Friday, 14 March 2008

Embracing the Term "Midlister"

In the comment to the National Novel Writing Month post below, Orna Ross says:

"I'm intrigued as to why a writer would so happily embrace the term "midlister". Are you not interested in getting an agent and writing a breakout book? Midlisting is, as you rightly say, purgatory -- and staying too busy on lots of different projects can be a poor career move for a writer."

I embrace the term "midlister" because that's what I am. With this blog I aim to give readers a clear view of the publishing world--without hyperbole, without spin, and without pipe dreams. Most serious writers who keep at it never make the bestseller lists. They become midlisters, like me. They juggle several different projects at a time, wearing several hats in order to maximize their chances of securing a deal. It ain't pretty, but that's the way the publishing industry is. If you're an aspiring author, my life is your realistic expectation.

Am I interested in getting an agent and writing a breakout book? Of course. I'm actively searching for an agent and I'm working on two different breakout books at the moment. All midlisters worthy of the title "writer" strive to break into the stratosphere of publishing. It's the dream that keeps us going. That and the fact that no other job is nearly as fun.

Is midlisting purgatory, like I and Orna say? Yes and no. My subtitle for this blog is only half serious. Yes, midlisting involves getting paid late, struggling with inadequate advances and apathetic marketing people, and the general frustration of knowing you deserve better. But purgatory, if you know your Catholic theology, is finite. It will end some day. I know I'll get a few rungs higher. I've climbed several already. And purgatory isn't so bad. I get to research interesting topics, see my name in print, travel the world, and avoid cubicle Hell. I used to work in an office. I'd rather rob banks than go back to that.

Is staying too busy on a lot of different projects a bad move for a writer? Yes, it is. That's why I reserve a sizable chunk of my time for my fiction. I've never sold a novel. I've sold a grand total of one novella, one novelette, and one short story. As a percentage of my total writing income my fiction sales come out to way below one percent. But my dream is to write both history and novels. I'm halfway there. When I look at my fiction I know I picked the right career. Some day my novels will be published, and that's when I truly get to express myself to the reading public.

There is a certain unfair stigma in some writing circles to being a midlister. If I need to use a pen name to rise higher, so be it. I'll be in good company, and I don't really mind if the name Sean McLachlan isn't on the cover of my breakout novel. I don't write for fame; I write for self-satisfaction. Everyone I care about will know it's me anyway.

Until that happens I'm stuck on the midlists, where I get to satisfy my somewhat academic curiosity about the world by writing history and travel, and whatever else I can successfully pitch to an editor. Plus I get the satisfaction of actively pursuing my dream. How many cubicle slaves can say that? Purgatory is OK. It's warm here, but not too hot. And there's always the promise of Heaven.


Bob Younce said...

Nifty blog, Sean. Just found you today, and I thoroughly am enjoying it.

I've Stumbled you, so hopefully we can bring you in front of a wider audience.

This was an excellent post. I think I'll start using the "midlister" term myself; it suits me.

Good form!

Sean McLachlan said...

Hi Bob. Thanks for Stumbling me. I'm such a newbie I had to look up what that is! Your blog has lots of useful ideas on it. You'll be seeing more of me.

laradunston said...

Like the blog. I've linked to you:

The Daring Novelist said...

Once upon a time "midlist" was a great place - before Barnes and Noble and other big book distributors sullied it and nearly killed it. Before that, the midlist was the bread and butter of the industry.

I've never liked blockbusters. The best books were always on the midlist. Those were the authors who produced steadily and had a steady audience that was loyal as heck. Sometimes they would make it onto the best seller list, but that was not because they suddenly changed to be "cool" - it was because their slowly growing loyal audience had got big enough to sway the distributors.

Amazon (which makes all books available to all readers) and eBooks are bringing the midlist back into prominence again. Hooray!

Looking for more from Sean McLachlan? He also hangs out on the Civil War Horror blog, where he focuses on Civil War and Wild West history.

You can also find him on his Twitter feed and Facebook page.