Monday, April 02, 2007

Stuck in the Midlist

Everyone knows what the midlist is, right? Every month, publishing houses release one or two books they expect to be bestsellers; these are their “lead titles.” Everything else is midlist. (It would follow logically that some books must be “endlist,” or bottom feeders, but no one ever calls them that.)

My writers’ group has spent years trying to figure out what makes a bestseller. We’ve had some fascinating discussions. Last week one member suggested we flip this and look at what keeps some books in the midlist. We’re not talking quality of writing here. Surely Dan Brown shattered forever anyone’s illusion that quality of writing has anything to do with reaching the bestseller list. For literary fiction, yes; for genre fiction, no. So what elements in a writer’s books could be keeping him or her from grabbing the brass ring?

We bounced around some interesting possibilities. It’s all speculation, of course, because we have no way to prove that our ideas are right. But we came up with the following “rules” that authors ignore at their peril. Like any list of rules, one can always find exceptions, but here’s what we came up with so far:

Respect the appeal of the familiar: Americans like to read about Americans, or at least white Americans like to read about English-speaking Caucasians. So if you set a series in medieval Japan, your hero had better be Caucasian. Make him Japanese and you will probably condemn your series to the midlist. If you’re going to write about an African-American hero, he’d better sound and act like a white man. One member pointed out that he hadn’t realized James Patterson’s Cross character was supposed to be black until some throwaway comment by a secondary character near the end of the book; JP knows what he’s doing. Likewise, Daniel Silva’s Israeli hero would be very out of place in most parts of Israel; basically, he’s an American.

Don’t violate reader expectations. Cozy readers, for example, don’t like angst. Make your cozy heroine the angst-ridden mother of an illegitimate child, and you’ll lose readers. My historical mystery series is set in Regency England. Regency England is associated in many people’s minds with light comedies of manners, but the Regency England of my books is a darker, more dangerous place. Has this hurt me? Perhaps. People looking for a light book might be shocked by some of the things I write. Other readers who like darker, more dangerous books might be put off by the Regency setting, since they associate it with frothy romances.

Don’t violate your readers’ moral codes. Julia Spencer-Flemming is a wonderful mystery writer. She’s won all kinds of awards but her books have still not hit the NYT. Why not? Well, one reason may be because her heroine is a priest. It’s possible that people who want to read about priests don’t want to read about bloody murder. It’s also possible that the kind of people who want to read about priests might object to that priest having an adulterous affair. At the risk of spoiling things for readers not up to date with the series, that aspect seems to have gone away. Our prediction: she’ll probably hit the Times soon.

This is a topic we’re going to be kicking around for a while, so I’d welcome any input from my blogeagues.

I won’t be posting again until the end of the week.


Charles Gramlich said...

I thought our exercise of last night, reading pieces from mid-list authors and dissecting them, really helped. At least it opened my eyes to some of the problems that may be keeping those writers from the top. It also made me want to read Gorky Park quite badly. Loved how that opened.

Farrah Rochon said...

Fascinating topic! I'm interested in what else you all come up with!

Kate S said...

Very interesting. You know, I was thinking just this morning about a new story that has captured my attention and keyboard and realized that I may have a hard time pitching it - mainly for the reasons you listed.

It's the type of book I want to read, but not so sure about others. Too romantic for fantasy readers, yet too lighthearted for paranormal romance readers. I could "darken" it up a bit for the romance crowd, but I don't think they'd ever buy the fact that my hero has a combover.

Steve Malley said...

A short survey of traits many (but certainly not all) bestsellers have in common:

1) Short chapters. Normal folk read 6 or fewer books a year, mostly in the few minutes before bed. 100 three page chapters suit these folk better than 20 fifteen page ones.

2) Simple language. Sad but true, write above a fifth grade level and you start losing folk, many with college degrees.

3) End chapters on cliffhangers. You'd think this'd be a given, but I keep reading books whose chapters end with a completeness that might as well have 'the end' at the bottom...

4) Yeah, characters people relate to. That's important. If you're trying to sell to the white middle class (the largest book-buying segment and hence, bestseller status), they gotta see themselves without too much effort.

5) The character's struggle has to be something the hoi poloi relate to. Bridget Jones's search for love and weight-loss will always be something more people get than Sarah Gran's DOPE, with its junkie-thief-ex whore-turned-private eye hero.

Steve Malley said...

Da Vinci Code:

Had all the traits mentioned above (and boy, did it!), with the added hook of making readers feel smart.

Sometimes we watched smugly as these 'genius experts' struggled with simple puzzles (the crytographer who couldn't unscramble a few letters, anyone?). Even when the puzzles stumped us, they figured them out in a couple of pages anyway, so that was alright.

The subject matter was right there waiting as well. When DVC came out, I was in the final weeks of two years' work on a graphic novel about the Templars and Opus Dei battling across Europe over the lost legacy of the Grail bloodline, etc. Even before that book, there was a whole cottage industry of these looney tunes, usually quoting each other as references.

DVC was a freak of nature, but it was an exceedingly well-crafted one. Short sentences, simple language and short chapters told a story of a middle-class white couple moving from one cliffhanger to another. The pace never let up.

There was no poetic language, no resonant metaphors, no intrusion of common sense or reality to get in the way of a rollicking read.

I had every reason to hate that book, but I couldn't put the damn thing down either...

Steve Malley said...

Most important:

Don't lose heart. Be true to the story that wants you to write it. It's the only way.

For all my bestselling comments above, I still think the most important thing is to be true to your own voice and stories and then find the audience for them. It might be bigger than we think. There have been bestsellers with high-flown language, leisurely pace, the sort of rich complexity that takes some time to get into, and decidely non-caucasian characters.

(picturing Gabriel Garcia Marquez in a metting with slick-haired type)

"Gabe, can I call you Gabe? Gabe, Love in the Time of Cholera? We loved it. Absolutely LOVED it."

"Thank you. It was a tale near to my heart."

"But Gabe, I don't have to tell you, this business, it's all about moving units. Units don't move, we don't get paid, am I right? So the boys in marketing.... well, we want a few changes."


"First, that title. Cholera? It's so... down. Puts people off. And does it *have to be set in South America? And the characters are so... OLD. Readers don't want old."

The veins in Marquez's head stand out. The man with slick hair continues unabashed.

"We're thinking, you reset it as teenagers in the midwest, we got something here. And the cast of Dawson's Creek are interested in the film tie-in. Hey Gabe, where you going? Gabe?"

Steve Malley said...

Oh, and Kate?

Just finished the excellent thriller MAN AND WIFE by Andrew Klavan.

Hero: pudgy middle-ages combover.

Put it down: not a chance.

Emily said...

I'd like to add a couple of other things.

Literary/midlist fiction is often missing one or more of these qualities: strong plot, abundant action, clear characterization, and traditional values.

Garcia Marquez and Umberto Ecco, among others, are international literary others who get on the U. S. best seller list either because audiences have fits of snob appeal and/or because the books are taught in schools, so a lot of copies are sold.

The really clever thing to do--if we all knew how to do it--would be to write books that were immediate literary-ish best sellers, won Pulitzer Prizes (like Alice Walker's _The Color Purple_, which has all the qualities), AND which were immediately assigned for classroom reading. _To Kill a Mockingbird_ sells over 100,000 copies a year, and has for more than 30 years.

Regards to my group, who are meeting without me while I'm at a Boston conference.

Emily Toth