Stuck in the Midlist with You: On Being a Midlist Author

Mel Campbell published her first book, Out of Shape, last year. Since then, she’s been struggling with ideas of what it is to be a successful author … along with most of the other authors published in Australia. Here, she reflects on what it means to be in the ‘midlist’ right now: financially, personally and professionally.

What are your ideas of literary success? A multi-book deal with a six-figure advance, after a fierce bidding war between publishers. Your book displayed prominently in bookshops. Giving readings to rapt audiences, signing copies, appearing on TV and radio, being interviewed in the weekend papers. Glowing reviews. Sell-out appearances at writers’ festivals. Your book rocketing up the bestseller lists while simultaneously winning major awards and prizes. International book tours and foreign language editions. Movie and TV adaptations. Fat royalty cheques.

Being a published author is exactly like this for almost nobody.

This year alone, we’ve heard about acclaimed authors working in attics, that first-time Australian authors of literary fiction sell, on average, 984 copies, that only 11.5% of British professional authors earn their income solely from writing, and that most authors make less than $1,000 a year.

The average author’s life is likely to entail modest sales, day jobs to support their writing, and being completely ignored for awards. If they’re lucky, their books do well enough, both commercially and critically, to convince a publisher to commission further books from them, and over they can develop a reputation for writing of quiet quality.

They are mid-list authors.

‘Mid-list’ is a publishing term encompassing books and authors that are neither debutants nor bestsellers. Mid-list authors are often talented and well reviewed. They might even be quite well known. Beneficiaries of the Australia Council’s new grants for publishers of mid-list authors include such respected writers as Wayne Macauley, Paddy O’Reilly, Tony Birch, Krissy Kneen, Gerald Murnane and Charlotte Wood.

The mid-list has historically been, in the words of publisher Colin Robinson, ‘publishing’s experimental laboratory’ – a space where authors can hone their craft, and perhaps create a future bestseller. Wolf Hall made a star of Hilary Mantel, but it was her tenth novel in a diverse body of work that also included short stories and memoir. Similarly, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume autobiographical novel My Struggle made him an international name, transcending his previous two novels. And Gillian Flynn had two standalone crime novels under her belt before Gone Girl became a runaway success in 2012.

They are the exceptions. The well-documented cost pressures on book retailing have scooped the soft centre out of publishing. Once, perhaps 80% of the book market consisted of diverse mid-list titles whose low sales were offset for their publishers by the top-selling 20%. Today, it’s increasingly unlikely that any given book will become a bestseller – John le Carré’s agent Jonny Geller estimates that the balance between bestselling and mid-list titles is now more like 4% versus 96% – but those few that succeed do so much more dramatically. In 2012, the total number of books sold in Australia dropped by 6.3% – but it would have dropped by 11.2% if not for the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, which sold almost three million copies.

It’s hard to say what’s most responsible for this lopsided publishing environment. There’s an incredible proliferation of new titles. Authors are encouraged to cultivate ‘personal brands’ that teach readers to expect the same kind of book from them every time. The publishing industry has become increasingly dependent on milking rigidly codified genres. And a sclerotic critical apparatus makes it harder for readers to sample the true breadth of authors, topics and writing styles currently being published.

As bricks-and-mortar bookstores go under, library budgets are slashed and newspaper book sections are squeezed for page space and reviewer pay, readers are increasingly turning to online recommendation algorithms and social reading websites to uncover new books. These mechanisms tend to mirror an individual’s existing tastes and create echo chambers of opinion in small peer groups.

Consequently, the same few books seem to get read and discussed everywhere – in newspapers and magazines, at festivals, on award judging panels and in social media. And then this ‘buzz’ drives further sales.

Today’s bestsellers no longer mitigate the comparatively modest risk represented by the mid-list. Instead, all books are expected to become bestsellers, including those by mid-list authors, who must achieve better commercial and critical outcomes on smaller advances and marketing budgets. The money their publishers save is ploughed into keeping bestselling authors happy, or luring promising debut authors.

While bestselling authors’ careers can snowball as they accumulate attention and resources, mid-list authors’ careers can stagnate as successive books are released to increased indifference. There’s a lot of organisational and festival support for young, emerging and debut writers, but if your first book doesn’t set the world on fire, and nor does your second, you’re on your own.

Three novels in, American author Russell Rowland is currently languishing without an agent or publisher. ‘When did it turn from “You have a solid track record, so we’ll definitely give your next book a look” to “You’ve had your day in the sun, and you didn’t generate enough sales, so it’s time to give others a chance”,’ Rowland asks plaintively.

Initiatives such as the Australia Council’s publishing and promotion grants aim to disrupt this inertia, by encouraging publishers to invest in authors who’ve previously published at least two books. (It’s unclear, however, whether they’ll survive the recent restructure of the OzCo grant system.)

But nobody is stepping in to lighten mid-list authors’ emotional burden. Authors tend to put on a brave face in public to perform an authorial identity – not merely to protect their ‘personal brand’, but out of basic professional pride. We all want to be seen as competent by peers and readers. And from the outside, mid-list authors can seem much more established and accomplished than they feel. Who’d shatter that illusion?

But feeling unable to discuss the slings and arrows of mid-list life with your peers can be devastatingly lonely. In Rowland’s words, it’s like being ‘in exile from your own kind’.

That’s why I want to promote solidarity among mid-list authors. As a small first step, I started a Facebook group for mid-listers. And I’m hosting an informal social event for mid-listers this Saturday afternoon as part of the Melbourne Writers’ Festival. All are welcome, even bestselling authors – especially if they spill secrets and buy rounds.

I want to create safe spaces where we don’t feel obliged to perform ‘success’, and where we can be one another’s supporters rather than competitors. We can mitigate the humiliating demands of self-promotion, and share industry advice.

Most of all, we can reassure one another that, as author Phillip Lopate writes, the world doesn’t ignore our literary effort; but ‘it tends to distribute the rewards in a mystifyingly erratic manner’. It’s humbling, and comforting, to recognise that literary success is essentially out of our control. People aren’t relegated to ‘bestseller’ or ‘mid-list’ on the basis of their intrinsic merit – it’s a crapshoot.

And the other great thing about this randomness is that there is no secret to success. Publishers have no idea what the next massive blockbuster might be. Which leaves open the possibility that you might still write it.

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