Sunday, July 11, 2010

Death of the backlist, midlist

Once again, proof that the traditional publishing biz is cutting its own throat. This is an incisive posting from Holly Lisle. You probably haven't heard of her, but there are many who buy her books, enough for her to make a living, at least until now. Now we're all in trouble.
“It wasn’t that long ago that (mystery-DP), science fiction and fantasy were genres supporting a lot of midlist careers. And if you say “What’s the midlist?” you’re not alone.

The midlist was where writers who’d never had a New York Times bestseller, but who created great stories regularly, lived. They weren’t household names. But they were full-time writers, they sold a lot of books, their backlist (their old books) stayed in print and earned them royalties twice a year, and their frontlist—their NEW books—brought them new readers who then found all the old stuff they’d written and bought that, too.

Backlist was the keystone upon which you built your career. Your older books kept making you money year after year after year, while you wrote new books and gained new readers and built a following. Your older books were your assets, and they paid off just as any good investment pays off.

And when I first got into the field, this was still what writers thought would happen.
Only publishers don’t keep backlist in print anymore.

So there are no midlist writers anymore, because if you don’t have big numbers on your first book, and bigger numbers on your second book, you don’t have a career.

Now frontlist is all that matters, backlist dies, and writing fiction for a living has become not building a career but playing the lottery.”


So there you have it. Publishers, in an effort to save pennies, are slaughtering golden geese as fast as possible. Instead of small streams of continuous revenue over the years, they're opting for big scores, of which there aren't enough to go around. And killing off the possibility of creating more. They'll absorb the losses in their multinational corporations, but the real losers are writers trying to eke out a living, and by extent, you and me.

It's hard enough making a living writing fiction, so that we have only a few hundred people in the country doing it. And it's getting harder every day, in this insane, greed-driven business atmosphere, where money trumps quality. The big publishing houses don't want to represent good books, they want “Twilight” and Dan Brown crap. They're manure dealers, and they want us to trade our gold for the crap they push.

There are few enough readers now, and with more competition, the good writing is getting driven out by the bad. “But it's popular!” say some. Yeah, so's McDonald's, but do you want that to be the only places to eat? If no other restaurant could stay in business, and no chef could practice and learn, and that was the only food choice, you'd hear some complaining.

With writers unable to make a living writing books, the pressure to write crap that will sell is enormous. Some will, but some will work other jobs and continue to write good books, only fewer of them. But when there are big piles of manure dominating the landscape, it's hard to pick the pearls out.

Just another nail in the coffin, and another reason for writers to go the self-publishing route.

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