For some reason, it’s become trendy for novelists who haven’t written a bestseller to describe themselves as “midlist eBook authors.” This is apparently supposed to mean that the novelists’ eBook sales chug along at a modest rate.
That’s how two late-bloomers I know explain their relatively poor (multi-digit) Amazon sales ranking: “We’re classic midlisters.”
I begrudgingly go along with this definition of “midlist”—mostly because it’s so widespread these days. I ache a bit, though, when I hear the term used this way, for two reasons:
- I’m not sure if a “midlist author” sells 5,000 eBooks a year or three eBooks a month. Both numbers can live comfortably under today’s “midlist” rubric.
- Several decades ago, my first publisher taught me a somewhat different meaning of “midlist.”
Back then, I learned that the concept of “midlist” grew out of the quarterly or semiannual “booklists” issued by publishers and sent to buyers at bookstores. The in-house marketing people at each publisher determined where and how new novels would be announced in these catalogs.
Novels believed to become instant bestsellers were typically heralded by full-page display “ads” in the front of the list. One the other hand, new novels that were merely expected to break-even were announced with smaller ads in the middle of the list. The marketing folks referred to these iffy titles as “midlist books.”
Lastly, the publisher’s in-print titles that were introduced by previous lists were itemized toward the back of the catalog. They constituted the publisher’s “backlist.”
An important point here is that a novel (or author) was labeled “midlist” only once — when the catalog that launched his/her book was published. After that booklist was replaced, the novel became part of the backlist.
You might ask, “Why would a publisher intentionally publish books destined to merely break-even?”
Most “midlist books” were first novels written by debut authors and new titles written by relatively unknown novelists. In the good old days…
- Publishers believed they had an affirmative responsibility to introduce promising authors to readers.
- Publishers knew that they might have to publish as many as eight midlist novels by an unfamiliar author until the writer wrote a “break-out” novel that deserved “front-list” treatment in an upcoming catalog.
This kind of midlist is truly dead; today, large publishers mostly bet on sure things. It’s inconceivable that a major house would give an unsuccessful author eight bites at the sales apple. The very few debut novelists published in 2011 will get two, possibly three, chances to start selling well.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that midlist has been recycled to mean a book (or author) that will probably never achieve bestseller status.
As I noted above, one problem with the new definition is that it can mean almost anything. Back in the glory days of traditional publishing paradigm, it cost money to keep a book in print. There were …
- The significant expense of warehousing a few thousand paper copies (remember, publishers had to worry about an “economic print run” when the published a book.
- The modest annual cost of listing the book in distributer/wholesaler catalogs.
- The internal expenses related to keeping a book “alive” — everything from the time spent managing the title to the cost of creating periodic royalty statements for the author.
These continuing costs meant that there came a point when it became impractical to keep a poor-performing backlist book in print. It made more sense for the publisher to sell the warehoused inventory to a “remainder house” and get out from under the slow-selling novel.
The new publishing paradigm — eBook-centric publishing and POD paper book production — has a dramatically changed the economics of publishing. The Kindle Store catalog includes many novels that sell only a handful of copies each year. Many observers see this a plus for readers, who now have unprecedented access to (let’s be kind) novels that satisfy limited audiences.
My friends’ novels fall into this category, although they prefer the euphemistic label of “lower midlist” novels. Because keeping a Kindle eBook “in print” doesn’t involve any on-going costs, they seem willing to leave the books “up” indefinitely. But is that a good idea?
I think not, because even though Amazon doesn’t reveal sales numbers for individual titles to readers, the company does publish Amazon Bestsellers Rank.
No one has “broken the code” of the Amazon sales-ranking algorithm. Moreover, it sometimes produces seemingly goofy results. (A publisher recently told me that one of his titles has a significantly better Amazon ranking than another title—yet sells only half-as many copies each month.)
But … and this is a big but, there seem a few handy rules of thumb:
Rankings over 200,000 represent minuscule sales — 50 books per year, at most.
Five digit rankings — 99,999 to 10,000 — are modestly performing eBooks — that sell between two or three books per day and a few dozen copies per month.
Four digit rankings — 9,999 to 1,000 — are good-selling eBooks — with sales ranging from 2,000 books per year all the way up to 20,000 copies per year.
Three digit rankings (999-100) reflect near-best-seller sales (20,000 to 50,000 copies per year). Two-digit rankings (below 100) point to novels that sell more than 100,000 copies per year.
Interestingly, a small increase in sales can cause a quick plummet from six- to five-digit ranking. A few more sales can send the number into the much more comfortable four-digit neighborhood — at least for a couple of days. (More than one novelist has been tempted to pay proxies to buy a few eBooks and thus prime the Kindle pump, so to speak. I have no idea whether this strategy works.)
My point is that it’s easy for the world to get a rough (but useful) estimate of Kindle eBook sales. That being so, keeping a low-selling eBook “in print” on Kindle announces to potential readers that hardly anyone else wants to read the book. A persistent six-digit Amazon sales rank serves as kind of pragmatic book review that potential customers apparently take note of.
Calling oneself a “midlist novelist” doesn’t solve the problem — but it seems to happen lots these days.