The Fall and Rise of the Mid-Lister

Yesterday I talked about Shoeless Joe, W.P. Kinsella‘s tale of a man who builds a field blah blah, Field of Dreams. Today I want to talk about the author himself, and more specifically his ordeals as they relate to the publishing industry of the late 80s and 90s.

Kinsella’s bio as a child and young man is fairly standard: born to Irish American parents in Edmonton, Alberta, raised on a homestead then home-schooled by his mother. Didn’t read much literature growing up, etc. As a writer, he focused on baseball and Native Canadians, had a minor hit with Shoeless Joe, which was made into Field of Dreams, and the rest is history…or, well, not quite.

From Wikipedia:

W.P. Kinsella was involved in a car accident in 1997 which resulted in the end of his fiction writing career. He was struck by a car while out walking and suffered a head injury when he hit the ground.

In a 1999 interview with the University of Regina‘s student newspaper, Kinsella explained that he could no longer write as he lost his ability to concentrate. The injury also robbed him of his senses of taste and smell. Kinsella said he went from being a Type A Personality to Type B. After the accident, he didn’t feel like doing the things he had done in his normal routine and didn’t care. He did write book reviews to keep his name before the public.

That is just horrifying. And, frankly, one of my own personal fears. But that’s not quite what caught my attention. What did catch my attention was the following:

“He was cited as an archetypical victim of changes in the publishing industry during the late 1980s, which accelerated during the 1990s, that made it more difficult for well-regarded “mid-list” writers such as Kinsella to remain in print. Changes to the U.S. tax code affected by the Tax Reform Act of 1986 discouraged publishers from maintaining inventories of titles in their back lists, as they were taxed on warehoused books. This led to the thinning out of back lists and the more rapid remaindering of books. The publishing industry underwent a wave of consolidation in the 1990s, as publishers were acquired by big communications companies seeking marketing synergies. The new publishing houses poured more capital into higher-paid, best-selling writers and celebrities who could guarantee “hit” books. Mid-list writers with first-rate reputations but mid-range, non-spectacular sales suffered accordingly as they were ignored by the newly publishing conglomerates.”

This is the meat of what I wanted to discuss today – the death of the mid-lister. For those who aren’t familiar with the concept, mid-listers provided the backbone of the publishing industry for quite some time. Publishers rely (or relied) on them to produce solid, salable books year in and year out, their works combining to bring in a sizable chunk of a publisher’s annual revenue. We all know not everyone can be a Tom Clancy or a Stephen King; hell, not everyone wants to be a best-selling author. Some authors are quite happy in their niche, as long as they get to write what they want. Mid-Listers may have made the jump from obscurity or a small press, but they’re not quite to the best-seller list. And may never be there. Or were there for a brief time and then fell off. It happens. Personally, I’d be quite satisfied to be a mid-lister.

But as we saw above, things started to change for the mid-lister in the late 80s. As noted above, the 1986 Tax Act and the publishing consolidations of the 1990s made life incredibly difficult for the mid-lister. How crazy did this consolidation get? Well, check out this passage from Encyclopedia.com:

In 1980, Random House was acquired by Advanced Communications and became part of the New house family’s media empire. During this time a number of publishers, including Crown, Fawcett, and Ballatine, were merged with Random House. In 1998 Random House was acquired by Bertelsmann AG, a German-based media conglomerate that, at the time of Random House’s purchase, already owned the Bantam Doubleday Dell Group.

Simon and Schuster was acquired by Gulf + Western in 1975. From 1984 to 1994, the company acquired more than sixty companies, including Prentice-Hall, Silver Burdett, and Macmillan Publishing Company.

Follow that? We’re looking at the consolidation of more than 60 companies into 2. Think about what that would mean for the mid-listers for each of those companies, now merely imprints in some conglomerate’s portfolio. Looking back, I’m pretty sure this had a lot to do with the surprising decline of some pretty damn great authors from back in those days, authors like Clive Barker, who doesn’t even have a publisher for his adult fiction anymore.

I wonder how many authors just dropped out of the business entirely, having reached those heights and not wanting to have to go through the whole process again. It saddens me to even consider it. And how many have reclaimed their works and are re-emerging with the eBook business? I’d love to find this out, but I’m not even sure how one would do such a thing. I’m not familiar enough with the mid-listers of that era to make a comparison.

What is interesting is that the mid-lister is back and doing fairly well; with the new self-publishing paradigm, it’s actually become a lot easier for mid-listers to make a living with their work rather than just having it as a second job, but the world that a mid-lister once faced has changed entirely. Today, a mid-lister, whether self-published or traditionally published, is going to have to do the bulk of his or her marketing and the heavy lifting of generating “brand recognition”. Of course, the traditionally published mid-lister has to continue to crank out the books, as before, but I think that passing through that dark gauntlet of the 90s has led to a brighter future for those who take the risk of self-publishing.

On a final note, check out Write to Publish’s great post about the numbers that a mid-lister can make now as a traditionally-published author versus a self-published author. The entire post is worth reading, but definitely check out her comparison between the trad-pubbed author and the self-pubbed author. Food for thought.

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3 Comments

  1. excellent post, and very true

  2. Interesting article. I remember hearing about this when I was at the Maui Writer’s Retreat. It was like a scary bedtime story for writers. “Make it big, or your book will be taken out of print.” I always thought it was unfair. I wonder what the traditional big publishers think of this now, because I believe your right that the growth of self-publishing has brought justice back to the mid-listers.

    Hope you have a good weekend.

    Paul D. Dail
    http://www.pauldail.com- A horror writer’s not necessarily horrific blog

  3. Pingback: Book Review – Pub Speak A Writer’s Dictionary of Publishing Terms by Tracy Marchini « alchemyofscrawl

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