Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Barnes and Noble Ate the Midlist, or why I'm Thinking about Self-Publishing

As I've begun to gather friends and fans on myspace for my book Breathless, I've discovered and a large number of them also are writers. Since I've been seriously considering opting out of traditional publishing and going the indie book route, I wanted to let them (and other authors know) some of the reasons why I'm thinking of chucking the mainstream.

Basically, the traditional publishing industry has changed, owing mostly to big chain stores like Barnes and Noble and Borders and to the internet, which has changed the way we read and communicate. These days, it's a lot tougher than it used to be to get published, because less books are getting published and marketed and because more people are trying to get published.

When they first appeared, people were frightened chain bookstores would change the way people bought books forever, and so these stores have. Because chain stores make decisions about books centrally, individual branches have little say on what is stocked. "When chains order, Corporate Buyer orders a number of copies ... for the entire chain, and these are distributed per a computerized formula to the various stores" (Lisle "How"). So various stores get a certain amount of copies which are then sold in the store. "Frequently, chains will only get one or two copies which will be spined out, dooming them to invisibility. Even if they are not, though—even if Local Chain receives seven copies and sells six, Local Chain WILL NOT REORDER THE BOOK unless it sells above a set number chain-wide" (Lisle "How").

So, big deal, you say. What does that mean? Well, say you're an author whose book gets five or six copies put out at a local Barnes and Noble. If all six sell, wouldn't you want more to appear on the shelves so that you could sell more? Instead, however, your books are gone, and a casual book shopper cannot "stumble" across them. Worse, however, the chain bookstores don't always order enough books for the book to ever hope to make to the re-order number (Lisle "How").

It gets worse, however. When an author's next book comes out, the big chain will order only the amount of books that the author's last book sold, dooming it to even lower sales numbers (Lisle "How"). The chains, you see, are looking at numbers sold, not percentages. If the book sells 90 % of the books ordered, that's a great percentage. But if that's only 900 books out of 1000, unlike, say J.K. Rowling's or Stephenie Meyer's numbers, then that book doesn't look like much of a good investment for the big chain.

Because big chains are looking at what sells well on a global level, they miss books that are selling well on a local level, or even books that are selling adequately on a global level. With no nurturing or attending, these books are squeezed out of the market. They don't make any money for the publishers, and they don't make any money for the authors. Eventually, these books (and their authors) disappear.

This model, over time, leads to a mass-market product. With very little competition, the big chain stores eventually only sell what they want to sell--big-name, big-selling products. This leads publishers to be less likely to want to publish books that are not going to be big-name, big-selling products, because they can't sell them at big chains (and the big chains have squeezed out all the small, independent stores) and therefore, they can't make money off these products. "There are no industry statistics that calculate how many midlist books are published annually, but publishers say it is obvious that the numbers are dwindling because houses are pruning their lists for publication in a time of declining hard-cover sales" (Carvajal).

Midlist books are books that are not front list. Books that sell "less than 15,000 copies" (Carvajal). Midlist authors are the authors that write these books. If the current model continues, there will eventually be no midlist. It will appear that the midlist died because there was no market for it and because it couldn't sell.

How does this affect the author trying to get published today? As mentioned above, there aren't really industry statistics that prove that currently less midlist books are being published. There was a study done by the Author's Guild, way back in 2000, by a guy named David Kirkpatrick (New Rules Staff). Kirkpatrick found that, in 2000, just as many midlist titles were being published as had been in the past (New Rules Staff). However, since then, things have changed a lot.

Back in 2000, I had no idea who J. K. Rowling was. Sure, I knew my younger brother was reading some book about some guy named Larry or Harry or something, but other than that I was clueless. In 2000, The Da Vinci Code hadn't been published. In 2000, Twilight hadn't been published. In short, the blockbuster book as we know it today didn't really exist yet. These kinds of crazy success stories are a product of a globalized, centralized distribution point--the result of Barnes and Noble and Borders and others of their ilk.

(A brief aside about Stephen King, clearly the first and forerunning blockbuster writer who was selling books way before Barnes and Noble appeared. Stephen King wasn't made by Barnes and Noble. Barnes and Noble got the idea for the blockbuster writer because of Stephen King.)

Am I saying books don't get published by authors who aren't bestsellers? Of course not! After all, bestsellers have to start somewhere. And the publishing industry publishes an enormous amount of books per week. Books are still getting published. All the time.

However, it's clear that if the current distribution model continues, the midlist won't continue to exist. I think that we're seeing a recognizable difference in terms of how many books are published and what kinds of books are published.

We definitely have seen a difference in the way first-time authors get published. It wasn't so long ago that major publishing houses had what were called slush piles. This meant that an author sent their manuscript directly to the publisher (what a concept, right? Send your book to the people who ACTUALLY publish books) and these manuscripts languished (sometimes for years) in the publishing house until someone read them and rejected or acquired them for publishing. Pretty much no major publishing houses do that anymore. Instead, they rely on agents.

So, if you're trying to publish a book these days, you send it to an agent. There are a lot of people claiming to be agents, but there aren't very many who are actually good ones. They also have their likes and dislikes, and will only represent certain kinds of books. In my experience, for any book I've written, I've usually ended up with a list of 20-30 possible agents (with about half of them being long shots.) Agents receive hundreds of submissions a day. They can't possibly read that many books.

So, you don't actually send your book to an agent. Instead, you send a query letter, a synopsis, and maybe the first few pages of the book (if you're lucky). What's rejected then, is not your manuscript, but your query.

I'm not proposing that Barnes and Noble is responsible for major publishing houses not accepting slush anymore. I will say that a tightening number of books that publisher can publish certainly couldn't have helped that situation, however.

No, this brings me to the second part of my discussion. Why is the world different? The internet.

Recently, the number of submissions to agents seems to be going up, according to Kristin Nelson of the Nelson Literary Agency. I've also seen various agents comment on this on their blogs. Why is this? Well, no one knows. Most people are blaming the economy, because that's the hot thing to blame these days. I'm blaming the internet.

Okay, so flash back fifteen years to 1994. You're an author who wants to write a book. Okay, great. You maybe have access to a personal computer (after all, you're an author, right?), or maybe not. After all, who really needed personal computers before the internet? If not, maybe you type the manuscript on a typewriter. You know nothing about how to write a book, except what you've picked up from reading them. Maybe you think that's enough. (Maybe it is.) Maybe, however, you think it's not.

How are you going to find out how to be a better writer? Well, you'll have to buy a book. That's right. Go out to a store and look for a book about writing. How will you know if it's a good book? Where, indeed, will you even find a list of books about writing? In a magazine? (Augh, thinking of this dark age is making me depressed. Of course, maybe it's because I was thirteen at the time and pretty much depressed about everything.) Point I'm making here is that it required a concerted effort to find out how to write better.

If you finally did finish the thing and decide you wanted to send it out, you'd also have to go buy a copy of Writer's Market, and then go and buy a book teaching you how to write queries and synopses. Lots of effort. Not to mention postage. No email submissions, remember? You had to actually mail the darned thing out. It also required a concerted effort to send out a book and even more of an effort to send it out right.

Just thinking about it is discouraging. Most people probably didn't bother with that effort. Therefore, most of the books that were sent out were probably bad. There were also probably less of them.

Okay, it's 2009 again. (Yes, breathe a sigh of relief everyone. Yick, life sucked before the internet!) Now, say I want to write a book. Great. How do I do that? Um, google "write a novel." (Do it. Really.) Loads and loads of FREE, EFFORTLESS information appears in seconds. Now, google "query letter." See where I'm going with this?

In 2009, it's easier for people to find out how to write a novel well, and how to submit it to the right places in the right formats. It's easier, and it's cheaper. It follows that more people are going to write novels, more people are going to write better novels, and more people are going to submit novels in a better format.

This would be fine if there was an expanding market for novels. However, because less novels can be published and less novels can be sold at high numbers due to chain stores, we have a problem.

It's harder to get a book published than it used to be because there's more competition for less spots.

Well, I've created quite a dull, dismal picture for the aspiring novelist, haven't I?

Before all aspiring writers everywhere give up with a collective sigh of defeat, let's examine things a little further. Some people would say that the reason that there's less of a market for books is that people don't read as much as they used to. If it were the 1980s, I would agree with them. The 80s were the age of video. Everything was video. Want to listen to music? Watch a music video. Want the news? Watch TV. And no one wrote letters anymore, because there were telephones.

Now, however, people read all the time. On the internet. And people write all the time. Email, texting, blogging, twitter, social networking. People are reading. But they aren't reading books.

Is it because people don't want to read books?

If people don't want to read books, then why are Harry Potter and Twilight as popular as they are?

People want to read books, and they'd read other books besides the blockbusters if Barnes and Noble weren't squeezing out the midlist.

So...where can the midlist go? I've got several ideas. The first is the idea favored by most authors today. They say that you persevere until your book gets an agent. (This process, most of them tell you, will take years and years and years. There will be lots and lots and lots of rejection. You should get used to this, however, because it's what everyone has to go through, and by God, if I did it, then so should you, and when I was your age I walked uphill five miles to school barefoot in the snow.) Once you've got an agent, the agent gets you a publishing deal (this also takes a really looong time). Okay--now that you're on the shelves, you begin your crazy marketing campaign to take down the chain stores. Create buzz for yourself. Have a website. Have a blog. Join myspace. Plug your book endlessly. Your book will become so popular that your readers will go to Barnes and Noble and beg them to get more on the shelves.

This isn't an awful idea. In fact, it's probably the best thing you can do if you want to go the traditional publishing route.

What are my other ideas to save the midlist? In a word, self-publishing.

Yeah. I know. The word used to make me cringe too. What's wrong with self-publishing? (I'm going to forgo a discussion on vanity presses vs. PODs here. If you're interested, google it. Suffice it to say, when I say self-publish a tangible book from here on out, I'm talking about POD.) Self-publishing means that you decide your book is good enough and make it available to the public without it ever being accepted by an agent or a publisher or ever being professionally edited.

Generally, most people are of the opinion that self-published books are bad. Most people think that if a book got rejected by agents and publishers, it's not good. And you know what? It might be.

But...bad is kind of a subjective term, isn't it? Is what I think is bad the same thing as what you think is bad? And how many times (as a writer) have you wailed to someone over the "crap that gets published these days" when no one will publish your stuff? Aren't many published books "bad?" put it another way, just because a book is published doesn't mean you'll read it, does it?

My radical idea is this: if a book is bad, people won't read it, whether an agent liked it or not.

My radical idea is this: why do we need gatekeepers to tell us what is good to read? Why can't we decide for ourselves whether it's good or not?

My final radical idea is this: if you have a burning, itching desire welling up inside you, telling you that you HAVE, HAVE, HAVE to write a story, then you're a writer. You aren't someone who wants to be a writer, you are a writer. If you write, you're a writer. And because you have that need to write, you deserve to have the opportunity to let people hear your story. (You maybe don't deserve to make a living off your writing, but you deserve the opportunity to find an audience. And NO ONE, not an agent, not a publisher, not your best friend, not your worst enemy, should be able to stop you from getting that opportunity.)

But here's the problem with self-publishing. If you put your book out there, without any kind of marketing campaign whatsoever, the same thing that's happening to the midlist will happen to it. Because no one will ever hear about it, and you can't even get it in Barnes and Noble at all.

So the public will have no idea whether or not the book is good because they will never read it.

This brings me to my final idea for saving the midlist: Online publishing. For free.

If you're like me, you don't just buy books on a whim. You buy a book for one of the following reasons: a) someone recommended it to you, b) you've read other things like it or by the same author, or c) you've read it already and want it forever. I audition books and authors using the library. I can check a book out for free, read it. If I like the book, I'm much more likely to buy a book by that author.

So, to build an audience as a writer, you need to let people read your book for free. Sure, you could self-publish the book and put copies of it in libraries all over the country. Or you could try to use the techniques authors use to market their published books to gain an audience, and then let them read your book for free online.

If people like it, you can then self-publish tangible books. You can sell e-books. You can sell merchandise using café press. You can be your own publishing company. (And keep all your royalties, but that's a discussion for another time.)

If it sounds like I'm pretty much sold on the idea of self-publishing (or indie publishing, as I like to call it), it's because I pretty much am.

I have no idea whether or not my book is good or not. But I'd like to find out. And I think the only way I will be able to is if I let people read it.

Works Cited

Carvajal, Doreen. "Authors With Less Than Stellar Sales Are Unwanted by Big Houses." 18 Aug. 1997. 22 Apr. 2009 .

Lisle, Holly. "How to Kill a Career in Three Easy Books." 22 Apr. 2009 .

New Rules Staff. "Chain Bookstores Squeezing Out Midlist Titles." 1 Aug. 2000. 20 Apr. 2009 .


  1. Cool!

    (wait, what are you interested in?)

  2. This, wow. When you sent me a friend request I wasn't expecting this. I opened it up expecting someone else wanting me to go out and buy this book of yours and to be honest I might have just checked it out at the library lol. But honestly your idea of publishing on the internet is how I have thought ever since my sister began writing a book. Which in turn got me into writing. Neither of us have formal training in writing other than basic high school and college levels. I read books all the time and that sparks a desire in me to write. I read your teaser for Breathless and I thought it was pretty interesting and now I read your plans for this and I applaud you. This is a fantastic idea and I am, like Natalie said very interested.

  3. I'm interested, as well. I'm very young, only thirteen, but I believe I was born to write; to have my words, my tale, in other peoples hands. When I began to read this, I was kind of nervous, because I never knew how crazy or complicated the publishing business was. Like I said, I'm young. I actually made a goal for myself to write and publish a novel before I turn sixteen, and I fully intend on achieving that, but I just don't know how I'm going to get it publishing traditionally. No one's going to want to publish a book by someone as young as me.

  4. Hey VJ. I read the pdf version. The one you sent on the birthday. It was awesome really. Anyways, I think that being a journalist is kinda hard when publishing is needed. I mean some of the books that you mentioned here because best sellers when they were in the media and all that. I think the best books are the ones who aren't easily get knowned for but it's still unfair for some. I always dreamt to be a writer but some people say I'm just wasting my time. But I still continue on writing and maybe someday, someone might recognize what I have wrote on a piece of paper. :)

  5. Hey everyone. Thanks so much for these comments. (I'm sorry I didn't see them until now. I just edited my google settings so that I get notifications for posts.)

    Kudos to all of you who are also writers, especially those of you who are young. Writing can be a lonely process. It's hard work. It's difficult to get people to read your stuff. (Especially your friends, I've found.)

    In the end, I think we do it because we just know we have to.

    So perservere, girls, and let's get our stuff out there by hook or by crook.


  6. Hello, someone on Deviant Art pointed me towards you once a while back, so I checked out what you had written. While I will admit that I'm not interested in the genre you write in, that doesn't go without saying that your writing is still impressive, in all due respect.

    I'm not sure you'll ever see this comment any time soon since this is an old post, but I really like your take on getting published through the "indie" method. As disheartening as the real thing turns out to be, as a relatively new writer (haven't even finished my first novel sized story yet) I'm truly inspired.

    I wish you the best of luck, and I hope to use your example to get better at writing and find a fan-base of my own. :)

  7. Hey Josh, just be sure you know what you're getting into. Did you see my sales figures for the year:

    Not great.

    At this point, I'm an avowed self-pubber, but it takes a LOT of work and time. Good luck.

  8. I loved as much as you'll receive carried out right here. The sketch is tasteful, your authored material stylish. nonetheless, you command get got an shakiness over that you wish be delivering the following. unwell unquestionably come more formerly again since exactly the same nearly a lot often inside case you shield this hike.

    my blog post; Identi.Ca

  9. Very nice post. I simply stumbled upon your weblog and wished to
    say that I've truly loved browsing your weblog posts. After all I will be subscribing for your rss feed and I hope you write again soon!

    My site -

  10. I've been surfing online more than 3 hours lately, but I never found any fascinating article like yours. It's lovely price sufficient
    for me. Personally, if all web owners and bloggers made good content
    as you probably did, the internet can be a lot more useful than
    ever before.

    Here is my web page:

  11. I comment each time I appreciate a post on a blog or if I have something to valuable to contribute to the conversation.
    It is a result of the sincerness displayed in the post I looked at.

    And on this article "Barnes and Noble Ate the Midlist, or why I'm Thinking about Self-Publishing".

    I was actually moved enough to post a thought :-P I actually do have a couple of questions for you if you
    don't mind. Could it be only me or does it seem like a few of these comments come across like coming from brain dead visitors? :-P And, if you are writing at other places, I'd like to follow you.
    Could you make a list every one of your shared sites like your twitter
    feed, Facebook page or linkedin profile?

    my web page :: exercises to jump higher exercises to improve vertical exercises to improve vertical jump exercises to improve vertical leap exercises to increase vertical exercises to increase vertical jump exercises to increase vertical leap exercises for vertical exercises for vertical jump exercises for vertical leap workouts to jump higher workouts to improve vertical workouts to improve vertical jump workouts to improve vertical leap workouts to increase vertical workouts to increase vertical jump workouts to increase vertical leap workouts for vertical workouts for vertical jump workouts for vertical leap vertical jump exercises vertical leap exercises vertical jump workouts vertical leap workouts

  12. Stunning story there. What occurred after?
    Take care!

    Here is my webpage: virginia Beach Condos

  13. I'd like to find out more? I'd want to find out some additional information.

    my weblog ... exercises for vertical jump

  14. Post writing is also a fun, if you know then you can write if
    not it is complicated to write.

    Feel free to surf to my weblog ...

  15. Hi there, I discovered your web site via Google whilst looking for a
    similar matter, your website came up, it seems good.
    I've bookmarked it in my google bookmarks.
    Hi there, simply became aware of your weblog thru Google, and found that it's really informative.
    I am gonna be careful for brussels. I'll appreciate for those who continue this in future. A lot of folks shall be benefited from your writing. Cheers!

    Also visit my web-site ... vertical jump exercises

  16. Hey I know this is off topic but I was wondering if you knew
    of any widgets I could add to my blog that automatically tweet my newest
    twitter updates. I've been looking for a plug-in like this for quite some time and was hoping maybe you would have some experience with something like this. Please let me know if you run into anything. I truly enjoy reading your blog and I look forward to your new updates.

    my web site ... workouts to increase vertical jump