Is Publishing Too Top-Heavy?

This content has been archived. It may no longer be accurate or relevant.

From Publishers Weekly:

Book publishing has long been a hits-driven business. The bestsellers, the logic went, paid for the flops. And it was the authors of those in the middle—the so-called midlist—that publishers hoped to build into the next crop of bestsellers. But midlist sales have faltered enough in recent years that there is a growing concern among publishers and agents about how the business can create new hits when the field they once turned to is, well, disappearing.

Simon & Schuster CEO Carolyn Reidy, during a discussion of the company’s second-quarter results, pointed to generating interest in midlist books as one of the biggest challenges facing all publishers.

Though the hits-driven nature of publishing has not changed in recent years, the nature of those hits has. Due to a number of coalescing factors—including a shrinking physical retail market and an increase in competing entertainment driven by the proliferation of streaming TV platforms—book publishing has watched as a handful of megaselling titles have begun to command an ever-larger share of its sales.

According to NPD BookScan, which tracks an estimated 80% of unit sales of print books, sales of the 100 bestselling adult titles increased 23% in 2018 compared to 2017. All other titles ranked below that top tier either fell or remained flat. On a 52-week rolling basis through Oct. 5, 2019, the sales of the top 100 books rose another 6% over the comparable 52-week period ending in 2018, while, again, all other sales levels either fared worse or stayed flat. Taken together, sales of the 100 bestselling print books rose nearly 30% over a period of about two years, while books that ranked between 101 and 10,000 saw their total print unit sales fall 16%. Books that ranked below 10,000 remained flat in the period.

. . . .

The cycle that creates this system is a frustratingly circular one. “The top books—[which are] most often [earning] the highest advances—require serious capital and resources to push them into the top slots,” McLean explained. And publishers, she added, “are under serious pressure to recoup their investment” on their most expensive acquisitions. The situation, she went on, “is amplified by the need for books to earn their shelf space in mass market retail—big books are a better bet” for those types of outlets.

A publisher at a major house agreed that, to an extent, publishers have contributed to the gap between the top sellers and those below. With social media offering a variety of ways to promote titles that are selling, publishers usually put more resources behind books that are succeeding in order to maintain momentum. As these books get the lion’s share of the houses’ focus, other titles are left to find audiences on their own.

. . . .

As one Big Five editor who specializes in commercial and literary fiction said of his category, “There used to be a lot more books that could sell 40,000–50,000 copies. Now more sell fewer than 10,000 copies.” It seems, he said, that “it’s either feast or famine.”

Those suffering from the famine are, to an extent, a group once known as the midlist. Ironically, if you ask most editors or literary agents to define the term, you’re unlikely to get a specific answer. Few can say, for example, how many books one needs to sell to be considered midlist. The only thing sources agreed on is the fact that the term is negative.

“You want to be debut, literary, or bestselling; you don’t want to be midlist,” one literary agent said. “The midlist is like the middle class; it’s the group that gets squeezed. They don’t get the support from their publishers. They don’t get their due [as writers]. They don’t get the attention they deserve from reviewers. Everybody wants to break out of the midlist.”

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG notes that an indie author can support a reasonably good standard of living by selling 40-50,000 of his/her books. 10,000 copies also works if the author can indie publish 2-3 books per year.

The other point PG will note is that a midlist book that is released by a publisher is left to sink beneath the waves while many indie authors tend to pursue strategies that will help sell both new and old books.

10 thoughts on “Is Publishing Too Top-Heavy?”

  1. As available supply continues to increase, eyeball hours are fixed and wandering, and shelf space is no longer a constraint, it’s likely average book sales will continue to decrease.

    An unconstrained supply is wonderful for consumers, and awful for producers.

  2. Not only are books no longer “going out of print”, but older books that might effectively be so are being digitized and added to the increasing wealth of available works. A new author competes with the best of all that has come before, and if their work is merely adequate then of course it will languish.

    • This is what is happening in video.
      Only in this market the publishers are more concerned for their own future than protecting their current chanhels.
      In video, they are the ones doing the disintermediation and going direct to the eyeballs, exploiting their vast archives to supplement their new releases.
      Instead of backburning their backlist and “midlist”, they are pushing them front and center.

      Where publishers (and Apple TV+) rely on new releases and big names, Disney+, HBOMAX, Prime, Netflix, Hulu, and a bunch of wannabes are relying on backlist volume to entice viewers. Because backlist is new to anybody who hasn’t seen it yet and old good stuff is just as valuable as new good stuff.

      It’s not the age of the book/video, but the quality that matters.

  3. Another legacy problem of Big Publishing…

    Jim Butcher finishes his long awaited big published installment in July of 2019. The book will be released in April of 2020.

    Conversely, John Conroe (self publisher in the same genre) finishes his latest mid October of 2019 and released it a short week later.

    This is the Netflix Bing watch era. Year long delays in publishing a book are NOT what today’s people want!

  4. One of the rare headlines ending in a question mark to which the answer is Yes.

    I’m sure the OP believed it is still No. Probably because his livelihood depends on it.

    The real question is: How do we, the SPAs, exploit this weakness.

    • By continuing to do what we’ve been doing for some time already. Self pubbed writers are fast,flexible, and can pivot on a dime.

      The ponderosa pachyderm publishers with massive inertia and tunnel vision forge blindly ahead.

  5. Here’s the problem with the OP:

    No numerical data was obtained, reviewed, analyzed, or harmed during the making of this assertion.

    In particular, but in no particular order:

    A. Please define “midlist author.” If that is among all printed books, some really, really prominent names that most would consider “top authors” aren’t because below-the-radar categories swamp them. Don’t forget about all of those captive-audience academic books!

    B. Please state, for all books on a specific publisher’s list for a multiyear period, the total verifiable sales; the total verifiable sell-through; the total verifiable direct marketing expenditures; and the total verifiable marketing expenditures including indirect and “synergistic” efforts. Do a defensible statistical analysis and point me to the evidence of superior marginal return for marketing investment on purported high-end authors. (Hint: It doesn’t exist… and in the long run it actually points elsewhere.)

    C. Repeat the analysis for B, this time adding in prominent-in-field third-party awards (e.g., the Pulitzer, the National Book Award; for Romance, the Rita; and so on).

    D. Repeat the analysis for B, this time adjusting for the number of prior books this author has published in this field, and with this publisher.

    None of this is actually being done, let alone systematically. And yet it’s exactly the question one should be asking if one has limited marketing resources: Where can I hope to get the most bang for the buck? Because post hoc rationalization allows bad marketing decisions that depress sales of “guaranteed bestsellers” to hide, but not in the midlist…

Comments are closed.