From Midlist to Blockbuster and Beyond

As recommended last week by Ann Reid, I’ve bought Al Zuckerman’s Writing the Blockbuster Novel – not a book I’d be seen dead reading, you understand. That title is on a par with How to Win Friends and Influence People or The Joy of Sex – not things we Brits like to admit to needing or wanting.

Would I like to write a blockbuster novel? That depends on what it means. If it means having your name embossed in letters over two inches high on a paperback that balloons as soon as you open it into a great fat thing you can’t put down because it’s a tense and breathless read but then, as soon as you finish it, you throw it in the bin and out of the mind, then no, I don’t.

If it’s a well-crafted piece that’s taken years to write and then suddenly takes off in the public consciousness, like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, well then, oh yes please, of course I do.

Life is very difficult for the artist, whatever the medium. It’s super-celebrity or nobody with nothing in between. Really good actors, especially of the female variety, have to have their eyes set on Hollywood rather than the RSC if they want to get work. Cellists do better if they have magnificent thighs in slinky dresses. Singers need to be drop-dead gorgeous to look at before we start to listen to them. There are exceptions to all these of course, but in the main the entertainments industry is dominated by a small coterie of repeating faces when you can be  sure there’s hundreds if not thousands to choose from. But the producers, in whatever guise, look for the bankable name.

I’ve just looked up ‘midlist’ to see if it means what I think it means, and it does. Here’s the definition from good old Wikipedia, long may it live:

‘Midlist is a term in the publishing industry which refers to books which are not bestsellers but are strong enough to economically justify their publication (and likely, further purchases of future books from the same author). The vast majority of total titles published are midlist titles, though they represent a much smaller fraction of total book sales, which are dominated by bestsellers and other very popular titles.

Authors who consistently publish acceptable but not bestselling books are referred to as Midlist authors.’

Reading on, I discovered it was a court case in the US which changed how publishers have to account for and can depreciate unsold inventory each year that made life difficult for the midlist author. I also clicked the link to find out what The Long Tail is, and began to feel more hopeful.

Things may be changing. For a start, everyone tires of the same old same old. We all know why Pa has been absent in the current series of Larkrise to Candleford – he has another life at Downton Abbey. (Little does Ma know that he’s not a stonemason in Oxford at all, but a butler in a large country estate).

New developments like e-readers, and the sudden market dominance of Amazon’s Kindle (curses, curses, am I to be enslaved to Amazon forever? – a blockbuster company if ever there was one) will allow us to be more wide-ranging in our choices, more experimental in our purchases perhaps.

And then there’s the Long Tail. This is the view that it’s better to sell fewer longer than to sell a lot all at once. Again, the e-reader makes the Long Tail more possible, since it overcomes the huge expense of storage.

Godstow Press has just signed an agreement with the distributor, Central Books. I didn’t know about Long Tails when I was telling the director that A Tabernacle for the Sun sold about five copies a week when it was published by Allison and Busby back in 1997. ‘Fourteen years later, it is still selling five copies a week,’ I told him. ‘And that, I reckon, is a real publishing phenomenon.’ I was joking, of course, but he was quiet for a little, then said, ‘Do you know, it is.’ But we’re hoping that between us we can make it ten.

I would so much rather write something enduring than something that bursts like a firework only to die in the sky seconds later. Nevertheless, I have turned to Mr Zuckerman’s book with much interest and am half way through the chapter on Point of View. So that will be the next posting, on Wednesday.

Have a good week. My advice is, don’t worry about the fate and future of your writing, just write. It’s only the book you can’t stop writing that has a chance of becoming a book the reader can’t put down.

10 thoughts on “From Midlist to Blockbuster and Beyond

  1. Midlist-type books are made for the POD (publish on demand) format, especially since the authors’ backlist can be kept in print forever. My own first novel has been out for almost six years now, and I hardly do anything to market it any more, but it trickles on, with regular sales in print and paperback.
    A year or two ago, Amazon tried to corner the POD-publishing market by first buying a POD company (Booksurge, if memory serves) and then demanding that other small POD firms contract with Booksurge to fulfill printing and binding – the threat being that unless they did so, their authors’ books wouldn’t be listed on Amazon. The POD publisher Booklocker took them to court and won … terrific bust-up in indy author circles, I assure you.
    We took away a deeper meaning from the whole bru-hah-hah: Amazon would just as soon sell ten books by a hundred authors in a year, as well as a thousand by one … and they wanted to get a substantial piece of the action by getting into publishing as well as retailing books.

  2. Linda, I look forward to hearing your thoughts on Zuckerman’s POV chapter. I DO recognize that the titile, “Writing the Blockbuster Novel,” is a bit off-putting, but then there is that old saying about judging a book by it’s cover, right?

    Truth is, I probably wouldn’t have picked it up either but Ken Follett recommended it and– since you say you haven’t read Follett’s work– I can vouch for his ability to write complex and compelling novels from multiple points of view — and I admire that, and try to learn from him.

    My interest — and my reason in suggesting this book to you and your readers doesn’t have to do with the publishers’ hyped-up title, or dreams of a Jackie Collins lifestyle. My reason for mentioning it has to do with it providing me, at least, with another tool with which to develop my craft and skill as a writer through the effective use of multiple POV in my work.

    Apprarently, when it comes to learning my craft as a novelist I’m not too proud to recognize good and helpful advice wherever I find it. And I’m not embarrassed to say it, or have people see me read such things, either. Frankly, my dears, I don’t give a damn what people think of what I read.

    What I care about is that when they read MY book it will draw them in, captivate them, move them and leave them wanting more in the end.

    If the sure-fire recipe for THAT were printed in Sanskrit on the bottom of a tin of cheese and onion Pringles tossed into the River Tyne, I’m afraid I would be the one who would learn how to dive, gobble the Pringles and reach for my Sanskrit dictionary to translate it. What can I say? She who looks, sometimes finds:)

  3. I absolutely agree with everything you have to say. Your voice is part of a growing dawn chorus, I think, heralding a new day in fiction, in which literary novels have plots, and commercial fiction is beautifully written with deep characterisation. Who knows, may be a day will come when we are unable to tell them apart. Bring it on…

  4. Oh and…. The one problem with an author always being published as POD with a big company…. we will never get our book back. This is happening to me with A Hollow Crown (Heinemann / Arrow UK) It is now, technically, it is nearly out of print (zero copies available in store). I want it reprinted with a re-edited version because the original was dreadfully produced. I have the re-edited & 40,000 word shorter version as Forever Queen, the US edition.
    Heinemann don’t want to know about a reprint with a new version, nor can I get even attempt to get the rights back until it goes out of print & they decide to not reprint (i.e remainder it) As POD it will never go out of print – I will never get it back.
    Not good.

    Long tail is the way to sell. So many books are 9 day wonders. On sale for 3 – 4 months then remaindered.

    When Heinemann decided to drop the rest of my backlist (about 5 years ago before they cottoned on to POD) I decided to go to a small indie company with the books. I figured it was worth my while to do them myself (having nothing to prove) and sell even 1 a month rather than have them out of print (as they were with Heinemann) and sell 0 a month.
    Like you, I reckon I sell about 10 a month of my Arthurian titles, more for my others. That’s fine by me – though yes I am working on doubling the output.

    Anne – I thoroughly agree
    Celia – we are still suffering from that Amazon arrogance. My Sea Witch series are (at the moment) printed by Booksurge. Barnes & Noble won’t touch them, they insist the books don’t exist (because they are printed by Booksurge.) Very frustrating for publisher, author and reader.

  5. You’re right, Helen, and it’s a bad situation. I’ve always managed to get rights back – mine, and those of others we wish to republish – without any trouble, but the situation has changed.

    Do you belong to the Society of Authors? I’m sure I’ve read something about this, but some time ago.

    What everyone needs to do is to make sure their publishing contracts have a clause where rights revert naturally if a book is not reprinted within a given period of time, say six months, and I suppose we need to qualify ‘reprinted’ as being a minimum quantity of books, say 500. The SoA will be able to advise.

  6. All this is very familiar. And a reminder on how much the publishing industry depends on we midlisters, who don’t need promotion and minimise risk and just keep long-term pennies trickling in.

    The problem is trying to explain it to one’s not-in-the-field friends: you’re a *published author*? You’ve *been on TV*? Where’s the mansion? Why are you in the nearest branch of Costa with a plug, or cycling from one barely-paid event to another with a bag of books for sale, when you could be lying on the sunlounger, dictating your words of wisdom to some quisling while another brings yet more pina colada?

  7. Oh Jon, thank you for making me laugh after a lifetime of pain on this one. Perfectly intelligent people asking, ‘Have you made your first million yet?’ by way of conversation. If all were right with the world, mid-listers would be content with earning a basic living from their books, but we don’t even get that. It’s millions of pounds or pennies. And then there are those lovely magazines who look at you in amazement when you suggest, tentatively, that they might like to pay you for your review or article. ‘Most of our writers do it for the cause,’ they say. ‘We are the cause,’ I reply. Or would like to, if I didn’t mind not getting any more work.

  8. Congrats on your long tail. Tabernacle is a wonderful novel, and I’m so glad readers keep discovering it. Here’s hoping your new distributor will help fatten the tail!

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