Laurie's News & Views

August 21, 1996 - Issue #10

The topic of this edition of Laurie's News & Views is more serious than usual and one that affects all lovers of romantic fiction. The focus is the mid- list, and whether or not there is a mid-list crisis plaguing the industry.

My interest in this area began back in April 1995, when I read an article in Romantic Times penned by Walter Zacharius, CEO of Kensington (comprised of Zebra, Pinnacle, Arabesque, and Denise Little Presents), about romantic fiction, and, specifically, the mid-list.

SAY IT AIN'T SO!
The gist of Mr. Zacharius' letter was that independent distributors, who stock supermarkets, drug stores, and airport stores, have apparently discovered that filling slots with best-selling authors and their back-lists is easier and more lucrative than filling those same slots with a variety of mid-list titles. For many general fiction best- selling authors, there are only a few titles to their backlists. But by the time many romance authors become leads, their backlists can be quite extensive and take up a lot of space.

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The article, which scared the bejeebers out of me, declared that the mid-list was an endangered species, in danger of being squeezed out by the Tom Clancys and Danielle Steeles of the world. Depending on whom you speak with, distributors either discovered the backlist bonanza on their own or were directed to it by certain publishers who realized that they could sell a larger percentage of a print run by focusing on their lead authors' backlists. If indeed certain publishers directed the change, it may well come back to haunt them.

First, let me explain the term "mid-list". All publishers rank their authors in such a way as to determine the number of books printed and the publicity budget for their books. New writers are ranked as "mid-list" authors, and their books have lower print runs and receive less promotional support from their publishers, who generally reserve most of their promotional dollars for their lead authors (am I the only one who thinks it would make more sense to spend that money on lesser known authors?).

Lead authors became leads by working their way up the lists. If the mid-list were to dry up, who would take the place of the leads as their wells become dry? Many lead authors produce only one title per year. Should the mid-list disappear, I am convinced there will come a time when the public will become so saturated by their backlists that a decline in sales will begin. So it is possible that short-term greediness on the part of some publishers will result in a long-term drought.

The thought of a dead mid-list, which supplies at least 50% of the books I read, scared me so badly that I embarked on a letter writing campaign last summer. I penned letters to every publisher I could find, every distributor I could find, and every supermarket, drug store, bookstore, and discount store I shopped in.

I received responses from several publishers, among them Avon, BDD (Bantam, Doubleday, Dell), Pocket, Harper, Warner, and Leisure/Love Spell. Each declared that their mid-list was not in crisis and that they were committed to discovering and encouraging new authors in the genre. I breathed a sigh of relief and relaxed, until I began talking with authors about "the biz", and visiting Kensington's chat room this spring.

I learned about changes in the industry that have affected the distribution of books. Since a great many paperback sales (of which romance accounts for nearly 50%) are made via slots at supermarkets, drug stores, and airport shops, what fills those slots greatly affects what is published overall. A recent RWA report indicates that the independent distributors who stock those slots account for more than half of all romance sales.

According to Publisher's Weekly, the number of distributors has halved in the past few years. The net result is bigger companies, fewer independent companies and more uniformity in what is available in supermarket/drugstore/airport store slots. So here we are again, as more uniformity means more lead authors and their backlists. This reduces orders by distributors for mid-list books, which in turn reduces the size of print runs. And, some distributors have decided to reduce the number of slots allotted to books altogether, and are replacing them with magazines.

At the recent national RWA conference, I heard two conflicting stories on the state of the mid-list. Ellen Edwards, a senior editor for Avon, which publishes four romance mid-list titles a month, said that there is no mid-list crisis for Avon. She added that Avon would continue with its program, which gradually grows authors up to become a lead author. She cited Lisa Kleypas as one who is now a lead, and showcased Splendid author Julia Quinn, who will be moved up to the Romantic Treasures slot next year.

Steven Zacharius, president of Kensington, shared a panel discussion with Ms. Edwards on the mid-list. Mr. Zacharius, whose company publishes the largest number of mid-list titles (not counting category/series books), most definitely says there is a crisis in the mid-list, and that it is becoming less and less profitable to publish mid-list titles.

Well, now I was totally confused. One company says no, there is no crisis. Another company says yes, there is a crisis. Is Kensington a literary Cassandra or could there be other explanations for the variance in these two company's statements?

I checked with some other publishing companies for their views. Kate Collins, speaking for Pocket, whose mid-list program is small, is quite pleased with how many authors it has "grown" into lead spots on the list. As a general rule, Pocket releases one or two mid-list titles each month and there are no plans to change the program.

On the other hand, discussions with authors who write for Harper Monogram seem to indicate that the number of monthly releases has been decreased, and that print runs have been more limited in some cases.

Still other publishers have decided to face the changes in the industry via niche marketing. While not conceding that there is a crisis, some publishers have tried to target segments of the market, while others circumvent working with wholesalers. Putnam, which includes Berkeley and Jove, has added the mid-list series Haunting Hearts. Harlequin (which includes Silhouette and Mira) has added the Love & Laughter line.

Some of the other marketing techniques undertaken by Kensington, such as its multi-cultural line, Arabesque, are quite innovative. Others, quite frankly, rub me the wrong way. Kensington's new Precious Gems line is a case in point. According to Mr. Zacharius, Precious Gems, which sell "exclusively" at WalMart for $1.78, was developed in an attempt to reduce the high rate of returns experienced on paperback books. The line, which is being tested for a year, has so far been comprised of titles purchased by the now-defunct Meteor. Authors who write for Precious Gems will receive roughly $2,000 per title, and no royalties.

One Kensington author had this to say about Precious Gems, "Selling a romance for $1.78 at WalMart is not necessarily a good thing for the image of romance. Makes it look like cheesy pulp fiction."

The authors I have spoken with are upset that the genre is being marketed as though it were detergent - whatever is cheapest is what the consumer will buy.

Where do you stand on this issue? Do you buy your paperbacks based on price? Is it offensive to you that, in the minds of some publishers, the labor of someone's love is no different than a box of detergent or diapers? Or, am I full of hot air, bothered by something that you think is a good idea? Please e-mail me here.

BUT I'M STILL CONFUSED
The fact remains, however, that some publishers continue to deny a problem, others side-step the issue, and others are up front in saying there is a problem with the mid-list. Avon and Pocket, are subsidiaries of much larger conglomerates with deeper pockets. Kensington, however, likes to refer to itself as a "family-run business", and, in fact is, the "last remaining independent, full-range book publisher in the United States." Market changes may have a greater impact on companies with smaller pockets.

The issue of quantity versus quality is an important one in this discussion. Once publishers saw romance selling in a big way, some bought manuscripts and published books too quickly, and in their eagerness to put out product, didn't pay as much attention to the quality of the finished product. As a result, much of what is happening now may be a market correction. This could explain why Harper Monogram has halved its mid-list program and why Kensington, in particular, says the mid-list is endangered.

Here is what one reader had to say recently on one of the romance newslists: "There are just too many books out there, and some of them aren't all that great. So readers ... tend to stick to the authors they've discovered over the years. And now the mid-list authors are suffering because there are too many of them, and some of them just plain don't have a chance (with readers)."

I agree with this reader. My mind boggles when I read in Romantic Times that 150 romances are being published each month. Please e-mail here with your thoughts on the quality versus quantity subject.

So, where does all this discussion leave us? Still confused! On the one hand, I agree that there are still too many sub-standard books being published each month. On the other hand, there are some very good authors who are hurting as this market correction continues. My biggest fear? That we will be left with a bi-polar market, with the Danielle Steele wall on one side, the Precious Gems and category romance wall on the other side, and a huge, empty space in the middle.

Steven Zacharius has this to say: "We are very concerned about the demise of the mid-list. In fact it was an article by my father, Walter Zacharius, that started the entire uproar about this topic, so we've even been blamed for causing the problem ... We don't want the mid-list to die. You are absolutely right in your assumptions that if we look into our crystal ball we are indeed hurting the future of the romance genre by not continuing to develop authors. People do get tired of backlist titles."

Realizing of course that my biggest fear is more than a tad melodramatic, I would like you to think about the mid-list, think about some of your favorite mid-list authors, think about what will happen when some of our "A-list" authors stop writing romance, and who will take their place, who will develop and nurture them.

Recently, I received this note from Patricia Potter, who offers an author's perspective:

"You are right to be concerned. One of the big problems today is the consolidation of wholesalers and book chains. Where there used to be 1,000 or more distributors, there are now less than 200 and apparently that number is expected to drop to 50. That means 50 people buying for all the grocery stores, drug stores, etc. in the country, and these folks buy entirely by computer numbers. A book does well, the next is bought. If it doesn't, good-bye author. This is also the trend with chains.

"Unfortunately, there are few buyers who care enough to read, then push, a book that's not a lead. So what can we do? My publisher says distributors follow the retail market. Authors who make the best-seller lists can provide ammunition for the sales representative. We need to improve the sales of authors we like at the retail level. This may mean paying more for a new book, talking it up with friends. Special order if a store doesn't have the book you want. It will ring bells for that store and with the distributor that supplies them.

"We must expand our base of romance readers. The potential is there. People just don't know what romance is, and we must all become missionaries. I always carry an extra book and when someone says 'I don't read romance,' I give them the book and challenge them to read it. Then, tell me they don't like romance!"

I am interested in hearing from you on these issues, authors as well as readers. Please e-mail me here.

BUT WHAT CAN I DO?
As a lover of romance, the mid-list is near and dear to my heart. For those of you who cherish the mid-list as well, I suggest you all do the following: E-mail every publisher about those mid-list authors you love. Nearly every publisher is accessible on-line. Some of the major book distributors, such as Ingram, are on-line as well. You should contact distributors, bookstores, grocery stores, any place where you buy books. Hold your heads tall and make your views known.

If the mid-list is in danger, we as readers can make a difference. If the mid-list at your favorite author's publisher is not in danger, your letter or e-mail may help in other ways (think of expanded print runs, better contracts, renewed contracts). I would like to hear from you about what you are doing to help, so please e-mail me here.

THE END, AGAIN:
Enough with the serious stuff. I look forward to getting back to our usual tongue-in-cheek discussions such as ratings, the Gilligan's Island Syndrome, glomming, and favorite heroines.

TTFN, as Tigger said to Winnie the Pooh,
Laurie Likes Books

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