By Brigid Magner and Tracy O’Shaughnessy
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In this article, we use Nielsen BookScan data, in particular, the Top 2000 Australian-only titles from 2005-2018, spanning the five years before the collapse of the REDGroup in Australia and the five years afterwards, to examine the sustainability of the midlist in Australia. Midlist titles are often said to be an indispensable part of the publisher’s list, yet the role of the midlist author seems to be increasingly difficult to inhabit from both a creative and a financial point of view. Through the analysis of sales data which shows a rise in the volume of bestsellers, we argue that the ‘thinning out’ of the midlist is leading to lessening returns for Australian authors in this bracket. The steady decline in the profitability of midlist titles indicates that many authorial careers may be becoming increasingly untenable. The following discussion considers the implications for the health of the publishing ecosystem and canvasses alternative strategies for helping Australian authors and publishers to survive.
Defining the Midlist
The term ‘midlist’ is fairly elastic in terms of the ways it has been applied. It basically denotes the ‘middle of the list’. It does not mean that the writing is not as ‘good’ as a bestseller, only that it does not sell as well. It’s a space that is full of a wide range of different titles. Midlist titles are those that sit in the middle of the range of advances and sales on a publisher’s list.
Colin Robinson argues that the midlist comprises pretty much all new titles that are not potential blockbusters. But, ‘it’s the space where interesting things happen in the book world, where the obscure or the off-beat can spring to prominence, where new writers can make their mark’ (Robinson). Typically, midlist authors have a solid fan base but are not bestsellers. As Kathryn Rusch observes: ‘The middle of the list… will always be there, and it will always serve its purpose: to make the publishing house a solid profit and to grow some writers into bestsellers’. She talks about the material space that the midlist author takes up by analysing the catalogues that publishers produce which feature midlist authors squarely in the middle—she also adds that they are ‘middle of the queue when it comes to promotions’.
But the midlist is a strange and curious place inhabited by a wide variety of writers, some for only a few years on their way to bestsellerdom and others for only a few years before they give up in disgust. The rest of the midlist are lifers, folks who, for one reason or another, do not have bestsellers with each and every book release. (Rusch)
‘A midlist author is one whose books are well received but have failed to make a commercial breakthrough’, David Armstrong argues, ‘whose work sells solidly but unspectacularly, who’s well known within the writing community but the majority of book buyers have never heard his name’(Armstrong in Doe). Aside from Armstrong’s gendering of the author as male, his characterisation of the midlist as solid but unspectacular is shared by many publishers.
Publishers take on books and their authors when they think that there are potential readers or markets for them. Many factors influence these decisions including cultural trends, zeitgeist, quality of the work, BookScan data, the author’s profile, backlisting potential and costs of production. There’s a need to balance their lists by making sure they have titles that are sufficiently successful to keep funding their ongoing business. Publishers’ lists comprise of titles that range from incredibly successful to massive failures; midlist titles sit between those two positions. Midlist titles have always played an important role in underwriting or leavening these extremes.
Publishing industry executives may know a great deal about what has worked in the past but that knowledge is of little help in predicting what might work in the future. They share this problem with other workers in the creative industries—Richard Caves has called this the ‘nobody knows’ principle. According to Caves, there’s uncertainty about the demand for a particular product and consumer reaction to a creative product is neither known beforehand, nor easily understood afterward (Caves).
Our understanding is that midlist authors are typified in the following ways: modest advances, reliable and regular publishing output, low-to-moderate brand recognition or niche audiences, dependable but not impressive sales history. Publishers continue publishing mid-list authors in the hope that their titles will either ‘breakout’ or continue to be consistent sellers, however, their position can also be precarious as they are expendable in a highly competitive ecosystem.
Nielsen BookScan—’A Means to Measure’
Naturally publishers hope that all of their titles will do well but they cannot tell which books will succeed and which will not—although previous titles and their sales figures offer some guidance for their judgements. Before the year 2000, publishers had little information on which to base their ‘bet’ on a particular book or author. As Michael Webster, who introduced BookScan into Australia, puts it:
Basically, it was about enthusiasm because nobody knew what sold what. Whereas now you can go and you can say, ‘This type of book sells at this sort of price in this sort of market’ … And while the accountants would still prefer actual facts, at least it’s an indicator of what’s happening.
The introduction of Nielsen BookScan into Australia in 2001 has been identified as a valuable instrument for publishers but has also been seen as a contributing factor to the escalation of bestseller culture in Australia. Imported with the intention of tracking book sales at all participating booksellers, thereby creating ‘real’ data rather than relying on unreliable reports from publishers, BookScan has been used by publishers to predict future sales (see Magner). In 2005, Malcolm Knox wrote a compelling article for The Monthly about the risks associated with how publishers and the readers interact with BookScan, in particular, the ways in which BookScan data can be used to make publishing risk averse and homogenous. BookScan data tracks the types of books and authors that achieve successful sales results in the market, and can consequently have an influence on the commissioning process. This kind of data-driven publishing mitigates against the publication prospects for authors of midlist titles who have achieved track records of respectful literary reviews but with modest sales (Zwar, ‘What Were We Buying?’). On a more practical level, BookScan assists publishers with maintaining stock levels and gauging required numbers of reprints, thereby reducing waste.
BookScan can also be used as a powerful resource by researchers like ourselves to piece together a picture of what has been happening in the publishing and book selling fields. The use of BookScan datasets in research such as this might be seen as part of the ‘new empiricism’ in literary and cultural studies, described by Robert Dixon and Katherine Bode as ‘a loose confluence of approaches and methods’ which aim to answer questions raised within literary and publishing studies (Bode and Dixon 15). An inconvenient aspect of using BookScan data is the prohibitive cost, given that it is owned by a British company operating in nine countries which charges high costs for access (Helgason et al.).
In a recent audit with Australian publishers and online retailers, BookScan Territory Manager, Bianca Whitely confirmed that BookScan data represents approximately 90 percent of a typical trade publishers’ income. BookScan does not capture ebook sales (typically between 10-20 per cent of publishers’ income, depending published genres), publisher sales direct to the public (relatively small numbers), specialist niche sales, authors self-publishing and print book sales through Amazon (before 1 July 2018 via the US site and now in Australia). BookScan does captures bricks and mortar sales through the three channels: independents, chains and discount department stores as well as print book sales through Book Depository and Booktopia and other online retailers, and books sold through agencies that distribute to non-traditional outlets. While this BookScan data set does not account for all publisher or author income, it does cover the dominant paradigm for the majority of publishers and authors in this timespan (i.e., print book sales).
Demonised for causing problems for literary authors within the publishing industry, the BookScan system can also be utilised to track what is actually happening with book sales in bricks and mortar stores, providing evidence of trends within the industry. It can be used to chart the effects of the REDgroup retail collapse in 2011, something we attempt to do in our analysis—albeit within limited parameters.
What’s Happening in the Australian Market?
The first of our Nielsen BookScan tables examines the volume of titles sold through traditional outlets from 2005-2018. This data indicates certain trends but cannot provide the entire picture because the Australian market does not have reliable available data for ebook sales or e-retail sites (such as Amazon and Booktopia) as yet.
The sample used for analysis was the Top 2000 of Australian-only titles from 2005-2018. The Australian market is smaller than other international markets (such as the United States and the United Kingdom) therefore the Top 2000 can be a relevant/viable dataset for this kind of study. The lowest end of this data set (Rank: 2,000) ranges between 2,315 (2017) and 3,094 (2010) copies. A common threshold for viability for publishers when commissioning titles is between 2-3,000 copies because it can be difficult to make sufficient income to cover costs if these numbers are lower. Our data set covers the sales figures from the top sellers to those that meet a viability threshold. If we used the Top 5000, it would have ended at around 8-900 copies (as there is a very long tail) and this would skew our midlist.
If we look at the Top 2000 Australian-only titles by volume as a sample data set, we see the movement in the quantities of books sold at the different rankings points from ranking 1 through to 2000. In the higher rankings (1-250 position) there is significant growth (up to 39 percent) while in the ranking in which most of midlist authors would sit (anywhere from 750-2000), the growth is moderate to virtually stagnant (25.80 percent to 3.31 percent).
Table 1.1 summarises Table 1 and shows how much growth has occurred for each ranking point and the percentage increase it represents. It unequivocally shows that the market is growing steadily and consistently at the top end whereas growth in the middle and lower ends are slow or stagnating and in many cases have only returned to their 2005 volumes in 2018.
Given the dramatic drop in volume between the Rank 1 figure and the Rank 100, it’s necessary to look at what is happening in the 1-100 Rank category (Table 1.2). This category represents the ‘bestseller’ segment of the market. In 2018 these figures range from over 500,000 at Rank 1 (The Barefoot Investor) through to close to 30,000 copies at Rank 100. In 2005 the Rank 1 title (CSIRO Total Wellbeing Diet) had exceptional sales, almost double the 2006 Rank 1 (Spotless: Room-by-Room Solutions to Domestic Disasters), and the Rank 100 figure is just under 20,000 copies. The top-end segment is clearly healthy and growing and has surpassed the 2005/2006 pre-REDgroup-collapse market. Later, we will examine what percentage of the whole market the top end represents (see Table 3) as this has a direct impact on the midlist.
Table 1.3 shows the top 100 segment and the growth in volume for each ranking point from 2005 to 2018 expressed as both a number and a percentage and also the volume difference between each ranking point. The top 10 of this segment demonstrates even further concentration by accounting for almost 34 percent of the volume of copies sold.
The REDgroup Crash
In February 2011 REDgroup Retail, owned by Pacific Equity Partners, which accounted for 20 percent of Australia’s $1.6B book market, went into voluntary administration. The ‘parent’ of Borders and Angus & Robertson in Australia—as well as Whitcoulls in New Zealand—REDgroup was a substantial entity in the bookselling and publishing world.
Its demise has been variously blamed on the online book market, a strong Australian dollar, import restrictions, high rentals, bad management and overpriced books. Kwanhui Lim argues that the real picture that emerges is of ‘strategic marketing blunders, the failed merger of Borders’ regional operations with A&R Whitcoulls, a lack of knowledge about the burgeoning e-book market and an inability to adapt from being a traditional bookseller’ (Lim). REDgroup remained a traditional book retailer to its end, with e-books, gifts and other operations hardly making a dent on sales, and no serious attempt made at selling books online. According to Lim, it wasn’t the Internet that killed REDgroup. ‘They failed to adapt and learn how to exploit the power of the Internet’ (Lim).
Former publisher at Allen & Unwin Josh Dowse claims ‘the REDGroup collapse is a signal event in our publishing history’. He argues that ‘it should provide the impetus for the industry to secure a sustainable response to the forces which continue to assault it’ (Dowse). Henry Rosenbloom at Scribe Publications has argued:
A&R in its REDgroup incarnation was a very badly-run business, for which the owners, PEP, are responsible. The managers were bovver boys who alienated all their inherited knowledgeable staff (who left), made appalling decisions about stock selection and presentation, and tried to treat books like potatoes. They never listened, so their business declined drastically, and they ended up trying to sell giftware instead of books. It’s a very good example of why bookselling is not a corporate business—it’s a hands-on, detail-intensive business, with low profit-margins. Only people who love it and know what they’re doing can make a success of it—internet or no internet. (Crikey Private Media)
Carly Been reports that the collapse of the REDgroup chain resulted in the closure of approximately 139 bookstores. Many of these shops were located in regional and rural Australia. The impact from the loss of the chain stores has not been fully measured yet but evidence shows that the loss of competing businesses in an area does not immediately correspond to increased book sales for remaining businesses within the industry; rather sales are lost altogether or absorbed by the Internet (Been 116). Figures show that book sales contracted dramatically in 2011, with falls of 13 percent in volume and 18 percent in value, and significant falls continuing into 2012 (Coronel, ‘Book Sales’).
Seven years on from the collapse of REDgroup we can now see the impact it had on our market at the time and how long it has taken the market to recover. Table 1.4 shows the trajectory of both volume and value for the Top 2000 of Australian-only titles from 2005 to 2018. We can see that in terms of value, the market has yet to surpass pre-REDgroup collapse and in terms of volume, the publishing industry is selling (and therefore producing) more books for less income. Table 1.5 shows that the Average Selling Price (ASP) has dropped significantly from 2005 to 2018 ($1.74 difference) while the average RRP is virtually the same as the 2005 figure. The ASP reflects the fact that many books are discounted in the market and sold below the RRP. Discounting can happen across all channels (Independents, chains, discount department stores (DDSs)) but is most prevalent in the DDS outlets.
Authors as Creative Workers
David Carter has argued that publishing has been neglected in discussions of the creative industries, except for work on magazines and popular fiction (Bonner; Gelder). This is partly due to the status of publishing studies as a ‘floating discipline’ which is loosely attached to related disciplines such as communications, literary studies, book history, writing and business studies (Carter 48-9). The products of the publishing industry are commodities but also items of cultural value. Books are primarily sources of information, interest and entertainment, they can also be used for learning or earning and as repositories of history or markers of cultural identity (Australian Government Productivity Commission Report).
As academics working within the floating discipline of Publishing Studies, we have noticed a proliferation of media articles about author income in Australia (Campbell; Eltham; Moorhouse; Giblin and Yuvaraj) yet they have not been followed by sustained scholarly scrutiny. Given the important role played by midlist authors in the publishing ecosystem, we feel compelled to investigate their diminishing income and the increasingly unsustainable position in which they find themselves.
Artist income has been discussed in recent academic work on the creative industries. In the neoliberal marketplace, Thet Shein Win observes, the flexible labourer, and the valorisation of innovation for the sake of the market put visual artists in a particularly challenging position (3). Like visual artists, authors are also operating in the context of the new gig economy in which their labour is increasingly devalued and poorly remunerated.
The concept of ‘precarity,’ (Hardt and Negri) broadly describes the existential, financial, and social insecurity exacerbated by the flexibilisation of labour markets. If income instability, lack of a safety net, an erratic work schedule, uncertainty about continuing employment, the blurring of work and nonwork time, and the absence of collective representation are among its indices, then precarity is certainly nothing new (De Peuter 418-19). Arguably, authors have always experienced these conditions but they are now almost normalised, with full-time, secure employment becoming more scarce. In a study of 4,000 people employed in creative jobs in Australia, Jason Potts and Tarecq Shehadeh have found that cultural and creative industries jobs are indeed more precarious but that is compensated for by other factors such as the ‘freedom’ to decide how to do your work and flexible hours (Potts and Shehadeh). In a provocative piece entitled ‘Pay the Writers’ in Overland, Jennifer Mills makes an important distinction between arts workers and others:
What separates precarious arts workers from other workers is not the style of our labour, or the fact that we love what we do, or our special ‘creative’ egos which are supposed to make us grateful for any attention. It is one thing, and one thing only: the fact that we are not organised. (Mills)
The Romantic notion of authorship complicates the relationship between an author’s labour and remuneration for it. In Anglophone countries like Australia, creative writing has long been framed as ambiguous labour—it is hard to quantify and define what authors do and how much it is worth (Win 3). There is a commonly held notion that writers—and artists more generally—should ‘suffer’ for their art, rather than being paid enough to live on.
In a study of Scottish authors, Melanie Ramdarshan Bold demonstrates that romantic ideas of authorship give new writers an unrealistic idea of the money that can be earned from writing. One author complained: ‘People have a romantic notion of authorship where authors earn a lot of money, like the top-selling authors such as J. K. Rowling and Ian Rankin etc.’ (79). Bold’s study found that authors are not, for the most part, commercially-minded but that being commercially-minded and/or rights-focused does not necessarily guarantee a higher income (73-92). Instead it might tend to exacerbate their awareness of the scarcity of reliable income.
The culture of the bestseller or blockbuster strategy is also affecting the publishing ecosystem and has ramifications for author income, both in terms of advances and royalties earned, but also for the diversity of titles and authors published. Anita Elberse notes that that blockbuster strategy is a ‘time-honoured approach’ in the media and entertainment sector.
With limited space on store shelves and in traditional distribution channels, and with retailers and distributors seeking to maximize their returns, producers have tended to focus their marketing resources on a small number of likely best sellers. (90)
John B. Thompson has identified how this has filtered into publishing in Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century. Thompson explores the logic of the literary field which has become increasingly ‘polarized’, produced by structural transformations in the industry since the 1970s. The growth of retail chains—bookstores but also supermarkets and discount department stores—as the dominant way books are sold, the power of literary agents to command large advances for big authors and the consolidation of the medium and large-sized publishing houses under a few corporate umbrellas are all factors in this reconfiguring of the industry.
Thompson argues that both large and small publishers are, in the polarised field, ever more preoccupied with the need to come up with the ‘big book’, a best-selling title that exceeds expectations. In order to find the big book, publishing has become preoccupied with identifying the signs of potential ‘bigness’: ‘track’ (the track record of an author’s sales); ‘platform’ (the built-in potential audience of web-followers, affiliated organisations); and a ‘web of collective belief ‘ that transforms an agent’s ‘hype’ into the self-reinforcing ‘buzz’ of publishers’ commitment to the possibility of a book’s big sales. With the emphasis on frontlist over midlist or backlist titles, books tend to either take off as bestsellers or become invisible which, tends to reduce the diversity of titles in the marketplace—and the number of risks publishers are willing to take on unknown quantities. From the 1990s onwards, publishers moved from a ‘scatter-gun’ approach of publishing as many books as possible to reducing their output of new titles with a view to producing a smaller number of more profitable bestselling titles (Clark and Phillips 23-4).
Thompson argues that writers exist outside the ‘logic of the field’ since the publishers’ main market is booksellers rather than readers, or authors. Along with people working in publishing houses, Thompson interviewed writers, who were largely peripheral to his book, but they offered a very different and crucially important perspective on a field to which writers both belong and don’t belong, ‘like some distant cousin who is tolerated but not really welcome at the family gathering’ (411).
For some time now, authors have been feeling the effects of these changes, as detailed by an American midlist author using the pseudonym ‘Jane Austen Doe’ (a cross between the famous author and an un-identified corpse). The fact that she does not wish to be identified indicates that there is a stigma attached to complaining about declining income:
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. You’ve read about it in your morning paper: Once-genteel ‘houses’ gobbled up by slavering conglomerates; independent bookstores cannibalized by chain and online retailers; book sales sinking as the number of TV channels soars. What once was about literature is now about return on investment. What once was hand-sold one by one by well-read, book-loving booksellers now moves by the pallet-load at Wal-Mart and Borders—or doesn’t move at all. (Doe)
One of the most significant consequences of bestseller culture is the widening of the income gap between bestselling authors and others. Arguably this has been steadily eroding for a decade or two. In Turning the Page: The Evolution of the Book, Angus Phillips writes that in 2007 a survey of authors from the United Kingdom and Germany found that authors operate in an environment of ‘winner takes all’ (3). In other words, bestsellers are taking up more of the market share than ever before. In the United Kingdom, the top 10 percent of professional authors earned 60 percent of the total income while in Germany the top 10 percent accounted for 41 percent of the market. Phillips concludes that the ‘inescapable conclusion of the research is that most authors could not make a living without having another source of income’ (3). This applies especially to midlist authors who do not have the income derived from bestselling titles.
Felicity Wood, writing in Bookseller, claims that the midlist is having the longest, most drawn out ‘death throes’ in publishing history, which has been heralded since the 1990s and the Net Book Agreement when discounted titles and bestsellers became more important than ever.
Whether or not the demise of the midlist has been exaggerated, and is more of an incremental fall than a complete collapse, the midlist market has undoubtedly become tougher in recent years as internet retailers push discounted frontlist titles even harder. (26-7)
Meanwhile Bold claims that ‘[p]otential best-selling authors, both brand name and celebrity, receive very large advances and marketing budgets while the advances for lesser known authors are decreasing (75). This sentiment is echoed by Simone Murray in her chapter on ‘Authorship’ in the 2019 edition of The Oxford Handbook of Publishing: ‘the record-breaking advances and publicity oxygen enjoyed by star authors are made possible by whittling down advances and marketing budgets for midlist writers (49).
Robert McCrum’s article ‘From Bestseller to Bust: Is This the End of the Author’s Life?’ in the Guardian charts the personal cost of dwindling advances on British writers. ‘Ever since the credit crunch of 2008,’ McCrum observes, ‘writers have been tightening belts, cutting back and, in extreme cases, staring into an abyss of penury’. He warns that rates of attrition among so-called ‘mid-list’ writers, steady professionals who can no longer find publishers to support them, have begun to rise alarmingly. In a rejoinder to McCrum, Lloyd Shepherd makes the point that claims like this need to be better substantiated by hard evidence: ‘the plural of anecdote is not data’.
Let’s be honest that writing is and always has been a precarious business, that making money from it has always forced writers into queasy compromises with themselves and their art. (Shepherd)
While plenty of opinion pieces have used writerly anecdotes as evidence, data has been cited in a number of articles and opinion pieces in Australian periodicals during the last decade. ‘Pity the poor authors, because they are getting poorer’ Jane Sullivan writes in the Melbourne Age. Prompted by a report from the United States which shows that author income fell to historic lows in 2017, Sullivan observes that the trend is noticeable in Australia, although ‘the situation is a bit different here’ (21). According to this article, one of the factors contributing to the decline in the United States, along with the market dominance of Amazon, Google and Facebook, is lower royalties and advances for midlist books. Bestsellers are increasingly dominating the market, with parlous repercussions for author income. (For an analysis of author earning trends in Australia from 2005-2018 using BookScan as a data source, see Table 2.2.)
In some cases, bestsellers have no author by-line at all, after being assembled in-house to save costs. Australia was part of the adult-colouring craze in 2015, which also swept through other Western countries. BookScan’s November 2015 Australian top twenty featured eight colouring books, each one of them outselling the most successful Australian novel (Cooke).
How are Australian Authors Faring?
We have examined Nielsen BookScan data over a 14-year period (from 2005-2018) to determine the trends for book sales through the traditional channel of bricks and mortar retail. In Table 2.0, we have taken the averages of both the recommended retail prices (RRPs) and the volumes sold from the total Top 2000 data and have used the standard royalty of 10 percent of RRP (less GST) to estimate what average earnings might be. Table 2.1 estimates author income based on the average of the Average Selling Price (ASP).
To gain a more nuanced understanding of author earnings across the whole ecosystem, from bestseller to midlist, we turn to Table 2.2. This table shows author earnings through various BookScan rankings (Rank 1 through Rank 500, 1000, 1500 and 2000). Here we can see that even at Rank 500, an author would be making less than $20,000 and around $10,000 or less from Rank 1000 and below. Given that most authors would usually not have more than one new book out in a calendar year, this income is not sustainable long term. Authors may have supplementary income that comes with a successful book (writers festival fees, extracts, rights deals, speaking engagements) but there is also an expectation and reality of unpaid labour to promote the book and raise their ‘brand’ profile. The ultimate goal of all promotional activity is to generate greater sales and therefore more income for the author and the publisher.
Concentration at the Top End
Now we would like to consider whether the effects of bestseller/blockbuster culture are being felt in the Australian context. Are we seeing a similar concentration at the top-selling end of the market as in other Anglophone countries? If so, what is the effect on the types of books being published into the market?
To ascertain whether the top-end segment is becoming more concentrated we need to examine the Top 2000 and see the spread of the volume across the years (2005-2018) through the various data segments (Rank 1, Rank 100, Rank 250, Rank 500).
Table 3.0 shows that Australia is experiencing a concentration of sales in the upper end of the rankings (1-250) with close to 50 percent of total volume since 2012 being accounted for in this segment. In the Top 500, it varies from 60-70 percent in the same time period.
This effectively means that 12.5 percent of the Top 2000 authors are sharing 50 percent of the income generated in the Top 2000.
With the exception of Rank 1 and the anomalous sales of the CSIRO Wellbeing Diet Book in 2005, there is growth in the proportional percentages since 2005:
Rank 1: (from 2006): up 1.3%
Rank 100: up 3.66%
Rank 250: up 5.11%
Rank 500: up 5.27%
Every percentage point rise in the top-end segment means less income for the authors in the middle and lower segments. This not only means less income on copies sold but it also usually translates to lower advances which are usually based, especially for midlist and lower segment authors, on projected sales. BookScan data is one means of making these projections.
The other consequence of concentration relates to the marketing of the title. If a publisher has paid a large advance or is anticipating that a title will be their ‘breakout’ bestseller, they will put a proportional amount of resources behind the marketing of the title to help ensure its success. This can often mean that authors whose books are outside of these higher sales expectations (i.e., in the midlist or lower segment of the list) are not given the same kinds of marketing and publicity budgets and campaigns as the bestseller segment. Although any book can potentially find its market regardless of the effort put into its ‘discovery’—and not all books with lavish marketing budgets find their markets—rolling out of the blockbuster strategy certainly gives a well-supported title every chance to succeed. Social media offers a way for authors to partially overcome the reduction in marketing support for midlist titles and reach new readers but authors are expected to drive this and pay for it themselves.
Breakdown by Genre
To date, we have examined the volume of books being sold across the Top 2000, next we consider the genres published for the same data set. The following tables (Tables 4.0 and 4.1) focus on the Top 20 genres published in both the Top 250 and the midsection of our data sample (a segment cut through the middle of the Top 2000 (from Rank 750 to Rank 1250).
Analysis of these two tables show that the Top 5 categories or genres are the same (but in slightly different orders) for both. The following categories ONLY appear in the Table 4.0 Top 250:
Autobiography: The Arts
Pregnancy & Parenting
Street Maps & City Plans
And conversely, the following appear in the Table 4.1 Midlist but not in the Top 250:
Reference & Home Learning
Science Fiction & Fantasy
Travel & Holiday Guides
The titles appearing only in the Top 250 (with the exception of Street Maps & City Plans) would appear to be most typically personality-driven books which certainly reflects the bestseller and cult of celebrity trends in the Top 250 segment.
Table 4.2 is an analysis of the Top 50 genres (or BookScan product classes) that are represented in the Top 250 segment from 2005 to 2018. The table shows 2006 and 2009 with the most variety of product classes (42 respectively) while in 2014 there were only 28 different product classes represented in the Top 250. In the five-year period from 2014-2018, the variation in product classes is from 28-33 with an average of 30. This is 10 fewer product classes than in the five-year period 2005-2009 (38-42) with an average of 40. In addition to there being fewer product classes there is a greater concentration of titles in the Top 250 and a higher number of copies per product class. This accords with the perceived effects of bestseller culture in other markets; that it creates more homogeneous offerings with less variation in genre and greater volume. Therefore fewer authors are represented and there is a diminished range of subject matter. Table 4.3 shows the genres (or BookScan product classes) that are represented in Table 4.2.
What Do Australian Publishers Think of the Midlist?
For publishers, the midlist is usually comprised of titles that do not ‘breakout’ to become bestsellers but are generally strong enough economically to break even. Break even points for publishers vary depending on their costing models and these typically include the following components: bookseller discounts; author advances and royalty percentages; editorial, production and distribution costs; marketing and overhead costs. As a general rule of thumb, it is difficult to have sufficient income to cover the costs to produce a standard trade paperback under 2-3,000 copies. However, for every publisher (multinationals and medium-to-small independents) the cut-off point for title viability varies as well as the myriad motivations to publish titles that may or may not be commercially viable.
In order to find out how Australian publishers might define ‘midlist’ in their own words, we contacted 14 publishers—ranging from independent to multinational—and three literary agents by email, posing a series of questions about the midlist. These participants sent responses which we have de-identified for anonymity. In this small survey, we found that the term midlist elicited a diverse range of reactions, many of them ambivalent, with some even reading it pejoratively.
This word cloud to represents the words associated with the midlist used by publishers and agents in our sample:
The words ‘worthy’, ‘stodgy’, ‘reasonable’, ‘good enough’ give the impression of uninspiring and mediocre titles that do not enthuse publishers.
When asked to describe any attributes or metrics they thought related to the term ‘midlist’, two publishers responded:
‘Worthy title that will achieve reasonable sales. Could be an author that has credibility but is not talented enough to be a star or could be a subject that has a limited audience’.
‘Midlist feels small, stodgy, worthy—publishing it because you have to, not because you want to… Good novels but not great… but still worthy of being published’.
Here, the respondent interprets ‘books’ as ‘novels’ possibly indicating that they predominantly deal with fiction.
Publishers were also asked ‘what role does the midlist play for your publishing house/agency?’ This is a brief selection of their replies:
‘Not economically viable’.
‘Midlist books could be defined as books that we thought would be more profitable but which turned out not to be so once the book went to the market’.
‘Increasingly we’re just not publishing midlist anymore—or certainly not intentionally’.
Two respondents offered more positive views of the midlist:
‘Bread and butter; often prize winners are midlist titles; appeals to independent booksellers’.
‘Crucial; it allows us to offer a wide range of quality books to a wide range of booksellers’.
When asked ‘How would you characterise a midlist author?’, participants offered these thoughts:
‘Midlist authors are sometimes one-offs, someone who has written about a specialist topic, and won’t be writing another book any time soon. Others can be established authors, but who usually sell in the 4-5000 copy range on a regular basis, only occasionally breaking through to a higher number with a strong or more popular topic’.
‘A writer who writes books that only sell around 4000 copies, i.e., barely make a profit’.
‘Needs another source of income than royalties; frustrated ambition’.
‘If I used the term, I think it would be in relation to solid performers’.
‘Non-genre writer; could be experienced author or new; writing on a topic or a type of fiction (literary fiction) that has a committed, definable but relatively small number of potential readers’.
The comments indicate a spectrum of views about the midlist author, from the idea that they are ‘almost extinct’ to ‘solid performers’. Publishers tend not to want to discuss their midlist because their efforts have largely been directed towards bestsellers. As Giles Clark and Angus Phillips contend in Inside Book Publishing, some publishers do not admit publicly that they even have a midlist, as midlist titles are often seen as ‘also-rans’ (23-4). Given its commercial sensitivity, it was necessary to keep the identities of the surveyed publishers secret, as they would be unwilling to talk candidly about their attitudes towards the midlist otherwise.
Implications for the Midlist Author
The plight of the midlist author has been consistently discussed in the mainstream media and also by a number of industry publications such as Publishing Research Quarterly, Publishers Weekly, Bookseller+Publisher. Writing in Publishers Weekly, Rachel Deahl has observed that there have been recurring complaints in the American publishing industry about advances shrinking, marketing budgets being slashed, with the result that are only provided to the biggest books. In addition, she reports that misplaced measures are used in the acquisition process, such as judging the viability of a project by the author’s Twitter followers.
A report on behalf of the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) in the United Kingdom undertaken in 2014 (following a similar survey in 2006) found that a small majority of authors are doing very well. The top 5 percent earned 42.3 percent of all the money earned by professional authors in the survey (Johnson et al.). However, the survey also found that earnings of authors have been falling in real terms over the last decade with average current earnings of £16,809. This means that authors earn 19 percent less today than they did in 2005. Professional authors, those who spend more than 50 percent of their working life engaged in self-employed writing, do not fare much better. Their average earnings are £28,340 which represents a fall of 8 percent since 2005 (Johnson et al.). The ALCS report for 2018 confirms that authors’ earnings have stayed about the same in real terms—shifting from £16,531 in 2006 to £16,809 in 2014 to £16,096 in 2018. Adjusted for inflation, this represents a drop of 49 percent over 12 years. Despite the fact that the UK creative industries ‘have grown at nearly twice the rate of the economy since 2010’, author incomes are not keeping up—instead they are reversing (Giblin). Publishing is a ‘winner takes most’ game, Rebecca Giblin argues, with the top 10 percent of authors earning about 70 percent of revenues.
The 2010 Australia Council report ‘Do you really expect to get paid?’ by David Throsby and Anita Zednik included a discussion of the situation for writers. In this study, writers emerge as the group with the lowest mean and median creative incomes. The data suggests that around two-thirds of writers who are members of writers’ centres earned less than $1,000 from their creative work in 2007/08, compared to only about one-quarter of other writers. In this sample, the mean creative income of writers from writers’ centres who met the required criteria of professionalism was just under $4,000 in 2007/08, whereas the corresponding income for other professional writers was just over $12,000 (Throsby and Zednik).
Throsby’s next report (Industry Brief no. 3) produced in 2015 with Jan Zwar and Thomas Longden, as part of the groundbreaking project ‘The Australian book industry: Authors, publishers and readers in a time of change’, reveals that a similar trend has been occurring in Australia. The Macquarie report was based on an online survey of more than 1000 authors in the period 2013-2014. One of the findings is that book authorship is not well remunerated for many members of the profession in Australia. They note that authors’ income from their creative practice is much lower than their total income, demonstrating that most authors rely on income from other sources as a substantial part of their livelihood: ‘Despite working long hours and a variety of jobs to make ends meet, when all sources of income are taken into account not quite half of all authors (43 percent) earn the average annual income for the Australian workforce in 2013-2014 ($61,485).’ The report found that genre fiction authors were also more likely to report favourable changes in financial circumstances due to industry changes, and literary authors more likely to report a deterioration (Zwar et al.). The average income from writing alone according to the report is $12,900, but the median is $2,800. Although nearly 20 percent of authors work full-time on their writing, less than 5 percent of authors are able to earn this amount from their creative practice alone. In addition, there is a gender differential in writers’ income: on average, male authors earn $14,900 each year, while female authors earn $11,900. The difference is even more pronounced for literary fiction authors specifically, with males earning almost double that of female authors ($19,500 for males and $10,100 for females) (Throsby in Lu). As Rebecca Giblin and Joshua Yuvaraj observe, well regarded literary authors can gross less than $5,000 for Miles Franklin-nominated titles that took two or more years to write.
The highest average earnings from practising as an author from the top 25 percent of authors are associated with education authors ($16,500), followed by children’s authors ($14,000) and genre fiction authors ($11,100). Unsurprisingly the lowest average earnings received by the top 25 percent of earners are associated with poets ($4,900) (Zwar et al. 4).
Statistics can tell us about what the market is doing, but it’s harder to access the ‘felt’ impact on writer’s lives. To allow greater access the texture of writers’ experience, Jan Zwar has closely examined interviews undertaken by the Australian Society of Authors (ASA) in light of the Macquarie report’s findings. During 2013, Sophie Masson, Chair of the ASA, interviewed 39 literary figures, mostly Australian writers with a long career of publication, plus a small number of international and newly published Australian authors. Five Australian publishers and five literary agents were also interviewed. This was research published as The Adaptable Author: Coping with Change in the Digital Age.
Zwar returned to Masson’s raw interview data to mine it further for information about the changing nature of authorship. A number of authors who were interviewed by Masson have lived through phases when they seriously considered leaving the profession. Others felt that they have steady, if unspectacular, career trajectories: ‘I’ve never been in the position of being a big-selling writer and then becoming unfashionable’ (Blackford in Zwar, ‘More Opportunities’). Most respondents needed other forms of paid employment to supplement their income throughout their careers. For some authors, there was a ‘moment of realisation’ that they may never earn a living from their books alone: ‘I have also accepted the possibility that I may not ever make a living out of writing… Sometimes I fear I will regret having given up the chance to have a high-flying career in a good profession, but on the other hand I do love the writing’ (Anonymous in Zwar, ‘More Opportunities’). Overall, Zwar characterises authors as ‘creative practitioners who endeavour to respond to changes in the industry with sufficient ingenuity and professionalism to maintain their commitment to their craft’ (‘More Opportunities’). In an essay in the Sydney Review of Books, Masson comments that writers have needed to change their professional practices in response to the transformed circumstances in the industry, especially the amount of online interaction they are obliged to do. Nearly one quarter of authors that Masson surveyed reported that their writing time was being eaten into by such activities, including guest blog posts and interviews for online publications (‘Authors in a Changing World’). Midlist authors are required to do more unpaid promotion to market their work, increasing the time spent away from their writing practice. Clearly, Australian writers are being pressured to become more entrepreneurial in order to survive, becoming effective brand-creators, self-promoters, media producers; all of which reduces the time which could be better spent on writing.
The Stigma of Midlist Authorship
Midlist authors have not been not eager to identify themselves publicly, due to concerns about compromising their reputations and potentially reducing their incomes further. In an effort to ameliorate the stigma of poor remuneration, articles detailing authors’ financial circumstances have steadily appeared since the early 2000s, indicating that it’s a widespread phenomenon with complex origins. In the anonymous blog post ‘Confessions of a semi-successful author’, ‘Jane Austen Doe’ admits to breaking the most sacred rules of modern (American) authordom by telling how many books she has sold and what she was paid for them. She also reveals the ‘secrets, lies and euphemisms’ told to her by her publishers, editors, publicists and agents in their efforts to comfort, pacify and motivate (Doe). Almost ten years later, Australian author Mel Campbell outed herself as a midlist author on the Wheeler centre website, comparing the lack of success of her own book with bestselling titles from 2013. She notes that bestselling novels like Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites and Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project have a kind of procedural momentum, they are snowballing ‘hitting all the right beats and keeping on beating’ (Campbell).
In response to isolation induced by moderate success and low income, Campbell set up an online authors group (which is invitation only) to discuss ‘the slings and arrows of mid-list life’. By puncturing the silence around individual remuneration or lack thereof, authors may find common ground. Jennifer Mills emphasises the need for authors to use their skills collectively to agitate for better income: ‘As writers we have a degree of power that many other workers do not – we have the means of communication. We need to start working alongside each other and not in competition’.
Veteran author Frank Moorhouse has provided readers of Meanjin with a glimpse of the embodied effects on writers caused by shifts in the publishing industry. Moorhouse mournfully catalogues the changes which have directly affected authors’ livelihoods:
The number of Australian titles per head of population has increased over the last 15 years, creating a rich variety of titles available to the reader. But the paradoxical effect of this has been to cut the readership pie more thinly, that is, the increase in titles has lowered in general the sales for each title as the books on offer, especially nonfiction, become more specialised and finely tuned to the readership. The price of books has fallen and the royalty payment to the author has been reduced by up to one-third. The increase in the number of titles has also stressed the infrastructure—the bookshop shelf space, reviewing space, marketing resources and so on. (Moorhouse)
Here, Moorhouse claims that royalties have declined when in fact it is advances which have been reduced, judging by anecdotal evidence from authors. Writing in the Sydney Review of Books, Ben Eltham empathises with the personal toll this situation has taken on Moorhouse himself. As Moorhouse wrote in the Meanjin essay, the position of the author gradually ‘became disturbingly existential and personal’. After fifty years of writing, Moorhouse realised that he was ‘going broke again’. As Eltham observes, the rules that Moorhouse has followed in his life as writer ‘haven’t led him to a good place’. This is reminiscent of the portrait of novelist Rupert Thomson’s financial situation by Robert McCrum in the Guardian. Thomson says:
All I want is enough money to carry on writing full time. And it’s not a huge amount of money. I suppose you could say that I’ve been lucky to survive as long as I have, to develop a certain way of working. Sadly, longevity is no longer a sign of staying power. (in McCrum)
As these harrowing personal narratives demonstrate, writing full-time is no longer lucrative enough to live on, unless an author routinely produces bestsellers. Moorhouse and Thomson are facing their twilight years in poverty, a prospect they did not anticipate at mid-career.
Australian authors are facing mounting challenges to their livelihood, particularly those who find themselves in the midlist. Using Australian-only titles from the Top 2000 Nielsen BookScan data over a fourteen-year period (2005-2018), we have tracked the influence of the global phenomenon of the bestseller/blockbuster strategy and its flow-on effects for local authors. Furthermore, we have charted the changing fortunes of different genres, noting the types of books which are more likely to succeed in the top end of the market and in the midlist.
Our findings show that the royalties and advances for midlist authors are shrinking. In addition, there is less ‘discoverability’ of titles through bookshops because there is a smaller number of titles occupying a larger share of shelf space and marketing attention. Finally, the seemingly constant quest for the bestseller within the publishing industry is doing nothing to encourage heterogeneity. In order to prove that the variety of published offerings has declined, we would need to undertake more detailed analysis of individual titles. Due to the reduction of product classes by ten in the period 2005-2018, we speculate that this has limited diversity in both subject matter and authorship.
While we acknowledge that there are infinite variables for publishers and authors in terms of publishing decisions and income generation, the BookScan data over this extended time period provides an analysis of the shifts in the market and the potential repercussions for authors. We are wary of making unsubstantiated generalisations about what is happening, as authors are affected in different ways, depending on the kinds of writing they are seeking to publish. The Macquarie reports by Throsby, Zwar and Longden noted that there are differences in income between writers of literary fiction and writers of genre fiction. In many discussions of author income, there is an implicit privileging of literary fiction and an accompanying lament for the impoverishment of authors writing in this mode (which overlooks many others who are also struggling). Although BookScan is used in this article as a way of tracking income disparity, we recognise that BookScan has itself wrought a number of changes. It’s not a perfect, foolproof system, given that there is fluid number of bookstores using it—the current ‘panel’ in Australia is around 200—nevertheless, BookScan remains one of the most accurate sources of available data.
In the process of assembling this article, our awareness of the implications of a diminished midlist for the Australian publishing ecosystem has dramatically sharpened. As previously mentioned, a number of commentators have offered suggestions about how to ameliorate the declining earnings of midlist authors. Bestselling author Nick Earls argues for a writer-centred view of the industry which ‘sees all formats as a way to reach readers, and worthy of consideration in a writer’s publishing plans’. For the writer, the book industry in the twenty-first century is no longer a single-platform proposition. By examining a project’s prospects across platforms, the writer can maximise the pathways to readers and achieve worthwhile synergies (Earls). In 2014, Earls came up with a plan to stagger the release of five novellas under the umbrella title Wisdom Tree across audio and ebook platforms. Novellas are usually not popular with publishers since they inhabit the ‘grey zone’ between a short story and a novel but Earls was encouraged by the book industry’s ongoing migration into the digital space and its comparatively cheaper overheads (Tan).
The literary ecosystem is currently characterised by over-publishing; a title is barely in the marketplace before another is there to replace it. This phenomenon also contributes to poor sales because a book often does not have a chance to get the traction it needs to build a readership. More inventive marketing would assist the typical midlist title to find its audience thereby increasing penetration of the market, resulting in higher volumes sold.
In 2013, the Australia Council offered pilot grants for Australian editors and for Australian publishers of midlist authors. Beneficiaries of the Australia Council’s grants for publishers of mid-list authors include Wayne Macauley, Paddy O’Reilly, Tony Birch, Krissy Kneen, Gerald Murnane and Charlotte Wood. In total, Australian publishers ‘received an extra $445,185 in support from this round of ‘unfunded excellence’ to invest in publishing and promoting mid-list writers’ (Books+Publishing, ‘New OzCo Grants’).The advent of these grants indicates that there is growing awareness of the vicissitudes experienced by midlist writers, however, like many such measures to ameliorate author hardship, they were discontinued. Undoubtedly helpful to the selected recipients, this strategy was not enough on its own. Coordinated systemic changes are required to ease the burden on midlist authors.
Efficiencies such as print on demand and short run digital printing have already made it easier for publishers to keep smaller quantities of lower selling titles in the marketplace, which means that they have more potential to find their market and therefore increase sales for their authors. Alternative financial models for books may be another solution for declining author incomes. Transforming the traditional advance/royalty model into a profit share model might make both publisher and author more equal in sharing the risk and the profit. A few of the reputable small-to-medium-sized independent Australian publishers have been entrepreneurial in this regard but most publishers have yet to find a sustainable model.
In order to protect their interests, authors need to be knowledgeable about the pitfalls of alternative publishing models. There are many examples of exploitation by unscrupulous vanity presses of many first-time authors along with published authors who are now operating outside of the traditional publishing system. In 2015, an episode of the ABC Radio National program ‘Background Briefing’ was devoted to vanity presses who charm authors over an expensive lunch and subsequently charge them thousands for publication of their work with poor marketing support and minimal sales (Cohen).
Potentially, the standard author contract could be adjusted to allow for an increase in the standard 10-percent author revenue once a book breaks even. This way both author and publisher can share in the success. There are many authors who currently receive a rising royalty past certain sales milestones, but typically it is only big-name authors or authors with effective agents who can negotiate these deals. Rebecca Giblin observes, Germany and the Netherlands have ‘bestseller’ clauses that give authors the right to share fairly in unexpected windfalls arising from their work (Giblin and Yuvaraj).
In the absence of consistent and generous government funding, Ben Eltham has put forward the idea of a new small-to-medium organisation that would directly provide literary fellowships. Eltham suggests that it could be resourced by a mix of private philanthropy and government subsidy. It would pay a rotating group of writers a fortnightly wage, with superannuation, for a fixed period of three or four years (Eltham). This idea might sound radical in the Australian context but other countries have been generous in their support of authors, as in the case of Norway. Norway buys 1000 copies of every book a Norwegian author publishes. It also provides a $19,000 annual subsidy to every author who is a member of the Authors’ Union (Wischenbart 34). The Association of Bookstores is allowed to have a monopoly on the sale of books—but is prohibited by law from engaging in price competition. It requires, by law, that bookstores keep books in stock for two years regardless of sales and it exempts books from its steep sales tax. Consequently, Wendy Griswold finds that ‘Norwegians everywhere read, and they read a lot; Norway has one of the world’s highest reading rates’ (Griswold 137).
By looking beyond Australia, we might find useful ideas for making midlist careers not only survivable but comfortable, enabling the flourishing of literary culture, reducing the likelihood of abject poverty for writers. Australian authors may not be able to commit fully to their writing if conditions are not improved. As Kirsten Tranter persuasively argues:
[T]his is our work, this is our labor, and we deserve to be recompensed for it just like the printers who print the pages it appears on, and the technicians who service the computers at the publishers’ offices, and the editors who bring it to the page. Unless we want to concede the entire literary culture to a class of people who can afford to write for nothing or next to nothing, we do need to argue for the value of our work. (Tranter in Mills)
Brigid Magner is a Senior Lecturer in Literary Studies and founding member of the non/fictionLab at RMIT University. She is the Book Reviews editor of Literary Geographies and co-editor of the Journal of Australian Studies. Her monograph Locating Australian Literary Memory was published by Anthem Press in 2019.
Tracy O’Shaughnessy is the Program Manager of RMIT’s Master of Writing and Publishing. In 2016, she established RMIT’s Bowen Street Press, a student-led publishing house that forms the backbone of the Master of Writing and Publishing. Tracy brings over 25 years’ experience as a trade publisher to these roles. Throughout her diverse publishing career she has worked at a number of Australia’s leading publishing houses, including Hardie Grant Books, Melbourne University Press as the Miegunyah Publisher, and Allen & Unwin.
 In this article we define the midlist according to the genres and product classes provided by Nielsen BookScan.
 This is the title of an article by Rhalee Hughes in Publishing Research Quarterly (Hughes).
 It is important to bear in mind that Neilsen BookScan does not cover the entire market because many smaller booksellers do not participate in the system—it covers approximately 90 percent of trade sales in bricks-and-mortar stores.
 All publishers (multinationals and medium-to-small independents) have different costing models and myriad motivations to publish titles that may not be commercially viable. These titles are the exceptions rather than the rule.
 Here we do not make a distinction between authors of fiction and non-fiction, ‘literary’ and ‘non-literary’ writing for the general public.
 This phrase is also used widely in discussions of the creative industries more generally.
 The report revealed that incomes fell to a median of $US 6,080 ($AU 8,360) down 42 percent from 2009. The Authors Guild survey of 5,067 authors (traditional, hybrid and self-published) showed that earnings from book income fell even more, down to just over 50 percent from 2009 to US$3,100)
 Ivor Indyk in the Sydney Review of Books said that there is a view ‘that the phenomenon plays on the infantilism of the reading public, and is a sign of the progressive devaluation of the significance of the book’ (Indyk).
 The data we examine is derived from Australian sales therefore it does not capture international sales. A handful of Australian authors who may sell poorly in Australia sell well in other territories and are not recorded by the Nielsen BookScan system.
 A healthy social-media presence is now almost obligatory for a midlist author to be contracted by a major publisher because they might not otherwise be able to demonstrate a ready-made audience.
 BookScan ‘product classes’ do not always align with publishers’ genre categories however we must adhere to these product classes in our analysis given that BookScan data is at the centre of this study. BookScan does not provide further fine-grained breakdown of genre categories which means that diversity within genres cannot be measured effectively here.
 This article attempts to avoid the common alignment of ‘books’ with ‘novels’ in discussions of declining author income.
 The Macquarie report states that book authorship in Australia is a predominantly female profession: women make up two-thirds of all authors and outnumber males in most genres. Women comprise 66 percent of literary fiction authors, 75 percent of genre fiction writers and 90 percent of children’s authors.
 The Stella Count has productively shifted debate about the work of female-identifying authors and has effected measurable change. In their analysis of the Stella Count, Melinda Harvey and Julieanne Lamond show that the statistics from the 2018 count prove ‘sustained and significant advances in the representation of women authors’ in reviews pages over its seven years of existence (Books+Publishing).
 As mentioned earlier, BookScan is used by publishers to inform decisions about titles, potentially reducing authors’ opportunities to be published if their previous sales figures were poor.
 See Flood.
 This comment appears beneath Jennifer Mills’ article ‘Pay the Writers’ on the Overland website.
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