Kindle: A Blessing for The Midlist?

I'm busy investigating Kindle, although I won't be getting my hot little hands on one until next week. I can't wait! Meanwhile, I'm following the ongoing debate between those in favour of the conventional route, and those who see a multitude of exciting possibilities in online ventures. Like many writers, I can see - and  am involved with - both sides, since I have an agent who is pursuing the former route, with a new manuscript - but I'm also planning to get some material out there on Kindle, with his blessing, starting with a trio of short stories which I plan to release within the month, followed by an online version of a novel which was published in the conventional way. Friends who are doing it already are finding it reasonably straightforward. The big challenges seem to lie in making sure your manuscript is as well edited, as 'clean' as it possibly can be, without the benefit of a publisher's editor and then promoting your work in all possible ways.
Oddly enough, I think this is where the more mature writer, with a track record - as opposed to the younger writer with the stunning debut novel - can score. I'm thinking in particular of the beleaguered midlist writer who may have been dropped by his or her publisher or even agent, for never quite making the big time, never quite bringing in enough cash or simply falling out of fashion with an incoming editor.
In the last few years, that term midlist has more or less assumed pejorative overtones. But in the middle of what, exactly?
Let's leave aside for a moment the brands who aren't really writers at all, although their work is carefully crafted by real writers, good luck to them. You know who they are!
At the top of the tree, there's a scant handful of bestselling writers, who make millions. Far be it from me to knock them. I'd dearly love to be among them, and have a nodding acquaintance with one or two of them. The vast majority of them are best sellers for a reason: most of them are the finest storytellers working today, and the older I grow, the more I come to appreciate the value of an interesting story, beautifully told.
Then, there are the literary writers whose experimental work brings kudos to a publishing house. Once again, I'd be the first to say, good on them, and oh how we need them out there, pushing the boundaries of fiction and just occasionally becoming that rare beast, the unicorn among writers, the bestselling literary writer!
Which leaves me with the place where I probably belong right now: the midlist, encompassing everything from well researched, well written historical fiction to finely crafted contemporary love stories, original crime, quirky comedy and absolutely everything in between. A good read. In fact, the midlist tends to be what you and I like to read when we want something to get our teeth into but not something so tough that it's impossible to chew.
I think Kindle may be a gift for the experienced midlist writer, sitting on a body of fairly recent work, who has tumbled into the marketing black hole that now seems to exist between literary and blockbuster.  But let's look at a single not too recent example and imagine what might have happened today.
When the incomparable Barbara Pym was summarily and rudely dismissed by her editor at Faber, she spent the next few years in comparative obscurity before getting her second wind, later in life. You can read the salutory story here. But let's just imagine, for a moment, what might have happened, had a writer like Miss Pym had access to online publishing. She could have said 'hell mend you' or perhaps something gentler, got over the rebuff, got An Unsuitable Attachment out there, taken heart at her sales, made some money to pay the bills and moved on to the next novel. She had a wide and loyal readership. She had a thoroughly starry supporter in poet Philip Larkin, and there were other fine writers who supported her too. It wouldn't have been too hard for her to get the reviews. Just getting the work out there for the people who badly wanted to read it might have inspired her, and we might have had a few more novels from her. When we realise that her finest work, Quartet in Autumn, was yet to come, we are forced to wonder what else she might have written if she wasn't wasting her time touting good books around unresponsive publishers.
Which is a sad, and cheering thought, all at the same time, isn't it?


Anonymous said…
Hello Catherine
Fascinating to pose this 'what if' re Barbara Pym and the Kindle (especially as I'm a fan of both!)
Also know of other authors who have been 'ditched' and who might benefit as you suggest. So many ideas around for getting work out there right now, but still not sure as a'debut' writer if I should/could make that leap.
I think my advice to debut writers would be to give the conventional agent/publisher route a good try first. Publishers are actively looking for 'debut novels' or so I'm told. But I think if the Kindle route had been available some years ago, I would probably have taken it a lot sooner. As it is, I'm hedging my bets and having a last try at the conventional route, but also aiming to build a Kindle presence, so that I can go that way if need be. I feel - with the wisdom of hindsight - that you can wait for the promise of 'jam tomorrow' for too long. But you're right - how long to wait is the question. And the whole industry is undergoing such rapid changes. A friend who is doing very well on Kindle at the moment (a very experienced writer!) says that publishers tend to 'market' to retail outlets now rather than to readers. Perhaps this goes some way towards explaining why the big bookshops are struggling. I don't think there are any easy answers, but it's something I plan to write more about because I think it's something we as writers should be debating. And I certainly think we have to get a lot more businesslike!
Anonymous said…
Thanks for the thoughts. 'Jam tomorrow' certainly can be a long time coming. As regards marketing, I have a friend who has had her first novel accepted by a major publisher and I am shocked at how much marketing she is expected to do - not just web, media etc but even to library authorities. I agre the DIY route still lags behind in reputation and clout, but I wonder how long for. We shall see!