Publishing · Self-publishing

Whatever Happened to the Mid-list?: Part 2

I’m beginning to feel that perhaps I was a tad harsh on publishers in Part 1 of this post. Publishers have to turn a profit, after all, so who can blame them for opting for the known and the safe? They aren’t psychic, and successes can be difficult to predict – who, ten years ago, would have guessed that a book about sparkling teenage vampires would be the next big thing?

An on-demand book printer, which is relevant to this post... Image credit: Dvortygirl | Wikimedia Commons
An on-demand book printer, which is relevant to this post… Image credit: Dvortygirl | Wikimedia Commons

Besides, these are tough times. Books now have to compete with a glut of entertainment: the internet, gaming, TV, and films and music that are available pretty much on demand. Sales of print books are in decline, and the growth in eBook sales is slowing too. You can hardly blame publishers for adopting a survival strategy.

However, such explanations probably provide scant consolation for authors who are caught in the ever-tightening vice of financial viability. Like our poor beleaguered mid-listers, for example.

On the face of it, self-publishing provides an obvious answer to the problem. And in many ways, it really does. For the self-published, that initial step – getting one’s work “out there” – doesn’t constitute much of a problem. A few clicks of the mouse, and there your book is, on the virtual shelves of the biggest bookstore in the world.

However, the very size of that bookstore may actually confound the original problem – that of locating the idiosyncratic, the offbeat, the quiet, and the understated. The authors of such books probably won’t be jumping up and down and screaming for attention. Instead, they’re more likely to shuffle around nervously in the background, timidly hoping that sooner or later their books will be noticed. And many (most?) authors fall into this category, because – let’s face it – writing talent and business acumen rarely go hand-in-hand.

Getting your work 'out there' has never been easier. Image credit: Lars Curfs | Wikimedia Commons
Getting your work “out there” has never been easier. Image credit: Lars Curfs | Wikimedia Commons

I’ve read enough excellent self-published books to know, beyond any doubt, that there are plenty more I’d enjoy. Unfortunately, the chances of my finding those books are small. In a curious paradox, they’re in about the most public, most well-trodden place in cyberspace – the Amazon store – yet pretty much invisible. Most self-published books, frankly, don’t shift many copies – not because they’re no good, but for any one of the numerous reasons that books don’t sell. A handful of self-published genre writers have had stunning, unbelievable success (Hugh Howey and Amanda Hocking, to name but two very obvious examples), and that’s great; but mid-listers are unlikely to emulate their triumph.

In my last post, I moaned about lack of choice. However, when I’m browsing online I often find that I have completely the opposite problem. The sheer number of choices is mind-boggling, bewildering. If a book isn’t setting the charts on fire, it’s likely to get lost in that manic whirligig of products. How can readers, faced with this same confusing carousel, be blamed for making safe choices – the known, the understood, the New York Times bestsellers or the latest celebrity autobiographies?

Image credit: Editor5807 | Wikimedia Commons
Image credit: Editor5807 | Wikimedia Commons

There are, of course, vast numbers of book bloggers and websites devoted to books, whether they be self-published, traditionally-published, or both, and this may be one area in which the self-publisher actually has a slight advantage. Book bloggers are likely to be more inclusive than the book pages of major newspapers, for example, where the emphasis now tends to be on “click bait”, the big stories and big names that pull in readers. Print newspapers and magazines have always been limited by restricted space; of all the books published in a week, only so many can get a coveted position in the Times Literary Supplement, for example. Blogs and websites help to fill the gaps, but they are mostly manned by unpaid volunteers who, however great their passion for books, can only review so many. Goodreads, for example, is an excellent site for anyone who wants to glean a range of opinions about a given book. Yet, though the site itself is vast, information and recommendations tend to be exchanged within limited circles of friends, which rather reduces one’s chances of finding anything new or unexpected.

A few months ago, I got all excited about the fact that the Guardian had set up a self-publishing showcase. In the event, it turned out to be a bit of a damp squib, its reach limited and its featured authors more so. I understand it has since been quietly shelved, though plans are apparently in the pipeline to resurrect it in a new, improved form.

There’s another worry that’s recently begun to gnaw away at the corners of my mind – a vague and unformed worry as yet, but a persistent one. Authors are no longer necessarily subject to the whims of publishers; but, with Amazon’s increasing dominance of the marketplace, aren’t they just submitting to yet another massive corporation? Have the Big Six been replaced by the Colossal One? I’m not criticising Amazon by saying this, believe me. Amazon’s incredible success is due to its business savvy and focus on customer service, not because Jeff Bezos made a pact with the Devil. And for the self-published author, Amazon is a godsend – for now.

At the moment, Amazon’s interests and those of self-published authors seem to coincide pretty neatly. But what will happen if one day that is no longer the case? Authors are being naive if they think that Amazon executives are concerned about their wellbeing per se. They aren’t – not because they’re evil, but because they’re businessmen.

I’ve no answers to any of these concerns, but I really hope that an answer can be found. The more I think about it, the more convinced I become that the apparent opposition between self-published and trade-published is actually a false dichotomy. If there’s a good book out there that I might enjoy, I want to find it and read it. I don’t care whether it was published by the Big Six or by the author himself. I don’t care whether it’s a runaway bestseller or languishing way down in the upper thousands. I don’t care whether it’s slickly produced or a little rough around the edges. But self-publishers themselves, in depressing numbers, often ape big business. They focus on what they think will sell. There’s a lot of enthusiastic chatter about marketing and target audiences, but a dearth of conversation about the more exciting possibilities that are available to us. It’s shame when one of the most persuasive arguments in favour of self-publishing – that it can free authors from financial constraints, and enable them to write niche works – is rarely heard from self-publishers themselves. If readers distrust our motives, we can hardly blame them.

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12 thoughts on “Whatever Happened to the Mid-list?: Part 2

  1. Very astute comments, Mari, on a complex situation. Reasoned and well thought out as ever.

    Though I am not as kind as you about traditional publishers – I still think that they don’t deserve to make a profit if they won’t take risks – that was the traditional political economics justification for an entrepreneur’s making money after all – they are only part of the problem as you say.
    On niche writing particularly, a problem has always been unfortunately that the majority of readers have frankly tacky taste – romantic fantasies for women and He Man Action stuff for men. Escapism always seems to have been the essence of it.
    As you know, I have been exploring the appalling works of that Victorian best seller of sloppy trash Charles Garivice, who aimed to please a ‘newly literate’ class of readership, servant girls and nursemaids, etc,(though I believe during World War One ordinary soldiers in the trenches started to read his stuff, too).
    It’s a sorry comment on the continuing sexism and violence of our society that these tastes still should go on today.
    There was a time in the eighties (here I go: ‘In my young days we…’) when educated women didn’t admit to reading romance, but now its made a great resurgence, the only difference being it’s more sexually explicit. It can sell very well on amazon, and in catering to this less than elevated taste, an unknown can make writing profitable. I know intelligent, witty, feminist thinking women Indie writers who write far beneath the level at which they could write and never venture outside their chosen genre – because they want their writing to be profitable, and the chances of doing that through producing something original are dismally slim.
    As far back as 1833 Aleksandr Pushkin saw the problems of the two trends in literature – popular taste and literary merit, and tried to combine popular appeal, with an stirring, romantic storyline with literary merit in ‘Dubrovsky’. (There I go again; I’ll be on to Gaskell’s ‘Svylvia’s Lovers’ next). I thought he did a good job of it, but I’ve only been able to find one piece of literary criticism on it, and the opinion of that author on the romantic aspect of that robber novel was scathing. Combining the two SEEMS to be the obvious solution, but is very difficult.
    But as you say, regarding self published authors experimenting in writing – the unexpected happens…

    1. Thanks for the comment, Lucinda. There have always been, and probably always will be, writers who write specifically for the market, and I don’t have a problem with that – good luck to them, I say! The problem as I see it is that books that don’t fit neatly into a given genre or are not obviously marketable are always going to be less noticeable – even to people like me, who want to find them. I’ve discovered some wonderful books, both self-published and traditionally-published, over the last few years, and most of them have come to my attention due to a combination of chance and word-of-mouth; but how many other wonderful books am I completely unaware of?

      Still, the unexpected does indeed happen, and it’s early days yet. Who knows what’s going to happen over the coming years?

  2. I don’t know that I agree that Amazon’s interests and those of self-published authors coincides. It doesn’t feel that way to me. I think a lot of their promotions are designed more to look like they’re doing something for us to keep us coming back to them rather than actually doing something for us.

    Their policies on deleting reviews are also anti-writer.

    1. Hi Kingmidget, and thanks for commenting! I agree with everything you say, really – I was really thinking about the simple fact that we are able to distribute through Amazon, which in itself is a tremendous blessing. I agree that a lot of Amazon’s practices do seem to be rather tough on authors, but they are the dominant force at the moment and can do pretty much what they want. Personally, I’ve always found Smashwords to be far more fair and reasonable in its dealings with authors. Amazon could take a leaf out of Mark Coker’s book, but unfortunately they don’t need to…

      1. Completely agree that Smashwords is fairer. I just haven’t figured out how to make distribution through their site work very well.

  3. I enjoyed very much the second part of your analysis, Mari. I’d have to agree with most of what you had to say here. I suspect that one set of oligopolists in the publishing world will be supplanted by another. I think that we’re going to have to find new ways to circumvent the Behemoths, to connect the reader who’s prepared to use his/her brain with the writer who does likewise. I’m just not sure how!

    1. Thanks for the comment, Paul. I don’t like the idea of enormous corporations controlling huge chunks of the market either, but that just seems to be the way things are going, and I really don’t know what can be done about it. I like to think that if the little guys all worked together they could achieve great things, but like you I’m just not sure how this could happen! Still, the internet has had a tremendous effect in terms of connecting likeminded people, so who knows what might happen in the future?

  4. I wouldn’t want to give the impression that I am attacking people who write for the market, but I think it’s a shame that so many good writers feel obliged to write according to popular taste, and so neither the writer, nor the reader stretches themselves.
    Unfortunately (I must be in a sour mood today) I thought Smashwords did behave unfairly during the recent hoo-ha about obscene writing. In an effort to remove all obscene (that is, paedo stuff etc) writing (which was of course, quite right) they deleted all self published work for a short while, but I noted that books by established, traditionally published writers (historical romances, generally) that romanticize rape still remained up. Something of a double standard, I thought (goes off to eat some more lemons).

    1. Hi, Lucinda. I’m often to be found sucking lemons myself, so you’re not alone!

      My memories of that episode are a little vague; I seem to recall that Smashwords were pressured into taking action by PayPal. As i remember it, PayPal eventually backed down. I got the feeling that Smashwords were largely compelled to do something that they didn’t want to do, and protested about it, and eventually won. Smashwords does not, I believe, distribute the books of traditionally-published authors (unless their publishers are very small, “indie” houses) so I can’t imagine that they were involved in any double standards in that respect. As I say, though, my memory on this matter is blurred…

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