“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Obligatory but sincere disclaimer:  There are probably hundreds if not thousands of unpublished writers, or authors writing for small publishers who would like to be midlist writers at a big publisher.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.


14 comments to “Middling” Through

  • Michele Conti

    I don’t think that anyone begins there career wanting to be comfortably in the middle. Everyone wants to be at the top of their game, and the top of the world. There’s nothing wrong with that. 🙂

    That being said… All of my personal favorites don’t get fancy covers, and most of the people I talk to have never heard of them. Of course, after I rant and rave about how wonderful their stories are, most of these people that have never heard of them, go out and buy one of their books. And if they don’t, they go to the library and pull a copy from there if there is one.

    So the fans, I think, help a little bit with word of mouth promotion. And besides… the fancy covers are easier to damage and they feel strange on the fingers when you’re trying to read and enjoy the novel you’ve picked.

    I’m reading a series right now that has fancy raised lettering and it’s driving me nuts. I keep popping in the lettering and thinking “Crap” . Too worried about breaking it. Lol It’s not the greatest series I’ve ever read, but it’s not terrible. I’ll be happy when I’m finally done this last book.

    Anyway, paramount to any career is to just keep plugging away and take that leap every now and again that has the possibility of advancement.

  • David,
    I am right there with you. I have been doing this job, in one genre or another, since I got that first amazing phone call and my first book sold in 1989. I too, can’t complain. But I also know that I want more.

    That said, I have a couple of friends who make big money and big numbers in this business and the stress they face every day from their success is pretty awful. The book tours last three to six weeks and they are on the road (in the air) in hotels all alone, away from their families. They live on per diems. They have to be ready to talk to TV or radio or do pod casts and be charming and delightful 24-7.

    Yeah, part of me wants that. But I see them when they get home. They are exhausted and have jet lag and they take weeks to get over it and they have worse deadlines than I and they are … no happier than I. Much more stressed than I. I love my life. I love the way I live. I don’t want to change it into their lives just for success.

    So I am no longer pushing quite so hard. I am smelling the roses. If big success comes now, at this point in my carreer, I will be ready for it and will know how to limit it so that I can have fun and enjoy living and not lose what already have. I guess what I am saying is that I am finally ready for the success I always wanted. Because I no onger want it quite so badly….

  • Your post sent me to my bookshelf to see if I even owned any books with raised and/or foiled lettering. I didn’t think I did. I was wrong. Nonetheless, I’m with Michelle Re: Fancy Covers. They detract more from the book as var as I’m concerned

    I am with you on wanting the New York reviews, and the interviews with Terry Gross, Jay Leno, and/or Oprah. But not having anyone arrange signings for you is probably a huge boon. If you did have someone sending you hither and yon to pimp out your book in every major city in the U.S., you probably wouldn’t like it. Not enough time for birding, hiking, photography, swim meets, guitar, political blogging, food co-op organizing or dinners with the family at the local (really great) pizza joint!

    If Clarence, the Angel from “It’s A Wonderful Life”, were here, he could probably show you that you have thus far picked a much more satisfying life path than dogged pursuit of the Brass Ring.

    The reason you are not a best-seller has nothing to do with your degree of talent.

  • Judy

    Hi David,

    You sound as bit like the rest of us out there. With the exception of a few lucky souls who rise to the top, the rest of us get along just fine, smack-dab in the middle of it all.

    If we’re lucky, we go along each day doing a job we love and are well suited for. Others plod along doing something they are ambivalent about, but it pays the bills! Then there are the truly unlucky who hate their jobs, but can’t afford to quit.

    For what ever it’s worth, be happy you are able to do what you love for a job, which gives you the ability to spend time with your wife and kids, enjoy your friends and pursue your hobbies.

    In the long run, this will make you a better writer, a more dimensional writer, because your life is about living, not writing!

    Remember, no one ever put on their tombstone “I wish I’d worked more.” Overused saying, but none the less true.

    I’ve been meaning to ask you if the images at the top of the “Magical Words” home page are ones you have taken? They are lovely!

    Back to work at a job I love!


  • So David what can you do to rise above this? How do you get your foiled lettering? Other than going out with a stamp yourself and descending upon the bookstore stamp pad in hand… there are numerous things on the web that can get you more airplay as they say, creating a wikipedia page with your world, maps, character bios, etc… myspace, facebook, viral marketing, targeting librarians across your country.
    I’m still in the I have to finish the synopsis side of writing, then go hit the agents/publishers (not actually hit them, but well, you know). So when I get published you can remind me of what I need to do to get more publicity.

  • Great comments. Thanks to all of you. Michele and Frank — thanks for the encouragement and the kind words. Also thanks for downplaying the embossed lettering on the covers. I know some don’t like it — I’m not even sure that I do. It’s a status thing, that’s all. Silly to be sure, but one of those things one notices as a writer. “Hmmm. They gave him that but not me. What does this mean…..?”

    Faith, I think that I’d be well-advised to take your approach. I think it’s very easy to turn stuff like this into a mind game, and I seem to be doing that more right now than I usually do. Not sure why, but I need to stop.

    Judy, thanks to you as well. I do feel very fortunate. The problem with a post like this is that the emphasis is on the negative because that’s where I happen to be today. But usually I do feel very fortunate to do what I do. I have a great job and love the freedom that comes with it. And yes, those are my photos at the top of the page. Glad you like them!

    And finally, Natalie: I think that there probably are ways to get out of this place I’m in. I do a fair amount of self-promotion, be it through cons or blogs or signings. Thing is, with my children still relatively young there’s only so much more I can do, and I’m not sure I have the time, the energy, or the inclination. Choices. I’ll have to think about this more. Thanks for the comment.

  • And finally, David…
    *You* got a hardcover….
    I didn’t…


  • Judy

    Hi David,

    A bit off topic, but what are you shooting with these days? Are you still with film or have you gone over to the “dark side” and using digital?

    I’m still a mixed-bag sort of shooter. My 35mm is almost entirely digital(and me with a freezer full of film.) I’ve stuck with Nikon as I have a TON of beautiful Nikon glass, especially some lovely 2.8 stuff! I shoot chromes with my Pentax 67 and my Hasselblad Xpan. I still love slides, but I must admit that digital does make some things easier, especially when you travel. I shot the Cherry Blossoms this year with the 67 and WOW, you gotta love those big slides.

    Could you let us know where most of the shots on the header were taken?


  • Faith, yes, the hardcovers were very nice. Again, I didn’t mean to sound as whiny as I may have. I appreciate what I have; I also want more.

    Judy, I have switched to digital. I made the switch a couple of years ago when my family and I moved to Australia for the year. I knew I’d be taking a ton of photos and I didn’t want to deal with film or developing or having to lug back tons and tons of slides and/or pictures. Digital seemed to make sense. And I have to admit that I love it. I shoot everything in RAW, so I have enormous control over the digital developing process, and it allows me to experiment without worrying about burning up film. I used to shoot Fuji Velvia (100) slide film, and I miss the vibrancy of the color. Digital isn’t quite there yet — if you push the saturation to Velvia like color the images tend to look to garish. But it’s close and I’m learning more and more about processing every day.

    I shoot Canon — I have a new 40D and several lenses that I love: a 17-40 f/4 “L” lens, a 70-200 f/4 “L”, a consumer level 28-105 variable aperture lens (which will probably be the next lens I replace) and a 50mm f1.8 prime, which I’d also like to replace. I have long been interested in learning to shoot medium format, but it’s just not practical right now.

    The photos above: The one of the mountains with that fiery sky was taken in Lamington National Park in Queensland, Australia; the one with the mist and waterfall was taken at Milford Sound, on New Zealand’s South Island; the one of the sunlit waters and rock formations was taken on the Coromandel Peninsula, on New Zealand’s North Island; the one with the island shrouded in mist at dusk was taken at Wineglass Bay, in Freycinet National Park, in Tasmania, Australia; and the mist and evergreen trees was taken at Mendenhall Glacier in Alaska.

  • Judy

    Thanks David,

    I have a love/hate relationship with digital. I keep wanting it to look like all the chromes I shot over the years. Like you said, the depth of color and the vibrancy isn’t there, close, but not yet.

    I miss the old days of dropping off all my slides for process and then the fun of sitting at a light table, sorting everything out. I actually enjoyed that part of the process. I don’t like all the post process work that goes into digital. I’ve taken enough classes that I can do it just fine and my work flow is streamlined, but I hate all the time wasted sitting at the computer. I’ve learned to try and treat digital like film in that I shoot the best possible shot in as few frames as possible, so it cuts down on my post processing time. I’ve seen too many people get into the mind-set of taking tons of images without actually thinking it through and composing the shot. I’d much rather compose in the camera than in the computer.

    Medium format is lots of fun if you don’t mind carrying all the weight. Pentax 67 is actually light compared to some of the gear out there. Melanie shoots with Hasselblad and her pack often weighs more than a medium sized child!

    If you like wide-angle stuff, check out the Hasselblad Xpan sometime. It’s true panoramic on 35mm format. It’s a fun, lightweight camera which allows you to shoot straight 35 or panoramic on the same roll. Lots of fun!

    Your New Zealand images are beautiful, makes me want to go there even more! It’s definitely on the short-list of places to go.

    Let me know when you’re interested in upgrading your lenses. I’m good friends with the Canon rep here in DC and I also get a vendors price(net) from some of the local camera stores here. Might be able to save you a buck or two.

    Take care,


  • I agree with you that the freedom of shooting digital — no film, less cost per picture, etc. — can be double edged. On the one hand it encourages experimentation and spontaneity. I love that about it. It also can lead to sloppiness, a trap I fall into now and then. I usually shoot with a tripod, which slows me down and forces me to focus on composition more.

    Yes, the problem with medium format is the weight (well, that and the expense). Someday when I’m able to travel for photography specifically I’ll try it out. Maybe by then digital medium format cameras will have come down in price.

    Careful what you offer in terms of help finding lenses. I’ll take you up on it sooner than you might think. I’m interested in a couple of possible lense purchases now. 🙂

  • Judy

    Let me know when you are getting ready to buy and I’ll see what I can find for you.

    I’ll email you my contact info off-list.


  • Michele Conti

    Well, look at it this way…if nothing else. You write the books that people geek about.

    Like me… I caught myself paraphrasing in a conversation completely unrelated to books in general. On the bright side…I won the argument, so, uh, thanks eh? 🙂

  • No problem, Michele. Always glad to help…. 😉