The Mid-List Squeeze

In Canada, the mid-list squeeze contributed to the bankruptcy of two independent publishers, most recently Vancouver’s Douglas & McIntyre. At its demise, the company was out more than $2-million it had paid authors in advances against royalties on sales that had not materialized by the time the company failed. “They ended up with mid-list authors, hoping there would be a breakthrough,” said Rowland Lorimer, director of the Canadian Centre for Studies in Publishing at Simon Fraser University. What happened instead was collapse.

[A]n author like Dan Brown “would never get published now, because his first three books sold nothing,” [literary agent Denise] Bukowski said. But as everybody knows, Brown’s fourth novel, The Da Vinci Code, has sold more than 80 million copies.

More casualties are expected as foreign-owned multinationals merge and pare their lists, leaving mid-list authors in the hands of small presses with limited marketing power. Although Esi Edugyan’s little-known first novel was handsomely published around the world by the top houses, its indifferent sales consigned her second novel to Toronto publisher Key Porter, which quickly went bankrupt. Half Blood Blues was ultimately brought out by boutique publisher Thomas Allen – just in time to win the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Moving to an independent press incurs a severe financial penalty, according to Bukowski: “You get nothing, and those small presses are all really bad at publicity and marketing. They don’t sell any books, they just live from Canada Council grant to Canada Council grant.”

To replace Canadian authors they once supported with long-term, multi-book contracts, multinational publishers increasingly fill their lists with so-called “buy-ins” – pre-paid, pre-edited books supplied directly from head offices in London or New York. “So more and more of their list is from those imports, and less and less is from Canada,” Bukowski said. “They need to do that, but now the pressure is to do it more and more – and to only buy books that are sure things.”