How the Mid-List Died
Stephen Graham Jones signed his new novel, Mongrels, at Bookworks in Albuquerque, New Mexico, this week. I’ll be signing at that same store next month. There’s a reason both of us—and many of our peers—chose that store. If you think of the retail bookselling market as a geographical location, it currently resembles the wasteland from a Mad Max movie. But Bookworks, and hundreds of other independent bookstores, are bright, colorful oases sprouting from that formerly toxic ground.
What happened? What caused the apocalypse? And what is allowing these indie bookstores to flourish? Two things: corporate stupidity and the changes in publishing.
Once upon a time, Dorchester Publishing was America’s oldest mass-market paperback publisher. They published horror, romance, western, adventure, mystery, and other genres. When they imploded a few years ago, most of the mid-list collapsed with them. What is the mid-list, you ask? Easy. Take yourself back in time ten or twenty years ago. Imagine walking into a Waldenbooks or Borders bookstore. At the front of the store, you had big cardboard displays or “end-capped” shelves featuring the latest guaranteed bestsellers—fiction by folks like Stephen King, James Patterson, and Danielle Steele; non-fiction by Glenn Beck, John Stewart, and Rachel Ray; memoirs and advice books ghostwritten for reality television stars, athletes, and politicians. Walk past these, and you got to the shelves, where you found perennial sellers—classics by Shakespeare, Dickens, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Thompson, Bukowski, and others. The mid-list existed in the middle of these two groups. It was primarily composed of paperback genre fiction with a smaller print run than the manufactured bestsellers—sold in bookstores and airports and newsstands, impulse buys with a maximum shelf life of one to three months, after which the unsold copies had their covers unceremoniously ripped off and sent back to the publishers for a full credit. That’s right. Publishers spent money manufacturing and producing the books, sent them to bookstores, and the bookstores could then damage the product, rendering it unsaleable, and the publishers didn’t see a dime from it. Hell of a way to run an operation, right?
That was the mid-list. It was where most of the authors you read lived. We could make a living working there. Not a great living, but a reliable middle-class wage. It was the land of Ed Gorman and Bill Pronzini, of Richard Laymon and Jack Ketchum, of William W. Johnstone and Ruby Jean Jenson, of Tom Piccirilli and myself and hundreds of others who you’ve read and enjoyed. And we never moved beyond it because the system was rigged.
The advance for a mid-list paperback was much lower than for that of a manufactured bestseller. That’s because the majority of the money went to the publisher first, and the writers of those manufactured bestsellers second. And the paper mill. And the trucking company. There wasn’t much left for the mid-list authors. Mid-list books were released with zero to little fanfare, marketing or promotion for the same reasons. Your book had three months to find an audience—to find readers—before the remaining copies got yanked off the shelves to make room for the next batch of mid-list titles.
When Dorchester collapsed, it took a lot of the mid-list with it. It is never coming back.
Neither are Borders or Waldenbooks.
I have many friends who were booksellers or managers for Borders and Waldenbooks, and they repeat the same story. The demise of those chains was down to corporate stupidity—of executives trying to sell books the same way one sells soft drinks or cement blocks or blenders, of not understanding and anticipating their customer’s needs, of turning their stores into libraries where the public could browse the merchandise and drip coffee all over it and then leave without making a purchase, of the books being pushed further and further to the back of the store to make way for toys and plants and all sorts of other non-book related ephemera that they thought they should sell instead. I don’t know about you, but when I go to a bookstore, I don’t want to buy plants or toys. If I want toys, I go to a fucking toy store. If I want plants, I go to a greenhouse. If I go to a bookstore, I’d like to buy books. So did a lot of other people. Eventually, Borders and Waldenbooks went the way of Dorchester.
I have friends who currently work as booksellers or managers for America’s two surviving chain bookstores—Barnes and Noble and Books-a-Million, and they tell me confidentially that the situation is the same in their stores. I predict it’s just a matter of time before the same rot that whittled Borders down to nothing does the same to them.
The mid-list is gone. Borders is gone. But that doesn’t matter, because over the last twenty years, we’ve had a new thing come along—something called the Internet. With it came Amazon, and suddenly, mid-list writers didn’t have to play a rigged game anymore. Our books had a shelf life beyond that one to three month span. Readers could find us, discover us, and find our backlist. If your local chain bookstore didn’t have our latest, you could buy it online.
Which brings us back to the start of this column. The number one question I am most often asked is, “Why can’t I buy all of your books at Barnes and Noble?”
To understand why, you need to consider the changes that have taken place in publishing over the last twenty years, particularly those that took place after the demise of the mid-list and the closure of Borders. After those things occurred many mid-list, cult, or genre authors decided to take advantage of the advances in digital and print-on-demand publishing and do it for themselves. They cut out the publisher, cut out the chain stores, and marketed directly to the readers. For example, Bryan Smith, who was inarguably one of Dorchester’s most popular horror writers, began self-publishing via Kindle and CreateSpace and has since made more money from that than he ever did through traditional publishers. Other authors, such as myself, decided to diversify their publication routes. Since Dorchester’s fall, I’ve routinely divided my releases between self-publishing (via Amazon’s CreateSpace and Kindle), the small press (via publishers such as Deadite Press and Apex Book Company), and mainstream publishing (via big publishing conglomerates such as Macmillan). I do this because I don’t like having all my eggs in one basket. Your mileage may vary.
The problem is that big retail chain stores like Barnes and Noble and Books-a-Million won’t carry my small press titles. The vast majority of my backlist is published by Deadite Press. Barnes and Noble and Books-a-Million will carry Deadite Press titles, but only if Deadite will allow them to strip the covers off the unsold copies after three months and return them. Deadite Press is having none of that. And why should they? Deadite Press is taking advantage of these new publishing and distribution models, and selling the books directly to readers, rather than via the bookstore middlemen. Deadite Press doesn’t need Barnes and Noble. Why would they agree to a policy that is fundamentally flawed and unfair to them? Answer—they wouldn’t.
And that’s why you can’t find my books (or books by many of your other favorite former mid-listers) at a retail giant near you. And I am totally okay with that, because you know where you can find my books? In independent bookstores. See, the indie stores that have sprung up in the wake of Borders don’t subscribe to those same outdated distribution and sales models that the big chains cling to. Many of them are willing to—are you ready for this?—order books and pay up front for those books and then sell those books to their customers, rather than moving them to the back of the store to make way for more Pokemon cards and calendars. That’s why, if you look at the places I’m signing over the next nine months, the vast majority of them are independent bookstores—places like Dark Delicacies, The Poisoned Pen, Mysterious Galaxy, Borderlands Books, Tubby and Coo’s, Star Line Books, and dozens more.
“But,” one of you is saying right now, having checked my tour dates, “you’re also signing at a few big retail chain stores.”
Yes, Skippy, I am. And I’ll explain why in the next column, when we delve into the economics of writing for a living in this brave new post-Borders, post-mid-list world.
Brian Keene writes novels, comic books, short fiction, and occasional journalism for money. He is the author of over forty books, including the recently released Pressure and The Complex. The father of two sons, Keene lives in rural Pennsylvania.