I’ve heard from a number of published novelist friends that, although their earlier books did reasonably well, they’re having great difficulty selling subsequent novels. Publishers are reluctant to buy “midlist” books (books that may sell steadily but never reach bestseller status). The New York Times’ report on the decision by one publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, to freeze its book acquisitions for the foreseeable future, gives some clues about the reasons for this bestseller-or-die mentality. It’s not just the economy — which, we all know, is beyond awful — but the fact that some publishers have such significant debt, they can’t afford to publish anything that’s unlikely to become a huge hit:
Once upon a time, some publishers suggested, they could cultivate under-the-radar authors and slowly build an audience for them over several books. Now, with few exceptions, books tend to come out of the gate at the top of the best-seller list or be deemed failures.
“It is seriously going to be a time for known commodities,” said Esther Newberg, a literary agent who represents blockbuster authors like the thriller writers Patricia Cornwell and Linda Fairstein and Thomas L. Friedman, a columnist for The Times. “I would hate to be starting out in the business.”
So, what does that mean for the thousands of authors who have written wonderful novels – or hope to? If you are lucky enough to get a contract, you’ll have to do everything in your power to help get attention for your book – because nobody can buy a book they don’t know exists (and publishers generally throw the most publicity dollars at books they know will return the favor with book sales dollars). And if you can’t get a contract in this brutally difficult market, take a tip from Brunonia Barry and consider becoming your own publisher.