Looking back over what I’ve been reading since the beginning of the year, I found that all the books have something in common: they belong to what used to be known in publishing terms as the mid-list.
I say used to be known because nowadays the mid-list seems to have shrunk as the major publishing houses have grown. The mid-list used to be seen partly as a kind of proving ground – proving in the sense you might use it for bread, as well as its more obvious meaning. Series were given time to develop; authors were given time to grow. A lot of authors who are now bestsellers served their time in the mid-list before they hit the big time. I’m thinking of Lee Child, Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, who all published books which enjoyed a moderate degree of success before they were thrust firmly into the public eye. For a lot of actors, overnight success is a long time coming; the same applied to a lot of authors. Even the late much-lamented Reginald Hill started out there, before the wonderful Dalziel and Pascoe series took off; the early title of his which I finished this week dates back to those days. And when I glance down the names on my fairly lengthy book wishlist, the vast majority have never appeared on any bestseller list I’ve seen.
Nor have the books I’ve been reading since the new year began, or the ones lined up on my to-read shelf, though that is far from being to their detriment. Names like Martin Edwards, Mark Gimenez, Frances Fyfield, Alex Kava, Chris Nickson, Jeffrey Cohen, E J Copperman (all on my list or my shelf) bring a smile to the faces of many crime fiction lovers of my acquaintance; but for some reason which escapes me, you don’t see those names in the year’s hundred top sellers.
Does this imply that my tastes in crime fiction are middle of the road? Or does it say more about the nature of today’s version of the mid-list? More than half of the authors listed above are published by smaller, independent publishing houses. Maybe, in these days of big business and bigger sums of money floating around, that’s where the mid-list has largely come home to roost. When I was running my own tiny company, I used to fantasize about a title that would sell five thousand copies. Doesn’t sound many, does it, when you consider people like J K Rowling or James Patterson? But my tiny company is no more, at least not in the form it took in my day; go figure. Even mid-list authors need to find a significant public, and for that even the smallest of publishers needs a marketing budget. Which, alas, is something the smallest of publishers tend not to have. Great books, it seems, aren’t enough on their own any more.
But once they have a foothold, mid-list authors are survivors. I like to think that’s because the mid-list is where we dedicated crime fiction readers know we’ll find hidden gems, well-kept secrets and surprise pockets of pleasure. Browsing in bookshops can reveal these treasures; more often the first taste of a new author comes through recommendation, or in my case a review copy with an unfamiliar name in the cover. I discovered Elly Griffiths that way – a prime example of an author who began in the mid-list and captured the public imagination; and Martin Walker’s delicious Bruno, Chief of Police series, set in France’s glorious Dordogne region, which really ought to do the same; and many more besides. And having discovered them, I then go out and buy more. Which is, of course, what publishers want.
So publishers, please, if you’re listening – don’t lose the mid-list. There are plenty of readers out here who revel in it.