As I like to say, where do I start?
Well, let’s start with this notion authors have that when you’re accepted by a publisher, you’re not paying anything to get published. That’s wrong, actually. Even if they give you an advance (and, for most authors, it’s a small one), that’s exactly what it is–an advance on your royalties. And (theoretically, anyway) you won’t see any royalty payments until you earn back that advance (which, in most cases, never happens).
You see, what’s really going on is profit-sharing. The publisher is collecting your earnings on a book and taking a portion of the profit. So you ARE paying the publisher, just on a contingency basis. (Sort of like a personal injury attorney who takes a third of the proceeds from a settlement or judgment.) The question is, what do authors get in return in this profit-sharing arrangement? They’ll get editing, of course (barely, these days). Quality control is supposed to be one of the benefits of having a traditional publisher. (Though you wouldn’t know it to look at some of the poorly-edited crap coming out of the New York houses.) You’d think they’d get marketing and promotional backing so the book will sell and make each party more money. Well, that depends.
Having said that, let’s look at this concept of the midlist author (the intrepid souls to whom I’ve dedicated this blog). Many people ask, what exactly IS the midlist? The middle of whose list? How do you determine the authors who qualify? And what does it mean for those authors in terms of marketing, promotion, etc.?
Well, IMHO, the midlist is where authors fall when they’re selling their work and have a readership, but aren’t in the stratospheric heights of the bestseller list. Which is to say it includes the vast majority of authors.
So how are bestselling authors treated as opposed to midlist authors? You’d think that publishers might want to put some promo and marketing toward the lesser-known authors, right? But, no, it doesn’t work that way at all.
Here’s one person’s take on the whole matter (it’s phrased in terms of an answer to someone’s question about whether “a list” exists and who has it). And it shows just how fraked the publishing business model is [and, yes, my comments are in brackets, as usual]:
“Actually, there is a list. It’s each publisher’s catalog. In each genre or each imprint the publisher brings out approximately 6 books in each seasonal/quarterly/periodic catalog. The catalog is used by the publisher’s sales force to sell books to the bookstores. If you’ve never seen one, they can be requested from the publisher.
“The top of the list is what they hope will be their best selling book, the one with the biggest advance and, consequently, the biggest advertising/promotional push. It’s usually a book by a brand name author. [Am I missing something here? So publishers put all their promo and ad dollars into pushing authors everyone already knows about?? Isn't that a little like McDonald's coming out with a new sandwich, then promoting the hell out the Big Mac???] Sometimes, if the brand name has missed a deadline, a mid-list (see below) author can slip into this slot and reap some of the benefits of additional push and publicity. [God, you gotta love it. Big brand name author f*cks up deadline and midlister (possibly) gets a few scraps of promo and marketing out of it. You gotta admire the strategic marketing genius at work here.]
“At the bottom of the list is the new author, the promising talent, someone the publisher is grooming for bigger things. [By doing what? Telling absolutely no one about them? Okay, maybe they'll spring for some ARCs to send to the right reviewers. But without marketing and promotional support--then what?] If this book does well–by that they mean meets expectations–they may buy the next one. If it doesn’t, the author will probably be gone. [Yeah, and don't let the door hit you on the ass on your way out.] Or maybe it’s a literary tome they feel obliged to publish, but have little hope of making money on. [Obliged? Give me a break. If they're so obligated to publish the thing, why not really get behind it? Are they in this business to make money or not? Have they considered targeting their marketing to the people who'll want to read this literary gem? Publishers hire marketing experts (or so I've heard). Why don't they make them work for a living?]
“And then there’s the middle of this list–the mid-list. These are the books by solid, but not spectacularly financially successful authors. [Gee, wonder why? All the promo and marketing dollars are going elsewhere. And these authors had the crazy notion that their publishers were actually giving them something in the bargains they made with them.] They may be building to the breakout book which will elevate them to that top spot, [yeah, sure--assuming they can manage to get noticed in the first place--no thanks to their damned publisher] but for now, the author has a successful track record and sell through has made their other work profitable. [Huh? Profitable to whom? I'd say that would be the publisher. Because it sure ain't the author.] Placement within the mid-list … is somewhat subjective. The higher on the list, the greater the publisher’s expectations for the book.” [Great expectations alone won't sell books. If you want to move a product--and a book is ultimately a product--you have to put some resources into marketing and promotion. And, if you're not already a brand name bestseller, how's that going to happen? Unless one of the brand name authors totally f*cks up (see above).]
Okay, so having said all that, guess what other really fraked up thing is customary in the publishing business. Bookstores are allowed to return books to the publisher for a 100% refund. Yes, you read that right. Bookstores can simply return the books they’ve bought and say, “Here you go, publisher. Give us our money back.”
Is there any other business in existence that allows a total refund on inventory purchased? (Please let me know if there is, because I’m awfully curious.)
And you realize the effect this has on authors, of course. They bear the brunt of these returns by having a percentage of their royalties withheld to cover returns.
So, if the bookstores purchase 100,000 copies of an author’s book, the author doesn’t just get paid royalties on those copies. No, sirree. The publisher holds a portion of those earnings in reserve in case 99,900 (or more) copies are returned. (Wow! Doesn’t that provide a huge incentive to do this sh*t for a living?)
I’ve heard more than once that midlist authors are actually the backbone to the publishing business. That it’s midlist sales that support the excessive advances that go out to celebrities and brand name authors. Authors say this with (what I’d consider to be) misplaced pride. [Um, can anyone say sweatshop?] Seriously, if an author is doing the heavy lifting on his or her promotion and marketing and churning out a book a year (industry standard), why hand your hard-earned money over to a publisher to finance their bone-headed, excessive advances to other authors? What kind of business sense does this make for the midlist author? None that I can see.
So, someone remind me. Why do I want a traditional publisher?