Monday, December 01, 2003

Lament of the Unread

John Lennon (no, not that one, this one) talks about being the dreaded pariah that is a midlist author. For those of you who don't know what a midlister is, it's an author that is not a best seller, just a consistent seller. Ray Bradbury has for many decades been the king of the midlist authors. And we bow to him, humbly. J. Robert Lennon's books don't fetch the ey-popping advance dollars with all the zeros that Stephen King does but he's considered to be an up and coming voice in literature. So why the big discrepency? if he's so great why isn't he on the best seller shelf next to the Likes of J.K. Rowling and Michael Chabon?

"The sort of books that critics admire and the sort of book people want to buy are sometimes the same thing but often are not," he said. "Hard-nosed satirical dark comedy does not sell too strongly these days ... it's hard to break out beyond a few thousand readers with that type of hero."

On top of that, Baker said young male authors face a bigger obstacle -- the majority of fiction readers are middle-aged women. "More than 60 percent of fiction is bought by women and most of that by women aged between 35 and 55. Men are not big fiction readers."

Some authors of dark satire, like Chuck Palahniuk and Irvine Welsh, have managed to notch up best sellers. But they typically rise to star status after their books become hit movies like "Fight Club" and "Trainspotting."


Lennon's "The Funnies" has been optioned by New York director Tom DiCillo known for "Living in Oblivion," but it remains to be seen whether it ever makes it to the screen.

Changes in book selling has also made it harder for unknown writers to reach the top. Publishers now have to pay thousands of dollars to chain book stores to get titles prominently displayed in stores and featured in newspaper ads -- a dynamic that forces publishers to focus marketing budgets only on authors they are almost certain will turn a profit.

The little bit about how publishers are beholden to chain stores is really the point. When books are seen as just another commodity to be sold, like hardware or, as has increasingly become the case, a luxury item with a hefty price tag, often times publishers at the request of Booksellers will promote less capable but more palatable authors, in order to raise the profit margins. Now there is a fuzzy area where art and commerce at least shake hands and agree to get along for the sake of the children but it's a difficult balance to strike.

"I have a great idea for a murder mystery," Lennon said. "But knowing me ... I will have to have some sort of literary conceit going on in the book. I'll ruin my bestseller possibility by page 10."

Via Bookslut


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