Joe Midlist, the End of an Archetype

The following is from a post I made several months ago in a Facebook group I started. I founded the ebook company and have run it for fourteen years, publishing a few top authors in fantasy and science fiction, so I have a little experience.


As some of you know, a major author who was a close friend of mine died the other week. I followed his last sixteen years closely, since we did business together and talked on average several times a week, often several times a day. He was obsessively committed to his work. I saw how he lived and how he declined and died, and while I think he created many of his own problems, there’s no escaping the conclusion that this is a rough profession, even, maybe especially, for the very best authors.

You really have to ask yourself what you want from writing. Basing your self-worth on the reception of your work is stupid. Maybe that’s the only way for some to gain the motivation to produce timeless art, but it’s still very, very stupid.

It’s comparably stupid to deceive yourself about what success means to you personally. My friend achieved a measure of success, not so much because he won the Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy, International Horror Guild, Locus, Eisner, Gran Prix de la Imaginaire, and National Magazine Awards — honors he dismissed as “bowling trophies” — but because he managed to invent a romantic persona for himself that he could half-believe in, one at odds with the very flawed, absurd person he truly was, much like we all are. Writing was his escape, to the extent he was capable of escape.

So what’s this got to do with publishing? There was a time that ended not long ago when you really couldn’t self-publish. It took too much work and capital. Now you can self-publish in ebooks, on blogs, even in print through POD with minimal investment. You can publish your friends; they can publish you. You don’t even have to be any good to exercise this prerogative.

The kind of persona that my friend cultivated for himself is a relic, the writer laboring in private, having his work — his sole conduit to his readers — emerge months or years after completion. That’s still a way to be a writer, if it works for you. Just like you can ride a horse to town. Horses still exist, and believe it or not, they’re considered vehicles in many places and are legal on public roads. You could dress up in armor and ride a horse into town, and if that’s the way you want to behave, then go for it.

As publishing truly changes, you’ll notice less and less buzz about it. Last to change will be writers and their irrational attitudes about their craft. And the egos — God, the tiresome, bloated egos.

Let’s posit a Joe Midlist. (My friend was not a Joe Midlist, because he won major awards and was flown to conventions around the world; also, writing on the literary side of the fantasy and science fiction spectrum, he probably made less than Joe Midlist.) Joe Midlist is a dying breed. He’s not a one-in-a-million writer, only one in ten thousand or so. Over the course of his life he’s made as much money as a solid blue-collar worker with a high-school equivalency diploma, notwithstanding his college degree. He had the IQ to make a lot more money than that, but he wanted to be a writer. Back in Joe’s heyday, it was understood by insiders that if you had some talent and were persistent, you’d eventually make some money. You might have a ten-year apprenticeship that would be really rough, but there were only a handful of serious paying markets, and talent and persistence would eventually get you noticed. Unless you were hopeless, you’d probably sell a few pieces merely because editors took pity on you.

Now the situation is both better and worse. The same markets exist for a Joe Midlist, but their word rates and advances haven’t kept pace with inflation. They’re stuck at a time when a three-bedroom rambler cost ten grand. Of course, it’s still prestigious to hit those markets. That prestige can be parlayed into teaching gigs and guest-of-honor appearances, and maybe even a little Hollywood script-doctoring work that wouldn’t have passed Joe’s transom if his books had never shown up in a mall store (of course, they’re not there now, not most of them anyway).

What’s clearly better is that Joe Midlist can now publish his backlist himself and make an extra hundred or two a month, because he’s got an established audience. Of course, he probably won’t. He’s getting tired, and his friends only respect print from a major house, and the publishers are offering to put out all his backlist in actual paper in exchange for the e-rights, which is what they really want. But hey, in the old days, he wouldn’t have gotten a dime. His OOP stuff would have been read only through the remainder and used-book channels.

It doesn’t make sense to aspire to be Joe Midlist anymore, and he was a winner, a major winner, and if writing appeals to you and you look down on him, then you are a fool. Nowadays, I really don’t know what makes sense, but writing for joy and then self-publishing or co-op publishing is probably as good a way as any. And having another job is probably a good idea too.

About robertpkruger

Writer, editor, and software developer. Former president of
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