percent of books receive a wildly disproportionate percentage of sales (and reviews, and publicity). There’s been a consolidation of outlets for books — from perhaps 4,000 independent bookstores in the U.S. a couple of decades ago to less than half that now, as well as the loss of Borders handing even more sales, presumably, to Internet traffic controlled largely by one vendor — and a shrinking of book review avenues in print sources, as well. In terms of publicity, it seems to me that more publishing dollars are going to fewer big books, while smaller books are left to fend for themselves more than they were a decade ago.

On the other side of the balance sheet is the explosion of social media and the attendant promotional avenues, which allow authors (and publishers and booksellers) to reach greater numbers of readers directly.

It’s hard to know how all of these factors counterbalance one another.

I think about this question often. It comes up when I encounter books I love, books that are easy to handsell to customers but which, for whatever reason, never quite convert into what I think of as “household name” books. For instance, John Himmelman’s utterly adorable Katie Loves the Kittens.

This book charms the socks off everyone I show it to. It’s about a dog who positively vibrates with joyful enthusiasm when her people bring home three little kittens to join the family — but whose exuberance goes awry, scaring the kitties and giving the humans the wrong impression that she dislikes them — again and again.

From Katie Loves the Kittens by John Himmelman (Henry Holt, 2008), image courtesy Junior Library Guild

The story is perfect for young kids. It’s got all the right elements: coziness, humor, heart, a little suspense and worry before the perfect resolution. It’s a winner of a book, and it’s the kind of picture book I dread going out of print because its sales may be good but not New York Times bestseller good. (Katie and the Kittens is a Junior Library Guild selection, so it may have blockbuster sales in that regard. I certainly hope so!)

How has the midlist book market changed in the past 10 or so years? What do those of you in the know — publishers, editors, longtime midlist authors — think is the state of the midlist book at the moment?

6 thoughts on “Is There a Market for Midlist?

  1. Melissa Posten

    This has long been a concern of mine, too. Some of my favorite authors are midlist authors, and I always despair when it seems like no one is talking about their books at all. I wonder what sort of a push we could all do. Midlist Mondays? Some Twitter pushes?

  2. Janice Moser

    As a semi-retired worker and a full-time reader (Squeezing it in even during lunch breaks at work), who reads several e-books a week, I would love to see more info about mid-list books. I subscribe to 7 book newsletters, for that reason ! Even in the mainstream media, we are inundated with info about the top-of-the-listers, but we have to scrounge for info about the mid-listers, which ironically are often the BEST. Perhaps PW itself could have a column in which you guys regularly feature a couple of these, to get the word out. It would be win-win, for authors, publishers, bookstores AND readers! Also does anyone know where we could find a complete list of books each week, and not just the top 10 or 20? Thanks!

  3. Ellie Miller

    I’m not in the business either, but as a senior and…since I’m retired and have time to read…an avid and I can honestly say voracious reader, I’m heartsick about what seems to be happening to some of my favorite midlist genre authors. One of the joys of the internet is that it facilitates communication with the ones whom I especially enjoy and admire who are usually very kind about returning my messages. Several times recently I’ve had occasion to enquire…when/what’s next in series which I’m following with eager attention and pleasure only to be told (as one woman actually did) “Oh, I have lots more stories in my head, but the publisher did not renew my contract.” End of story (literally and metaphorically). Yes, there are alternatives (primarily electronic or self-published), but it’s so sad for me to find so many ‘old friends’ suddenly missing from bookstore/library shelves because the NUMBERS simply or apparently did not add up to whatever PTB’s satisfaction.

  4. elizabethD

    I think this is where smaller publishing houses shine. Their books tend to rarely/never go out of print and they are oftentimes more creative with their marketing since they don’t have big budgets to simply throw money at the regular channels. The big houses, like you said, are great with the big names, big splash sort of books. But in today’s market, where anybody can be a publisher and many of those that were originally established for self-publishing purposes are now growing into respected, bona-fide publishing houses, I think new opportunities abound for authors/illustrators. The question is where will these books be sold? That’s where the bigger houses still hold an edge, but I also think we are creating new market-places. (Maybe not quickly enough to keep up with the growing flood of new titles, still…) I think midlist may move to newer venues, publishing houses, ebooks/apps, etc. I just hope some of our favorites don’t fall through the cracks during the transition. e

    1. Maya

      Coming late to this conversation (vacation!), but I think you are on to something there, Elizabeth. When considering purchases for the library’s teen collection, I have my favorite imprints and small presses, who I trust to be very thoughtful curators of what they chose to publish. This has also informed my comic book purchases (personal collection AND library collection) for years and years.

      Many libraries have definitely felt the push to be more like a big bookstore and have stacks of the most popular titles while making hard decisions about lesser-known midlist ones. We all wish it weren’t so — or really, that we could have the money and shelf space to do BOTH. The best outcome is the opportunity to handsell something to the disappointed patron who came in looking for that NYT best seller.

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