Death of the midlist: Standardisation of the high street's books selection is taking its toll on authors and agents

<p>Nicholas Clee</p><p>The list of acceptances at the lavish Orion author party, held this year at the Wallace Collection, London, included 195 authors and 135 agents. Reports that agenting is the most popular choice of career in the book industry appear to be justified. Whether there is enough business to sustain this trend is less clear.</p><p>One agent was talking about a client, a tyro novelist. The agent had sold--not to Orion--the novelist's first two books for &#163;75,000. Both he and the novelist were entitled to feel happy with that deal: surely they were on their way. The first novel sold 18,000 copies in paperback: not enough to cover the advance, but a figure that beats those achieved by many authors who have gone on to bestselling success. Nevertheless, the publisher has already written off its investment. It is giving no promotional support to the second novel.</p><p>"The author's at work on his third," the agent said. "I haven't the heart to tell him not to bother." The current publisher will not throw good money after--in its view--bad; other houses, noting the author's record, will stay away.</p><p>It has often been said that agents and authors go for high and sometimes unfeasible advances in order to ensure that the publisher tries to earn back the money. This reasoning is no longer infallible. You can get a high five-figure deal, or even a six-figure one, and still find that your career is over in the time it takes to read a BookScan print-out.</p><p>Still, winning a publishing contract remains preferable to not winning one--the fate that is befalling an increasing number of first-time writers, as well as experienced ones. "This is the subject that every agent is talking about," says Carole Blake of the Blake Friedmann agency.</p><p>Blake is enjoying an unusual success: with an author, Peter James, who has made a happy transition to crime fiction and produced his biggest selling book for 20 years. There are few writers who get second chances these days. More typical is the story of another Blake client, Michael White, who is a lead author on the Rowohlt list in Germany, but who until recently had no UK publishing arrangement. Last week, Blake concluded a UK deal with Arrow for White's Equinox--which had already been sold in 20 overseas territories.</p><p>Foreign publishers latched onto the partial manuscript of Equinox much more eagerly than UK houses had. Blake withdrew her initial submission and waited for the complete ms before making a serious pitch for a UK sale.</p><p>Other novels have won overseas deals without getting UK ones. The Bookseller reported during the Frankfurt Book Fair on two examples: Andrew Wilson's novel The Lying Tongue (see box, below) and The Glassblower by Marina Fiorato (agent: Teresa Chris). But these cases, though signs of the times, are unlikely to represent significant trends: overseas houses tend to want books to have had the attentions of English-speaking editors.</p><p>Books fit for promotion</p><p>The leading publishing houses have cut their lists. David Young, newly installed chairman and c.e.o. of Time Warner in the US, said recently that TW's UK company had reduced its annual output in the past five years from about 600 new titles to around 350. That scale of reduction is common. Among the titles that do get published, fewer are enjoying significant promotional and marketing support. Publishers concentrate their efforts on the titles they think will bring the greatest rewards--and on the ones that booksellers will back.</p><p>Partly, publishers have followed this policy for their own reasons. It turns out that they can make more money by putting all their efforts behind a few titles than by publishing a great many and hoping that one or two will be hits. But they have also done it because that is what booksellers have wanted. The promotional slots at Waterstone's, Ottakar's, Borders, Amazon, Tesco and the rest may not be highly profitable (because of the high discounts involved), but they pull in customers and shift an awful lot of books--numbers undreamed of in the fixed-price era of the Net Book Agreement.</p><p>The likelihood of getting booksellers' backing is one of the questions asked of every title that comes before a publisher's acquisitions meeting. With the support of the chains, you might be printing tens of thousands of copies of a new hardback. Without that support, the subscription figure might not rise above 1,000. Publishers fear that retail consolidation will reduce further the promotional slots available for books.</p><p>Clare Alexander of the Gillon Aitken agency says: "Waterstone's concentration on three-for-two promotions has had a profound effect on what publishers think they can buy. In fiction, if a book is not likely to be on the front tables, publishers don't want to take it."</p><p>At Curtis Brown, c.e.o. Jonathan Lloyd says: "I suspect that the influence of sales and marketing departments is even stronger now than it was 11 years ago, when I left publishing. [Lloyd was m.d. of adult trade publishing at HarperCollins.] If you get through the acquisitions meeting with everyone there seeing that your book will fit a promotional slot, you're likely to end up with a generous deal. If that doesn't happen, it's going to be tough." In other words, Lloyd says, "you're either going to get &#163;100,000 or zero. No one's going to say, 'This isn't bad: I'll give you &#163;15,000 for it.'"</p><p>Farewell to quiet works</p><p>Publishers agree. They say that this process has weeded out books that, in the past, they might have published only because of a vague goodwill. "The days have gone when you would take on something because you couldn't think of a reason to turn it down," says Helen Fraser, m.d. of Penguin. No one wants a midlist. An author is either on the way up, or on the way out.</p><p>Ursula Mackenzie, c.e.o. and publisher at Time Warner, makes the case in figures. "A sale of below 10,000 copies of a paperback novel is not a very attractive figure. But the number of novels selling more than 10,000 copies has been dropping like a stone for the past three years." The number of novels selling more than 100,000 copies has gone up too; but there is a big gap between them and the rest. "That's the kind of statistic that makes you realise that you've got to be careful," Mackenzie says.</p><p>Quiet works of fiction, lacking high concepts, exotic settings or "promotable" (usually a synonym for young and good-looking) authors, are not in vogue.</p><p>American literary fiction is hard to sell. Serious non-fiction, which was highly fashionable a few years ago, is not finding the most prominent bays in bookshops. In the children's market, the bookselling chains are offering very little support for picture books.</p><p>Caution may be a good trait in publishers. To have a strong justification for every title on the list is a healthy policy. But publishing is an imprecise skill. Judgements are fallible. Perhaps good writers, who might otherwise have prospered, are being turned away or dropped.</p><p>"I don't buy that theory," Helen Fraser says. "Editors' antennae for talent is so well developed that exceptional books will always find a home."</p><p>Martin Neild, m.d. of Hodder Headline, insists: "We don't have an editorial policy of pursuing just the big books. And our determination to build authors is as strong as ever. Andrea Levy [who won the Whitbread and Orange prizes with Small Island, her fourth novel] is just one example of why that's so important."</p><p>Nevertheless, former conglomerate authors--either ones whom the conglomerates have discarded, or ones who have become disillusioned with occupying a tiny part of a giant home--are offering themselves to independent houses in greater numbers. At Faber, c.e.o. Stephen Page says that the acquisitions process is just as rigorous as it is elsewhere; but he believes that the company is more likely "to invest the time, energy and creativity in finding a readership for what appear to be small books".</p><p>Past Faber, there are any number of smaller houses, and new routes to readers such as self-publishing website Lulu.com, that might take on a book. But author and agent will make little money from these arrangements. Agents cannot afford to have too many low-earning clients. One agency--not among those mentioned here--culls its client list by 10% a year.</p><p>Relying on retail</p><p>These developments are not apocalyptic, according to industry insiders. Yes, life is tougher. But the traditional publishing model is not about to collapse under the strain.</p><p>Stephen Page talks of the growing importance to Faber of its brand; and Penguin of course has a famous name that will draw readers. These publishers, and others too, will seek ways to reach the public directly, in order to reduce reliance on big retailers. No one, though, expects retailers to become redundant. Publishers will carry on producing books, including ones that do not fit marketing specifications, and relying on retailers to sell them.</p><p>Many are encouraged to hear that Gerry Johnson, the new head of Waterstone's, wants to give back responsibilities to the branches, and that he believes the chain should restore its reputation as an upmarket, range bookseller.</p><p>But authors should beware: if you produce lead title after lead title, you will be a darling of publishers and agents, and become very rich; if not, you will certainly need a more lucrative day job.</p>