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Midlist Bestseller

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Joshua (my agent) e-mailed me after Monday’s blog post to tell me I should really stop calling myself a midlist author.  Personally, I’d rather call myself Segway Ninja and Tribble Juggler Jim C. Hines.  But his e-mail got me thinking, and I realized I don’t even know what “midlist” means.

My future author photo, complete with Ninja Death TribblesOh, I know the term originates from publishers’ catalogs.  The Big Names are there at the front of the list.  Older and poorly-performing books get tucked away in back.  The rest get tossed somewhere in the middle of the list, ergo midlist.

Years ago, I remember Elizabeth Bear commenting that to be a midlist author, you have to have five books in print.  This isn’t an official Law of Publishing or anything, but it stuck with me.  Getting my fifth book into print was a nice little milestone.

But am I a midlist author now?  I have six books in print, so maybe I’m upper midlist?  Lower frontlist?

Joshua said my sales continue to improve and my backlist is selling well, and these things propel me past midlist status.  Maybe I should start calling myself a Future Frontlist Author?

It was also pointed out that, at certain publishers which will remain anonymous, the fact that I’ve made the Locus bestseller list with my past four books would get me billed not as a midlister, but as National Bestselling Author Jim C. Hines.

Pardon me while I choke on my Diet Cherry Pepsi.

I know this much: I’m not about to start slapping “Bestselling Author” onto my business cards.  While technically true, it feels deceptive.  Like certain self-published authors who make it into the top 10 of some obscure Amazon subcategory and immediately dub themselves “Bestselling Author Spock T. Pizzatrousers” or whatever.

In some ways, this is pointless navel-gazing.  Who cares what I call myself, as long as I keep writing, selling, and enjoying it?  But the discussion brought something into focus: in certain respects,  midlist feels like a relative term, a comparison of your own success to that of other authors … and I have no clue where I fall on that continuum.

I know I’m not selling like Gaiman or Rowling or Harris, or any of those NYT Bestselling authors.  But that only tells me I’m not in the very top percentile.  Am I in the top ten percent?  Twenty?  At least in the upper half?

Again, in some respects, it doesn’t matter.  I’m not trying to compete with my peers (except maybe that Anton Strout fellow), and as long as DAW keeps buying my books, I’m happy.  But I feel like I’m in the dark here.  If I’m future-lower-front-and-slightly-off-center list, should I be pushing for larger advances or better/bigger deals?  How confident should I be in my long-term career?

It reminds me of karate.  In Sanchin-Ryu, I’ve never been told what the requirements are for any given rank.  I had to teach myself not to worry about it, and to just concentrate on improving.  Let my sensei decide when I’m ready for the next rank.  But then, I’m not trying to make a career out of Sanchin-Ryu…

What do you think midlist really means?  Who do you think of as midlist authors?  And for the published authors, am I the only one who feels clueless about how successful (or not) I really am?

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.

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( 68 comments — Leave a comment )
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klingonguy
Oct. 20th, 2010 02:04 pm (UTC)
I will ever more think of you as Segway Ninja and Tribble Juggler Jim C. Hines.
jimhines
Oct. 20th, 2010 02:08 pm (UTC)
I am very okay with this :-)
la_marquise_de_
Oct. 20th, 2010 02:11 pm (UTC)
Midlist over here seems to mean almost anyone whose books don't get space in supermarkets, on promotional tables, or cover-out storage on bookshop shelves. Anyone whose new book is ordered by those shops in ones and twos and whose backlist has to be hunted down or special ordered.
rarelylynne
Oct. 20th, 2010 02:14 pm (UTC)
I tend to think of it as "my publisher doesn't pay for me to do a signing tour yet."

YMMV, of course.
jimhines
Oct. 20th, 2010 02:16 pm (UTC)
I don't know ... that would probably put more than 95% of the authors out there into "midlist" range.
(no subject) - rarelylynne - Oct. 20th, 2010 02:24 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - cathshaffer - Oct. 20th, 2010 03:32 pm (UTC) - Expand
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suricattus
Oct. 20th, 2010 02:19 pm (UTC)
When I started as an editorial assistant at Ace, back in the *cough* very early 1990's, there were ten slots on the list, every month. The top title was the A the second title was the B, the last slot was our reissue (a backlist title getting a second or fifth life) and the remaining 7 books were "midlist" We know within a certain point what each slot would ship, and what we expected to net, and paid for each book accordingly. It was, as best it could be, a science.

That all went kerflooey with, among other things, the Great Wholeseller Meltdown of the mid-90's. So yeah, "midlist" is meaningless now.

Me, I'm a writer. I'm published. I make an irregular but manageable living, and hope to continue doing so for the next three decades, gods and market willing. I don't think about "list" at all; that way lurks madness. I mean, worse madness.



Edited at 2010-10-20 02:22 pm (UTC)
jimhines
Oct. 20th, 2010 02:26 pm (UTC)
I know ... but it's my kind of madness :-)

That's interesting. So to pointlessly extrapolate, that would mean about 80% of currently publishing authors fall into the midlist category, with 20% being the A/B titles.

You've been working in this business longer than me, and from more sides. Would you say "midlist" is so fluid/loose a term as to be meaningless from a larger standpoint? (I.e., some publishers might have specific definitions, but there's no universal meaning?)
(no subject) - suricattus - Oct. 20th, 2010 02:46 pm (UTC) - Expand
michaeldthomas
Oct. 20th, 2010 02:37 pm (UTC)
I always thought of Midlist as big enough to not go out of print but small enough that the publisher only spends a pittance on promotion.
suricattus
Oct. 20th, 2010 02:52 pm (UTC)
That's...probably the best summation I've seen in this thread so far, actually, inasmuch as the term is still useful. I prefer to use the phrase "working writer."
lyda222
Oct. 20th, 2010 02:43 pm (UTC)
Oh, so if I was once a lead title, even if that book is now out-of-print, does that make me... what was the other term? A front liner?

I tend to think that most of us are mid-list for all the reasons/guesses listed above.
jimhines
Oct. 20th, 2010 02:49 pm (UTC)
I want to say frontlist, but that sounds odd to me...

I'm getting that sense as well, that midlist is a vague but very broad term encompassing about 90% of us.
(no subject) - barbarienne - Oct. 20th, 2010 04:20 pm (UTC) - Expand
bondo_ba
Oct. 20th, 2010 02:47 pm (UTC)
"How confident should I be in my long-term career?"

I think the fact that every book you put out seels more than the last one should make you feel very confident indeed. And having made a bestseller list, even if you
don't quite feel comfortable crowing about it is yet more evidence (and I trust that Daw will pop it on the cover of the next book, even if they have to do it over your complaints!).
jimhines
Oct. 20th, 2010 02:53 pm (UTC)
It's been four books now, and DAW hasn't advertised me as a bestseller. Which I'm comfortable with -- I think that kind of marketing can start to feel deceptive. I'm willing to wait until I hit the NYT or USA Today bestseller lists, and *then* we'll plaster it all over everything with my name on it!
(no subject) - bondo_ba - Oct. 20th, 2010 03:11 pm (UTC) - Expand
funwithrage
Oct. 20th, 2010 02:47 pm (UTC)
I tend to think of "midlist" as popular enough that writing is or can be your day job, but not popular enough that you can afford a second home or anything like that.
jimhines
Oct. 20th, 2010 02:51 pm (UTC)
That would actually narrow it down a lot, I suspect. I know I'm not close to being midlist by that definition. Though whether or not you can afford to write for your day job also depends a lot on your standard of living :-)
(no subject) - funwithrage - Oct. 20th, 2010 02:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
mtlawson
Oct. 20th, 2010 02:51 pm (UTC)
I know this much: I’m not about to start slapping “Bestselling Author” onto my business cards. While technically true, it feels deceptive. Like certain self-published authors who make it into the top 10 of some obscure Amazon subcategory and immediately dub themselves “Bestselling Author Spock T. Pizzatrousers” or whatever.

When I peruse the stacks at a used bookstore like Half Price Books, I see a lot of "National Bestselling Author" labels on the books. I also end up saying "Who?" a lot. An author who may have been a bestseller a decade ago might have disappeared off the writing landscape by now.

I'd not worry about it, Jim. You write well, and let the labels take care of themselves. Besides, the most important labels you've got are 'husband' and 'dad'.
jimhines
Oct. 20th, 2010 02:55 pm (UTC)
I'm not really worried. I think in part it's that ongoing need to step back and reassess things. There's a part of my brain still stuck 6-7 years back, when I was submitting and praying that someday a big publisher would notice me. Then Goblin Quest came out, which was exciting, but it was a fairly small release. Sometimes it's hard to remember that things continue to change, and to reevaluate where I'm at and how I'm doing.

Also, this is probably the most pointlessly naval-gazing post I've done all year :-)
(no subject) - mtlawson - Oct. 20th, 2010 03:11 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - barbarienne - Oct. 20th, 2010 04:06 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Oct. 20th, 2010 04:07 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - georgmi - Oct. 20th, 2010 04:19 pm (UTC) - Expand
sartorias
Oct. 20th, 2010 03:08 pm (UTC)
I suspect midlist is that great wodge below the names Everybody Knows and those going out of print. I always hope to maintain my midlist status.
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(no subject) - sartorias - Oct. 20th, 2010 03:18 pm (UTC) - Expand
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margaret_y
Oct. 20th, 2010 03:16 pm (UTC)
Maybe midlist is like middle class. Nobody can accurately define it, but the majority of people say that's what they are. Two people can have incomes that differ by $100k a year, yet both call themselves middle class.
jimhines
Oct. 20th, 2010 03:21 pm (UTC)
I suspect you might be right...
georgmi
Oct. 20th, 2010 03:19 pm (UTC)
Hey, now. Mr. Pizzatrousers worked his arse off to write that book, and it was the best thing I read last year. Why the hate?
jimhines
Oct. 20th, 2010 03:22 pm (UTC)
Envy. Pure, unadulterated envy.
deborahblakehps
Oct. 20th, 2010 03:34 pm (UTC)
I tend to agree with the folks who view middelist as being much like the middle class. There are a few "rich" folks at the top (maybe 10%) who are the ones getting most of the money and attention. Then there is a huge section in the middle--folks who sell books on a fairly frequent basis, and who get reasonable advances, and whose numbers get a little bit better most years. Underneath them, and sadly growing by leaps and bounds, are the ones who are "poor" or not making it. The ones who sell one book and that's it. Or whose books don't do well enough for them to get more pubbed, no matter how good their writing is.
To be realistic, I think that the best that most of us can hope for (and it is a pretty good best) is to attain consistent "high midlist."
And cookies...
jimhines
Oct. 20th, 2010 03:36 pm (UTC)
I'm asking my agent to make sure there's a Cookie Clause in all of my book contracts from here on out.
(no subject) - deborahblakehps - Oct. 20th, 2010 03:46 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - swords_and_pens - Oct. 20th, 2010 05:03 pm (UTC) - Expand
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cathshaffer
Oct. 20th, 2010 03:37 pm (UTC)
I've come to hear "midlist" as a euphemism for an author who is published by the major houses, but hasn't been very successful. It usually preceeds a rant about how unfair the publishing industry is because you can't make a living as a "midlist author." Maybe I'm the only one who gets this message from the word "midlist," but it might be why your agent would rather you didn't use the word. I don't know if there's a word for authors that are successful and who merit increasing advances, etc., since you don't need a euphemism to describe success. It sounds like you're doing fine.
jimhines
Oct. 20th, 2010 03:39 pm (UTC)
That makes sense. I don't know what the hard and fast definition is, or if there even is one, but if "midlist" is picking up some negative connotations, it definitely makes sense that he'd want me to avoid the term. Especially since, in my uneducated and totally biased opinion, I'm doing pretty darn good with this writing thing :-)
barbhendee
Oct. 20th, 2010 03:46 pm (UTC)
Oh, Jim, I think about this too. I don't call myself a "best selling writer" either, but I'm not sure what that term even means.

The Noble Dead books have made the USA Top 150 and one of them made #28 on the NYT extended list in hard covers . . . but that does not qualify as an NYT best seller. I think we'd have to get in the top 15 first.

But, so far, our backlist is still selling, and as far as making a living at this, I think that's probably more important than coming out of the gate on one of the "big" lists. I could be wrong.

So . . . I don't know. But you're certainly not alone in wondering if you've made it above "midlist." I wonder about this too.
jimhines
Oct. 20th, 2010 05:35 pm (UTC)
I'm not too worried about the big bestseller lists, though that would be nice. I don't know that I write the type of books that are likely to hit those lists anyway. Like you, I'm more interested in just continuing to sell the books (both old and new).
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