Friday, 18 November 2011

Mid-list and Proud of It: Catherine Czerkawska


Picture by Matt Zanetti
All novelists know about the mid-list but a straw poll among non-writer friends revealed that almost nobody else does. Yesterday, an artist friend asked ‘what’s the mid-list?’ and when I tried to explain, replied, ‘Oh, you mean the kind of books people actually want to read.’

Which begs the interesting question: what books do people want to read? Possibly as many kinds as there are readers. You probably won’t find celebrity or sporting memoirs in the mid-list. A mid-list novel isn’t a blockbuster or a bestseller although many bestsellers used to come from the fertile ground of the mid-list. These were called breakthrough novels. After publishing several interesting and well written books, an author who had built up a modest following among the reading public would suddenly write a book which ‘took off’ and made him or her (and the publisher) quite a lot of money. You’ll sometimes find prize-winning novels on the mid-list, but although prizes help to boost sales, they are no guarantee of a bestseller, unless you’re talking about the Booker or similar. Now, conventional publishers tend to strive for certainty. After a few underperforming books – and the bar is raised ever higher in terms of sales - a mid-list writer will often be dropped and as a result will find it very hard to be conventionally published again. The harsh truth is that it is better by far to be a debut novelist with potential than a middle aged one with a mid-list track record.

The mid-list may encompass everything from good, well-written genre fiction to novels which some would judge to be literary, but not wildly experimental, with a very great deal of interesting and readable work, both fiction and some non-fiction, in between. A writer may find him or herself at the popular or literary ends of the mid-list and I suspect that many of the ‘literary’ novelists of previous ages would find themselves well and truly mid-listed now.

Every area of creativity has a fertile centre ground. Lots of pieces of work of varying degrees of quality and popularity will grow there, but nobody seems to be able to predict exactly which of those works will suddenly achieve star status. If all these celebrity, sporting and political deals had done as well as predicted, publishing would not be in such an allegedly parlous state and bookshops would not be going out of business. Success in the arts is tricky and audiences are (as any playwright knows) strange, variable and fickle. Nobody has yet managed to come up with a magic formula for pinning them down.

Until now, writers doomed to mid-list shame have tried hard to hide it, either by striving vainly to escape from the label, or pretending that they belong elsewhere. But the relentless erosion of the midlist seems to have had the effect of destroying the fertile ground within which genuine success might be nurtured.

This is what it's like to be a mid-list author!

This is one of the reasons why so much of the mid-list seems to have shifted to eBook publishing. Newly empowered mid-listers – many of us well published, but with a backlist of ‘not quite commercial enough’ novels, stories and/or non-fiction - are reclaiming our lost territories and I think we need to stop apologising for writing the kind of books people want to read, even if they may not want to read them in hundreds of thousands.

My unashamedly mid-list new novel will be published not too long after you read this post, in good time for Christmas. I’ve blogged about it already. It’s a book called Bird of Passage, with a cover by a young and talented digital artist (better known for working on video games) called Matt Zanetti. It has been through several incarnations and in many ways, the gatekeepers were right about those early drafts. The version of it sent out  all those years ago wasn’t right and the feedback received was invaluable. I worked on other things, but I was drawn back to it time and again.

Gradually, over many rewrites, the whole focus of the novel shifted, so that one of the characters became much more central. It’s a love story, for sure, but it’s an obsessive and difficult kind of love with more than a glance at Wuthering Heights along the way. Matt’s cover seems to be a pretty accurate reflection of the loneliness, the mental imprisonment, and the buried suffering of the ‘hero’ – if hero he can be called. The bird, by the way, is the mysterious corncrake, as well as the hero himself.

So it’s a new and different novel, with a new title, but because the old version had been sent out many years ago and (rightly) rejected, I was told that there was no way the new version could be sent out again, no matter how different. I think that’s the dead hand of mid-list thinking at work with no leeway for change and development.

Which is why I’m so thankful for the eBook revolution. I’ve grown very fond of this book and these people, especially Finn. I’ve lived with him for a very long time, my Bird of Passage. And in due course, I’d be delighted to get some feedback on the novel from anyone who thinks they might enjoy reading it.


10 comments:

Lee said...

Lovely cover!

Have you posted an excerpt anywhere?

dirtywhitecandy said...

Bon voyage, Bird of Passage - and power to the midlist! This is such an important point - with ebooks the risky novels that have merit but aren't bestsellers can now reach readers again.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

There's a debate currently on the Scottish Review of Books which may be of interest (with myself and Linda already contributing!) It's titled Where has the good fiction written by women gone? - and has Lesley McDowell, pointing out that now, as a literary editor, she hardly ever gets fiction by women for review. I know men are struggling with conventional publishing too - and the midlist is being squeezed most - but I also wonder if this isn't squeezing out more women than men (although it's a thankless task categorising miseries by gender, I know!) But Lesley's observations would certainly be borne out by - for example - Mslexia which had some truly alarming statistical analysis recently. We have to ask ourselves why this is happening.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Meant to reply to Lee - haven't posted an excerpt yet, but I will and quite soon. Am just doing some final edits, and I have a new website under construction too, so want to launch it all at once!

Linda Gillard said...

I'm looking forward to reading BIRD OF PASSAGE, Catherine. It's a really striking cover. I wasn't sure about it when I first saw it, but it's really grown on me. It's a cover that wouldn't sell in a bookshop because it isn't like anything else and doesn't declare its genre, but it will stand out and intrigue on Kindle.

I wish you the best of luck with it.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Thanks, Linda. I felt the same, have to say. It wasn't what I expected, and then my first impulse was to be unsure, and then it grew on me as a stand alone work of art because it made me feel so emotional - almost uncannily so. You'll probably see when I mean when you read the book. If it doesn't work, it doesn't work but the fluidity of all this is one of the joys of indie publishing, isn't it?

Lee said...

I'm glad you mentioned fluidity, Catherine, which is indeed one of the great advantages of indie publishing. It's far easier to change something you find isn't working than in conventional publishing. The temptation, of course, is to keep going back and changing things - something I've resisted so far except for minor edits, mostly because all I'd do is rewrite every few years! And you always know that the original text is out there somewhere...

Ioan Hefin is planning, for example, to re-record some of the early Corvus chapters over the Chrismas holidays, because he's not satisfied with the originals. In this sense, e-publishing comes closer to live performances. You get a second - or fifth! - shot at getting it right.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

You're so right - and you have to resist the temptation to revise too much, although most writers never think anything is finished.(With plays in development, the script is only finished at the point where the actors say - or shout - that they can't possibly learn any new lines NOW!) I don't know - and haven't yet found out - if there is some mechanism on Kindle for downloading revised versions for free. Wonder if anyone else knows? Seemingly a big plus point for the games industry is that when you pay a little to download a game, you can also download updates to that game - something they use fairly effectively to combat piracy.

Ann Turnbull said...

Great post, Catherine - and it's so true that only writers know what 'mid-list' means.

I love the cover for Bird of Passage. Not only is it a beautiful design but it has your name on it - and having just read your short story collection I can't wait to read something else by you!

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Thank-you so much, Ann. Am just back from a weekend away in Dundee, and am about to format Bird of Passage so it should be out there soon - ish! As soon as I can bring myself to stop fiddling about with it...