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.