It's tough being a midlist author these days. The big six New York publishers are cutting back and demanding every publication be a hit. They no longer want to invest in an author who can only sell 10,000 copies in the hopes that she'll either become famous with time or (horrors!) keep a loyal following that ensures she'll sell 10,000 copies of each of her next dozen books. It's feast or famine with the big boys these days.
But now small and independent presses are stepping up the the plate. Publishers Weekly has had some interesting articles about how midlist authors are being saved by the smaller guys.
An article titled Smaller Presses, Bigger Authors reveals the big six want 20,000-30,000 sales per book or you'll get dropped. Established writers, even famous writers, are having a tough time selling books that are a bit out of the box, a bit too experimental. Alice Walker went to indie press New World Library to publish a collection of her poems. It sold out its 7,500 copy first printing. Great sales for an indie, a financial flop for a big publisher.
Oh great. I have a hard enough time getting my books published even at indie presses, and now I have to compete with Alice Walker!?
But seriously, this is good news for the midlist too. Small and indie presses are more open to unestablished authors and experimental work. If they think a book can sell 5,000 copies they'll give it a shot. Some really small presses are happy with less than that. Your advance will be much lower, but you'll generally get a bigger percentage of the royalties and you'll be under less pressure to become a big name. It appears the smaller houses have a more realistic view of the marketplace. That's why they're blossoming right now.
Indie presses report seeing more manuscripts from established authors, as well as debut literary fiction from unknowns. This has been going on for some time. Back in 2007 PW profiled Night Shade Books. In that article they tell how the company has done well with good choices of authors, good distribution, and taking on sf/f books that are cool but not bestseller material. Even successful sf author Liz Williams moved from Bantam to Night Shade after her sales weren't good enough for such a large publisher.
Night Shade has a solid reputation, pays an advance, and can sell thousands of copies. Not hundreds of thousands, or even tens of thousands, but thousands. That's realistic, and they won't dump you if you "only" sell 7,000 copies. I met the owners at World Fantasy Con a few years back and they're very approachable and down to earth. That's a big plus too.
So maybe this isn't such a bad time to be a midlister after all.