Book publishers are incentivizing midlist authors to abandon them for Amazon

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One thing that astonished me as I was investigating why self-published zombie novels were selling so well on the Kindle platform was that every single author I spoke to had never been contacted by a major book publisher or literary agent. Here they were reliably selling thousands of copies a month, achieving high rankings on Amazon’s bestseller lists where anyone could observe their success, and not a single New York publisher tries to lure them under its umbrella?

In fact, the opposite is happening: Midlist authors who have amassed a following are, in some cases, abandoning the traditional publishing route to strike off on their own. Tim Pratt, a genre author, published several books within a fantasy series for Bantam Spectra before his contract was cancelled, and so he went on to continue writing the books by funding them on Kickstarter. The woes of midlist authors — who account for most of the books you’ll find in a Barnes and Noble and typically sell several thousand copies of each book — have been well documented. In 2004, an author using a pseudonym wrote on Salon of her struggle within the midlist, which she said “involves about as much moral purity as producing and marketing a pair of Nikes.” She claimed that “in the 10 years since I signed my first book contract, the publishing industry has changed in ways that are devastating — emotionally, financially, professionally, spiritually, and creatively — to midlist authors like me.”

But even as publishers abandon midlist authors, they’re spending more than ever to locate and secure the next blockbuster — the next Hunger Games. Publishers Weekly recently published data showing that there’s been a significant increase in seven-figure advances (yes, more than $1 million) for first novels from writers who haven’t yet demonstrated that they can sell a single book. As the Globe and Mai pointed out, this comes as publishers say they’re making less and less money from the midlist:

So, instead of trying to promote those books, they are abandoning them. It’s an all-the-eggs-in-one-basket strategy. They guess at which handful of books are going to be blockbusters and blow their yearly acquisition budgets on a couple of them.

So we have these authors who have built up fanbases consisting of thousands of readers, readers who gladly shell out money for each subsequent book, and yet the publishers are abandoning these authors in droves. Why?

Well, over the past few decades, what was once a diverse publishing field has consistently coalesced, through acquisitions and mergers, into an industry with only four major publishers. What’s more, these major publishers are owned by even larger, multi-billion dollar media conglomerates:

Simon & Schuster is owned by CBS, HarperCollins is owned by NewsCorp, Penguin and RandomHouse are jointly owned by Pearson and Bertelsmann, and Hachette is part of an enormous French company called Lagadère.

So when you’re a company that’s dealing with revenues in the billions (with a B), suddenly a product that can only sell a few thousand units and is ultimately “unscalable,” isn’t worthy of investment. So instead they invest in products that have the potential to not only sell millions of units, but also spawn spin-off merchandise and movie deals.

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Amazon, with its ecommerce system and now its Kindle publishing platform, has figured out how to scale midlist authors, and is therefore willing to gobble up those writers the big publishers turn away, offering them a bigger cut of their sales in the process.

But this, I believe, is to the long-term detriment of the publishers. Because now a new generation of writers is growing up on the Amazon platform, using social media and email lists to market its books, and several of these writers will advance from selling merely thousands of books to selling millions. And once they’re selling millions of books and collecting 70 percent of each copy sold, it’ll be extremely difficult for those conglomerates to lure the authors back under their umbrella with the promise of a puny 10 percent of cover price royalty. By abandoning the midlist to Amazon, publishers are hastening their own demise.

There was another consistent trend I found when interviewing zombie novelists for my article: fervent distaste for the New York publishing industry. And maybe that’s the real reason why publishers and agents never bothered reaching out to them; it’s not that they don’t recognize the sales and money potential for these authors, it’s that they’ve spent the last decade sowing so much bad blood within the writer community that they know approaching them for a book deal is a lost cause. Midlist authors have been burned once, and now with Amazon and their own marketing abilities they can ensure they’ll never be burned again. So that leaves the remaining book publishers engaged in bidding wars for a shrinking pool of first-time writers still uninitiated to the cold, soulless world of modern New York publishing.

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.

Image via WhyDev