“Middling” Through

Mid-July.  Middle of the summer.  It’s hot and humid and I can think of twenty places I’d rather be than home working.  I’m in the middle of a book, which will, at some point, wind up on the middle of a bookstore shelf and have middling sales numbers which will keep me right where I am career-wise:  in the Midlist.

Declaration of the obvious:  I would love to write bestsellers.  I’d love for my books to garner lots of awards and sell hundreds of thousands of copies and make me rich.  I wish that I were a big enough name in the field that my publisher would give me gorgeous raised-print covers and send me on national book tours and arrange for me to put in appearances on Oprah and Good Morning America and the Colbert Report and whatever other TV talkshows authors frequent.

Another declaration of the obvious:  All that stuff in the preceding paragraph ain’t gonna happen anytime soon.

I’m a midlist author, which means that while I’m established, with a small but devoted fan base, and I manage to sell new books to publishers with some regularity, I’m not a bestseller and I don’t get great big advances.  My books get nice jacket art (very nice, really — I love my cover artist), but no raised type or foil on my name or the book title.  When one of my novels is released, I get an ad in Locus and a few other places, but not much beyond that.  My print runs are big enough to give me a chance to earn out my advance, but they’re not so big that I’m going to get rich off of any book.  I’ll be reviewed in Publisher’s Weekly and Booklist and maybe Kirkus, but not in the New York Times or the New York Review of Books.  If I set up a signing at a local bookstore, my wonderful publicist at Tor will send out materials to the bookstore and do whatever she can to help me promote the event.  But no one is setting up signings for me.

Obligatory but sincere disclaimer:  There are probably hundreds if not thousands of unpublished writers, or authors writing for small publishers who would like to be midlist writers at a big publisher.  I don’t question that for a moment.  I may sound like I’m whining about all the things I don’t get (Phil Gramm take note….), but I know how fortunate I am to have this career.  I get to write stories and then people pay me for them.  That’s pretty cool.

That said, I also know that I can’t allow myself to be satisfied.  This isn’t some sweeping declaration on the importance of being driven and wanting to excel.  I simply know that I want more, and that if I allow myself to think that this is as much of a career as I’m going to have, I’ll lose whatever drive I have.

I’m not really going anywhere with this post.  I have a book to finish and page proofs to read through.  I woke up this morning knowing that it was my day to post on the blog, and this is what I was thinking about.  I’m in the middle.  Of everything, it seems like.  And right now it’s all feeling like bit of a slog.  I’d love to finish with something uplifting and hopeful, filled with determination and a promise that I will eventually have that huge success.  But this is a tough business, and I understand that we can’t all be bestsellers and household names.  Someone has to fill the midlist, and I’m not willing to give up my position here if it means moving anywhere but up.  It’s not a bad place to be; not by any means.  Let’s be honest, though:  No writer begins his or her career striving for the middle.

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There are 11 comments. Get the RSS feed for comments on this entry.

  1. 1. John Z.

    I’m one of those presently striving to get to that middle! It’s certainly higher up than where I am now! I keep thinking someday I will be!

  2. 2. David B. Coe

    My response to the pingback: I actually didn’t think it was that depressing — certainly not “painfully dreadful”. But I’m grateful to you for saying it took guts to write. I love being an author, but as you say here it is indeed a job. Sometimes it’s the best job in the world — better than anything else I can imagine. Sometimes — like today — it’s more routine than exciting, more slog than inspiration. I make no apology for wanting more, for being ambitious. Did my post today come off as whiny? Maybe, though that wasn’t my intention. Did it make me sound greedy and spoiled? Perhaps to some. But it was honest. I want to accomplish more than I have. I suppose that makes me human.

    John Z.: I hope that what I wrote didn’t put you off in any way. I think it’s great that you’re striving for the midlist, and I hope you get there soon. I also hope that once you’re there you won’t stop striving for even more.

  3. 3. tiarella

    Check worldcat.org to see how many libraries own each of your books, and you will feel more pride than a mid-lister. Keep getting yourself reviewed in the library journals, and more readers will discover you in their local library.

    I have a suggested topic for one of your blogs – how to choose a direction in a chapter when you have 3-4 different ideas. There isn’t a “right” direction since it’s your unique creation. Do you write a little of each idea or ….?

  4. 4. S.C. Butler

    Regarding the pingback, what’s dark and depressing about being lucky enough to do something you like? Working in a coal mine, now that’s dark and depressing. Though it probably pays better than midlist writing, and has benefits too,

  5. 5. David B. Coe

    Tiarella — I do know that I’ve had good success getting into libraries. Thanks for bringing the site to my attention. I like the post topic and will think about that for next week on magicalwords.net. Thanks.

    Sam — I agree. I don’t think my post was dark and depressing. I was just addressing the reality that so many of us face. I’m not depressed — I’m just not content with where I’ve gotten thus far.

  6. 6. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    It’s funny how many people use the word midlister like it’s an insult. That’s where I am too, and the fact is, I’ve got it better than a lot of people. Like you, I’m striving for bigger and better, but I’m really grateful. But I do think it’s funny the way people dance around the world midlist.

  7. 7. Nathaniel

    Hey, David. Nathaniel here from the pingback at Nerdflood.

    Maybe “painfully dreadful” wasn’t the right phrase, but I have to admit that it did have a tone draped in what felt like a certain reflective sadness. You did mention that you enjoyed what success you have received, but the longing glances towards a future that *could* be just gave the whole post a decidedly weary mood.

    But don’t take that as negative criticism! More than anything, what I loved about the post was how raw and honest it was. It’s good to hear these kinds of things from authors. If nothing else, it helps to serve as a gentle reminder that when one finally achieves one’s dream of becoming an author, all is not roses and rainbows for the rest of eternity. That’s what I took away from it. Not depression or darkness, but honesty and reality.

  8. 8. David B. Coe

    Yeah, Di, I suppose there is a pejorative sense to the word “midlist” and I use it as a pejorative in this post. Sorry for that. As I’ve said already, I really am grateful for what I have. I love writing and if I have to spend the rest of my career just where I am now . . . well, things could be a lot worse. But I won’t deny being ambitious and wanting more.

    Nathaniel, thanks for the comment. I admit that it’s a melancholy post — weary (as you say) is probably a better word. I’m glad you appreciated the honesty. Writing really is a great way to make a living. But it’s not easy. There’s the uncertainty of wondering whether your next book will be your last, there’s the low pay, particularly when figured on a per hour basis, and there’s lots of competition for shelf space and book release slots. Those who aspire to be authors should go into this with their eyes wide open.

  9. 9. Phil

    So what can you do? I mean, how does one break out once you’ve had a couple of books out, have established yourself as midlist, and don’t have the extra support from your publisher to break out into the next bracket? Slowly accrete readers till you wake up one day and find yourself in the upper echelons of SF, or hope that one of your books will smash the world to pieces through sheer brilliance, or..?

    I guess I’m basically asking–given your situation, what can you do to change it?

  10. 10. David B. Coe

    Phil, you do basically what you outline in your comment. You keep on writing the best books you can write and try to build your readership through word of mouth and whatever self-promotion you can manage. Blogs, conventions, writing workshops, signings, website stuff — every little bit helps. Sure, it’s also possible to write that break-out novel, but that’s pretty rare. Hard work and perseverence. That’s the more likely path.

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Author Information

David B. Coe

David B. Coe (http://www.DavidBCoe.com) is the Crawford award-winning author of the LonTobyn Chronicle, the Winds of the Forelands quintet, the Blood of the Southlands trilogy, and a number of short stories. Writing as D.B. Jackson (http://www.dbjackson-author.com), he is the author of the Thieftaker Chronicles, a blend of urban fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction. David is also part of the Magical Words group blog (http://magicalwords.net), and co-author of How To Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion. In 2010 he wrote the novelization of director Ridley Scott’s movie, Robin Hood. His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages. Visit site.

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