Sunday, July 26, 2015

The value of "midlist."

"Midlist is a term in the publishing industry which refers to books which are not bestsellers but are strong enough to economically justify their publication (and likely, further purchases of future books from the same author)."  Wikipedia.

I'd like to expand that definition to any kind of product that has those characteristics. 

Frankly, Pegasus Books is based on midlist.  Very few things can be bestsellers.  Even when that happens, here's the result.

1.)  The book or product is hard to get.
2.)  The big chainstores will discount it to nothing.

I don't even look at the bestseller list.  These books will be at the feeding trough in Costco, or emblazoned with "SALE!" stickers at Walmart.  Even if I discount by 20% (roughly 50% of my profits) I'm going to be considered overpriced even though I am exactly the regular marked price.

So...even if I were to have Go Set a Watchman on my shelves, I would have to "explain" to the customer that it can be got elsewhere cheaper (eliciting strange looks) or risk them getting mad at me, or thinking poorly of the store, or even returning the product.  

Anyway, the same thing is true of all high sellers.  So my strategy over the years has been counter-intuitive.  Fill the store with midlist product, the more neglected by the big players the better.  There are often bargains to be had, as well.

And some of these books are good books.  In fact, ironically, they were often earlier bestsellers.  I also don't look at sales trajectory.  Selling something four or five times in a year is rare for me.  Often I don't sell things more than once a year or every two years -- or never.

But my strategy was to absolutely fill my store with the best product I can get that is reasonably priced, not being cut-throated elsewhere, and readily available.

If I get The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, I know that I can sell it every few months and replace it easily.  I've got a satisfied customer, and I have the added bonus of making my store different and unique.

All this is a roundabout way of saying that I think the publishing industry has made a huge mistake shedding themselves of midlist.  They will regret it when others (Amazon, for one) fill that need. 

It's a mistake to go only with bestsellers.  You're vulnerable to any number of factors.  And the temptation is to go for gimmicks.

Frankly, I think the new Harper Lee and Dr. Suess books are gimmicks and I don't intend to carry them.

But there you go.  Proof that midlist is viable.  Because I can say No Thanks to the biggest sellers in the industry and still thrive.  

I doubt publisher or the big chainstores can say the same.


Duncan McGeary said...

Those 1.5 million copies of Go Set a Watchmen spread among 25 authors would keep a healthy ecosystem going. 25 potential bestsellers.

P. J. Grath said...

Well, now, Duncan, we disagree again. I didn't think many people would want the new Harper Lee book at $27.99 but felt I had to have it so ordered a couple of copies. Then people kept asking when it would be in, so I did another order. I've restocked twice. It isn't that people don't know they could get it cheaper online: They WANT to buy it from me! They want to buy it in Northport! It would make no sense for me to send people away when they want to support my bookstore. And now they're asking for the Dr. Seuss book....

I don't carry every best seller -- in fact, darned few -- and usually I wait until they're in paperback. But that a "usually" practice, not an absolute rule. I would not have stayed in business for 22 years in this tiny seasonal tourist town if I hadn't paid attention to what my customers want.

Duncan McGeary said...

Yeah, I was probably being more absolutist than I feel. I think it's fine to carry bestsellers on your own terms.

I was really trying to get at the fact that the publishers have started to shed the midlist books more and more and I think this is a big mistake on their part.