Monday, 30 July 2012

We Need to Talk About the Mid-list - Elen Caldecott

Before being published I had dreams of what it would mean: seeing my book on the shelf in a bookshop; seeing tattered copies full of library stamps; typing away on a shady balcony in some village in the south of France. I'm sure you know the sort of thing. I was dreaming bestseller.

(c) Christopher S. Penn
No-one ever sets out to become a mid-list writer, such dreams would be more getting texts from friends saying 'I was in Coventry Waterstones and they don't have your book'; being able to reserve your book only via the inter-library loan system; typing in the early hours before you go off to your day job. Nope, those dreams don't keep us going in the long, dark editing hours. But it is the reality for most writers.

The reason I'm talking about this is because I had a meeting with my publishers last week about 'reaching the next level'. It was a lovely, supportive, cake-filled meeting, but the bottom line was the bottom line. What can we all do (me, editor, art director, sales and marketing, publicity etc) to go from solid to spectacular sales? We discussed various strategies and ate some delicious scones.

But, a week later, I was left wondering at the disconnect between the art and the business of books. You see, solid sales give me a nice lifestyle that I really enjoy. I write three days a week on projects I find entertaining. I work three days a week in a lovely place alongside good friends. I live in a house that's just big enough, with a nice park nearby for walking the dog.

What's to be gained by going from solid to stellar?

There's the relationship with the publisher, of course. A good long-term business proposition, that sees them making money, will give me security. There's ego. It would be nice to not have to explain who I am to school receptionists. There's money. I could add a conservatory, or really have a flat in the south of France. All of that would be lovely.
But these feel a bit like the pre-publication dreams. While dreaming is attractive, I actually enjoy living my life in a quotidian way, without pinning too many hopes on the future.

And even if I we do make changes, will it even work? I think there's just a kind of magic stardust that gets sprinkled on some projects and not others. If you work diligently and you write with a commercial audience in mind, that doesn't mean you're bound to become stellar. No-one knows what makes a book take off in that way. And I don't have a handy packet of stardust in my desk drawer. Furthermore, I don't believe that being mid-list means that you've failed.

I came away from the meeting full of excitement. I will do the sort of thing they want to reach 'the next level', I do want a good relationship and a boosted ego, after all. But it's also important for me to remember that life is about the way I live right now, today and I have to be proud of the daily choices I make.

For more info about Elen and her books, go to:
www.elencaldecott.com
Elen's Facebook Page

20 comments:

Stroppy Author said...

Being happy with where you are right now is a great piece of advice and something too few people do. It's much easier to dream about the future and - all too often - only realise how good the current place is after the event, when you've moved on, in whichever direction.

Joan Lennon said...

At a writers' conference recently somebody said, "Happiness is being alive and in print" or words to that effect. Somebody else mentioned "the wheel of longing" and its dangers. We do need reminding of these things - thank you for your post!

(I'm sorry, I can't remember who said which, but I wrote them down because they seemed wise to me.)

Joe said...

I'd be happy to be a mid-list author too, to be honest. I mean, I quite like my day job. Great post Elen!

Penny Dolan said...

A wise post, Elen!

The pressures and wishes and even the slights of publishers - whether real or imagined - can consume energy better to make writing. Yes, live in the moment - but good luck with your "levels", too!

catdownunder said...

I may not ever be a published author, let alone a mid-liat author but writing is about much more than that isn't it? My day job is all about things like disaster relief. It has taught me that living in the present is as important as planning for the future.

Ellen Renner said...

Strong post, Elen. Mid-list is the heartland of children's literature: best sellers are seldom the best books of their generation. Many gems, such as Philippa Pearce's The Way to Sattin Shore, would struggle to be published at all these days. Let's hope that some publishers will continue to publish a certain percentage of books because they are excellent, or traditional publishing may soon only offer young readers the fast food equivalent: a limited selection of best-selling but sugar- and fat-laden items.

Dave Cousins said...

Wise words, Elen – thanks! Just being able to write books and visit schools for a living is a dream come true for me. Of course it would be nice to have more readers and, as you say, not have to introduce yourself where ever you go! But who really knows what will be the next big thing? Surely if we write stories that mean something to us, there's more chance we'll write something that really touches readers. (There is also a lot of evidence to support the idea that bestsellers are not always the best books. Fifty Shades anyone …)

K.M.Lockwood said...

What a wise post Elen - and in an odd sort of way, encouraging to not-even-published yet writers like me.
Thanks.

Nick Green said...

'To thine own self be true' is good advice. Changing one's approach to writing in the pursuit of commercial success is likely to do two things: 1. Not work, and 2. Make the writer miserable.

The tail shouldn't wag the dog. You just have to write what you write best and merely hope that enough people will love it.

Jackie Marchant said...

I'm still at the taking photographs of my books on bookshop shelves at the moment! I shall now start dreaming of cakes and scones . . . And I'll give you a big cheer if you do make the 'big time!'

VikLit said...

What a great post and true of a lot of decisions in life, to be proud of ones daily choices.

Liz Kessler said...

Very wise and interesting post, Elen. It's all a balancing act, and i reckon it comes down to something along the lines of the words of The Sunscreen Song. 'Sometimes you're ahead, sometimes you're behind. The race is long and, in the end, it's only with yourself.' Actually, I'm not sure if that's strictly relevant, but your post did remind me of it!

Nick, I don't think I agree with you about just writing what we write best and hoping will love it. I think that there may be lots of things we want to write, and if we choose to focus on the ones that we think might stand a better chance of commercial success - or even the ones that our publisher would prefer us to focus on - then i think that's absolutely fine! After all, the tail IS part of the dog, not something separate from it that only wags by accident. :)

Tam said...

Mostly agree but...it would be nice not to have to do a day job I don't have the heart for anymore simply to ensure the bills are paid. I'd much rather watch old episodes of Friends...I mean, write all day instead :)

Vanessa Harbour said...

An excellent and realistic post. One I will forever keep in mind. Thank you

Elen C said...

Thanks, everyone. It was a useful post to write, it helped me think through my feelings. I do have to consider my publisher's point of view and I am willing to do quite a lot to make them happy. But I'm not willing to do absolutely anything. And it's nice to remember that I do like my life now. I acknowledge it does help that I really like my part time job.

Elen C said...

Thanks, everyone. It was a useful post to write, it helped me think through my feelings. I do have to consider my publisher's point of view and I am willing to do quite a lot to make them happy. But I'm not willing to do absolutely anything. And it's nice to remember that I do like my life now. I acknowledge it does help that I really like my part time job.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

I've come late to your post Elen but enjoyed it very much, particularly what you said at the end... "it's also important for me to remember that life is about the way I live right now"
Today I heard my latest picture book was sold to a Japanese publisher. 6 days ago I heard my wonderful illustrator for the book, Piet Grobler, was involved in a tragic accident and lost his wife and 10 year od daughter. You're so right... life is about how we live right now.

Jenny Alexander said...

I love this post - thank you, Elen. The only problem with midlist is it feels perilous - as if a publisher will only support you for so long, and drop you when it looks like you're not, after all, going to go stellar. Personally, I'd be happy to stay right where I am, a happy writer with a number of books I feel proud of and new works in progress.

Lesley Moss said...

Interesting post! I think many writers DO dream of breaking into the mid-list, but are herded into the Try-To-Write-A-Blockbuster camp along with thousands of others!
I'll just go off and buy that lottery ticket, then.

Kell Andrews said...

Love this post. I'm not quite midlist even, but I like my life pretty well...