How the Mid-List Died


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.  

waldenbooksOnce 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.  

Books_A_Million_Kmart_Hershberger_Road_Roanoke,_VA_16_(8598409679)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.


9 thoughts on “How the Mid-List Died”

  1. Good piece, and fun to rip on inane marketing policies of the big chains. The “average consumer”, whoever that is, is also partly to blame for store layouts that cater to the mindless and easily-distracted. Those book stores provided the best of both worlds: the average nitwit got to pretend at literacy and still buy something bright and shiny without expending a wit of sense!

  2. Any comment on the extent to which chains like Waldenbooks and B. Daltons determined the decisions publishers were making?

    I worked for LOCUS in the 1980s, and at that time Charles N. Brown, the editor, seemed to feel the chains, and the criteria they used for purchasing books, were exerting a far greater of influence than retailers had done in the past on the authors publishers were willing to support and promote.

  3. How well thought out … I was a frequent Waldenbooks / Borders shopper and was disappointed in their demise. I am a Barnes & Noble member and shopper and will regret when they, too, are gone. I love being able to check out books before I buy them and supporting local businesses. That being said, I won’t hesitate to purchase books of yours, or many of the other author’s you have mentioned, from Amazon if they are not available through Barnes & Noble. I have also found that some purchases from independent booksellers (Vermont Bookshop in Middlebury, VT; Water Street Bookstore in Exeter, NH) and niche and specialty publishers like Cemetery Dance, Dark Regions Press and PS Publishing; keep the allure of physical books alive … we can still touch and feel and mid-list authors don’t get short shrift from these specialty guys. But, thanks for explaining how this all “works,” including how you creators are left hanging without even being paid (or barely being paid) a living wage.

  4. Spot on. When I first came to the US, going to the chain bookstores made me feel like a pilgrim arriving at Mecca. They were full of all the books I’d never been able to find in Ireland (especially SF and horror). I used to go to the bookstore every Tuesday because that’s when the new paperbacks hit the shelves, and I would load up with anything that sounded interesting.

    These days, most of my money goes to specialty presses – Cemetery Dance, Subterranean Press, PS Publishing, The Folio Society, etc. When I’m looking for older books, it’s all online, e-books or Abe Books.

    I never go to chain bookstores for books. I go to have a hot chocolate and read magazines, and even that might only happen once or twice a year.

  5. Bookstores killed off their clientele with this formula, too. I have a Books-A-Million in a town about twenty minutes from mine, and I used to go there at least every couple of months, just to check out the new mid-list stuff in the horror section. And I’d buy a lot of it, too. I never joined the Leisure Horror Book-Club dealie they had, because I didn’t need to — I was buying most of that stuff already at Books-A-Million, and avoiding the few authors I didn’t care for as much (which were only a couple of ’em).

    Then, when the mid-list started thinning out, Books-A-Million decided to get rid of their horror section, and just spread all the genres (except sci-fi, which for some reason gets respect, even though about 80% of the stuff written in that genre is crap — I know I’ll get disagreed with on that, but I don’t care) into one general “fiction” category. That made it almost impossible to just find things by browsing for them. I tried, but it took all the fun out of hitting the horror section, and a lot of the people who used to be in that section just didn’t show up at all in the “fiction” section anymore.

    So… I went from going to that store almost every month to going there about every six months… and now I’m not sure I’ve been in there in the past three or four YEARS. All because they screwed up their way of marketing to us. Which maybe they had to do — maybe with Dorchester going tits-up they couldn’t pack enough for a whole horror section anymore, but, they could’ve tried. I’d’ve met ’em halfway. I know I bought plenty of horror novels out of that section that weren’t Leisure.

    But, alas…

  6. The midlist in traditional publishing died, but the midlist itself didn’t die. It moved into indie and self-publishing. While most of the old midlist authors languished under the incompetence, lack of agility and lack of vision of their agents and publishers, others, often those who had been trying to break into the managed greenhouses, found a new frontier and new, if work-intensive farmland, in digital. They flourished like weeds while the old midlist withered. Yesterday’s weeds are becoming today’s new favorite foods.

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