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04 September 2009

AskMecha: Does the publishing industry have a term, perhaps derogatory, for high-quality authors (thus, not hacks) who consistently sell a small but profitable number of books, often straight to trade or mass-market paperbacks? [More:] For an equivalent example, in auto racing such drivers are known as 'field filler' or 'insurance salesmen' (for the sponsorship) since they can drive fast enough to qualify but have virtually no chance of winning.
I can only address book publishing, and only to the experience I've had. Each house has a culture and language that may have developed different from my experience.

I can only think of "mid-list author" and there is "lower-third author." (or mid-list and lower-third). These are not derogatory terms, simply matter of fact comments on sales expectations. People have the concept that "big publishing" only tries to publish blockbusters but that really isn't true... and mass market is generally a very profitable format simply because it goes into the mass market - such as well known supermarkets and department stores that allow sales in larger volume. Hardcover is an excessively expensive format and only a fraction of big titles released each year get the honor. Even some big authors get released directly to trade paper or mass market.

If an author is being repeatedly signed but only making sales that allow the title to be respectably profitable, then the author is a 'mid-list' author. Lower-third authors rarely get re-signed unless a firm has an agreement or is compelled in some manner.

There isn't a qualifying round with publishing like with sports or racing. As with art, even though the painter may think s/he is the best in the world, it doesn't mean people are compelled to buy the product. So too are publishing houses not compelled to invest in a product they will not find profitable. For a book to be published, someone in the upper echelon has to believe in it.
posted by eatdonuts 04 September | 12:58
Oh, and nothing that is expected to sell a low amount of units ever goes into mass market format. Just FYI.
posted by eatdonuts 04 September | 13:10
Thank you, eatdonuts. Mid-list is precisely the term I wanted. I had never heard lower-third, so I appreciate that bit of information as well.

I asked because I get the feeling that my favorite author is sitting on the bubble between mid-list and lower-third, as you describe the terms. As a writer, her prose is almost lyricism, however the stories she tells through her prose have become over the last couple years sparse, trite and ridden with clichés.

Her idea of first-person is actually first-person once-removed, someone telling someone else's story, hearsay actually. The conclusion of her last novel revealed that 60% of what had transpired had been a dream, a suicide's delusion.

What kind of agent and editor would allow that to pass? The only answer I can fathom are her two representatives have tired of her constant prima-donna posturing and are just waiting for her contract to expire. Online, she corresponds only with sycophants while deriding obviously caring fans who dare to offer constructive criticism.

I do not expect any answers to this bit of rant. We fans have done our best to promote her with viral marketing and other promotions within our power, but the problem boils down to content, and no one yet has perfected the means to polish a turd.

"nothing that is expected to sell a low amount of units ever goes into mass market format"

Ouch! That just sealed her fate. Other than a movie novelization, her last mmpb was 2004.

Thanks again. Your insight has been invaluable. I will continue buying her books, but I am done with fighting for her cause.
posted by Ardiril 04 September | 14:29
Who is the author?
posted by eatdonuts 04 September | 14:51
Caitlín R. Kiernan, and I was wrong, her last mmpb was 2007 on Penguin-Putnam. Most of her short fiction is published by the indie, Subterranean Press, who would probably pick her up if she lost the novel contract with Penguin.

Ordinarily, I do not concern myself with such people's personal lives, but Ms. Kiernan has some medical issues (well documented on her public blog) that she openly admits she cannot afford to tend. This is the source for the frustration of many of her fans; one good story like she once wrote coupled with her current writing style and a bit of promotion from her publisher could significantly increase her base readership. Today though, little remains of the reputation she built for herself and she relies mainly on her relationship with Neil Gaiman from when she wrote The Dreamer, the spinoff from The Sandman.
posted by Ardiril 04 September | 15:30
Ok, I need to qualify the mass market statement as it's a bit misleading.

Mass market formats were originally created to fit those special racks that appear in most supermarkets and department stores. This is typically the most inexpensive manner of publishing a book but it's usually done in printing large numbers with the hope of appealing to a wider audience in these more common locations. Some smaller publishers use mass market formats to cut down on their printing costs by agreements with printers, so I don't mean to say that when publishers create a mass market title they expect to sell 100,000 copies of a title, they just hope to make it more attractive to those retailers and of course end-customers with the price. Those titles fit generic corrugates and appeal well into locations that also have limited space and shelving. There's a whole holy host of other reasons why mass market exists, but let's just say that mass market usually is the format that publishers use as the *last* format of a book to extend profitability and sell in volume.

This is totally off your question but in reading the brisk blanket statement I made above, I would have generally considered it wrong without important modifiers.
posted by eatdonuts 04 September | 15:35
Looks like she just had a title released by an imprint of Penguin.
posted by eatdonuts 04 September | 15:41
We call our low selling authors "C list" authors... our big sellers are "A" or "AA", then "B", then "C".

But I work in academic publishing, which is quite specific, and without printing any trade books, I don't know how helpful that will be to you.

We calculate what books will be in each rank by the number of courses that do the subject, and calculate the number of adoptions (uni's that prescribe our book) that we can get. We then do a calculation based on how much the book will cost to make, and how much we expect to make off an estimated 3 print runs. Anything under a certain percent doesn't get approved.
posted by jonathanstrange 04 September | 15:43
"Looks like she just had a title released by an imprint of Penguin." - Yes, The Red Tree, the book that concludes by revealing that almost 60% of the foregoing text had been no more than a dream.

jonathanstrange: You make academic publishing sound almost too easy. Ironic too that you would pop up in this discussion as I imagine the meetings to publish Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell originally in hardcover must have been quite tense.
posted by Ardiril 04 September | 16:15
Dammit, Ardiril. I was trying to stay out of the library for a while and read some of the books I have laying around unread. But, it looks like my local library system has most of her novels and a couple of her short story collections.

*reserve reserve reserve*

PS: Interesting thread about publishing/authors. Thanks!
posted by deborah 04 September | 18:23
deborah: If you can, start with Silk followed by Murder of Angels. They are a bit dated now with Silk's constant references to punk rock, but the story is strong Murder of Angels is one of the most imaginative sequels ever written.
posted by Ardiril 04 September | 20:49
Well, if it's any consolation, Penguin Putnam is a large publisher for a reason, and they're often very savvy with their imprints and publishing plans. I would consider it an honor to work for them as I think they've some great and smart people there. Unlike other industries, I don't consider other publishers my 'competition,' rather I think we feel we are all brethren. If an author from another publisher brings you in to purchase one book, you might also be interested in the genre and some other books.

From initial reviews, it appears that people who have picked up the title enjoy it, but it sounds like you were disappointed for which I'm sorry. Authors change and mutate over time, dip and flow. My mother who used to manage a bookshop when I was little always used to say that some authors have "only one good book in them," and I know sometimes fans feel this way about an author that created something personal to them. Suffice to say that Penguin must have the long run in consideration and that her sales must be respectable to establish a long publishing plan of multiple books.

Keep the faith!
posted by eatdonuts 04 September | 22:55
If you are referring to the Amazon reviews, one of those 5-star reviews is mine. Although I feel the stories in her novels have deteriorated over the last couple years, they are still better than the bulk of the dreck that finds itself on the NYT bestseller list.

I may not be expressing myself clearly as this is actually a historied discussion on another forum and I came here looking only for some insight in the industry. Basically, we are a small band of dedicated fans who wish her the best but know too much of the troubles in her personal life, including her financial position as well as her mental and physical health. I am a bit sorry now that I have continued this discussion here as far as I have.
posted by Ardiril 05 September | 04:24
Dang, they didn't have Silk so I'll cancel Murder of Angels. I did submit a request that they purchase it.
posted by deborah 05 September | 18:29
Its Time for Another Music Player Shuffle Thang ! || Someone broke my rear windshield with a beer bottle last night.