The Midlist Reader’s Bliss

An article of faith among the authors of serious books–a whiny lot–is that publishing houses are no longer interested in publishing “midlist” books (that is, serious works of fiction and nonfiction, as opposed to blockbuster best sellers, self-help books, and the like). Shortly before he died, J. Anthony Lukas, then-president of the Authors Guild, deputized Nicholas Lemann, author of The Big Test, to find out whether this was so. The result, a scrupulously researched report by former Wall Street Journal and New York magazine writer David D. Kirkpatrick, is now available on the Web. And guess what? Even in this age of ruthless media conglomeration, publishers are putting out about as many midlist titles as they ever did!

“The fear that mainstream publishers are substantially reducing the number of midlist books they publish,” writes Kirkpatrick, “is unwarranted. … Publishers plainly still find literary fiction and serious nonfiction worth publishing.” Even HarperCollins, now probably the cheesiest of the major publishing houses (it’s owned by Rupert Murdoch), managed to publish 69 midlist books in 1998–only three fewer than it published in 1978. Simon & Schuster and Knopf now publish more midlist books than they did back then. And the huge superstores that are displacing independent bookstores are still stocking all these midlist books. (What the hell else are they going to put on all those shelves–cans of motor oil?) Kirkpatrick quotes a Barnes & Noble executive saying his company orders 85 percent of all new adult trade titles published annually.

This isn’t to say that the report doesn’t contain bad news. Although more midlist books are being published, fewer midlist books are being sold. Those superstores, which are so great at stocking midlist books, aren’t terribly successful at getting their Frapuccino-sipping clientele to buy them, mainly because superstores have jacked marketing costs so high (with outrageous fees for favorable store placement, etc.) that publishers end up pushing only their blockbusters. Best sellers’ share of the book-buying dollar has risen from 7 percent in 1986 to 13 percent in 1996. Even a strong-selling midlist novel like David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which made Wallace a Gen-X literary superstar, probably netted him, Kirkpatrick figures, only $25,000 for each of the five years he spent writing it.

Still, what’s bad for authors isn’t necessarily bad for the rest of us. If Kirkpatrick’s report had been produced not for the Authors Guild but for some theoretical Midlist Readers Guild, it would be unequivocally positive. Think about it: Publishers are putting out as many midlist books as ever, and superstore chains are making it easier than ever to find them, often with a price tag lower than you’d have found at your charming local independent bookseller, assuming your community had one. And if you happen not to live near a bookstore of any kind, or don’t fancy going outside, you can always order your desired midlist book from,,, or one of the other online booksellers, which carry just about everything in print. And if your desired midlist book is out of print, you can nearly always find it at Bibliofind, Alibris, Bookfinder, or one of the other online used bookstores, usually for no more than you’d pay for a new trade paperback. (Chatterbox’s hardcover copy of Infinite Jest, as yet unread, was bought used.) When e-books come in, out-of-print midlist books will be easier still to get–indeed, they won’t truly be “out of print” at all!

The overproduction of midlist books, relative to the number that get sold, is bad news for midlist authors. But it’s good news for midlist readers, because the oversupply should keep the price down. You often hear that hardcover books have become scandalously expensive, but that isn’t really true. Chatterbox’s hardcover copies of Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift and The Dean’s December cost $10 and $13.95 when published, respectively, in 1975 and 1982. Using this handy inflation calculator, Chatterbox finds that a newly minted Dean’s December would cost $24.81 today–only 14 cents less than Bellow’s latest novel, Ravelstein–and that a newly minted Humboldt’s Gift would cost $32.84 today, which is nearly $8 more than the list price for Ravelstein. And that’s before you figure in the greater availability of book discounts. True, Ravelstein isn’t nearly as good as Humboldt’s Gift. But it’s much better than the reviews. At these prices, why complain?