Smaller Presses, Bigger Authors
As large publishers increase their expectations of midlist sellers, indie presses see an influx
By Rachel Deahl
The midlist is dying. That sentiment has been a mantra in publishing circles for years as agents, authors, and editors have decried that corporate publishing will no longer support the kind of author that was once an industry staple—the moderate success who was a consistent seller, if not a bestseller. With the "big six" demanding bigger sales numbers from all their authors, indie presses, which have long been the province of riskier, harder-to-market literary fiction, are finding that more commercial writers are showing up at their doors, as well as writers with serious accolades and lengthier track records.
One shift is that the definition of the midlist author has changed. A number of agents and publishers interviewed said when editors at the big houses look at the sales performance of an author's last book in considering acquiring that author's new book, the number they need to see is bigger than it used to be. While it's been rumored that a publisher at one of the major houses told his staff they couldn't acquire authors whose last book sold fewer than 50,000 copies, most sources said they thought the so-called "magic number" was closer to 25,000 or 30,000. One agent, noting that there's far more variation at the paperback imprints of the big six, said most hardcover publishers today "would settle for 20,000."
Munro Magruder, publisher of New World Library, believes presses like his have become the beneficiary of this trend. In the past few years, Magruder said he's seen an influx of midlist authors who had spent years at the big houses. He cited two books NWL published in October—Alice Walker's poetry collection Hard Times Require Furious Dancing and Michael Krasny's Spiritual Envy—as books he thought he might not have gotten years back. (Walker wrote the megaseller The Color Purple, and Krasny is the host of KQED's Forum out of San Francisco.) NWL considers both books to have been successes—Krasny's title has already sold out its first printing of 8,500 copies, and Walker's collection sold out its 7,500-copy first run.
While authors often find that they and their books are paid more attention when they move from big house to indie press, there is the sting of losing the bigger advance. Most of the smaller publishers PW spoke to cited $5,000 as a high advance, and others acknowledged paying as little as $1,500, and that can be a tough pill for agents, and authors, to swallow.
Johnny Temple, at Akashic Books, said it's unfortunate that the big houses can't afford to publish books on a smaller scale, but it's a reality of today's industry and one that not all agents and authors have fully accepted: "These big companies, every book they do they're trying to knock it out of the park, and they don't have the flexibility to publish books at different levels. The flip side, though, is authors and agents like to have big advances and don't like to think about what the fiscal reality of that is." Since the big publishers were overpaying for books for years, Temple added, he thinks "some agents and authors got a little soft, and too comfy, being overpaid."