When the midlist is where you want to be

I was inspired to write this piece after being alerted by literary blogger Isabel Costello to this article on the Guardian's website on Monday: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jan/13/publish-brand-literature-hilary-mantel-jk-rowling?CMP=share_btn_tw

The writer argues that midlist authors are being sidelined (ah yes - what's new?), and that's often where the interesting stuff happens. Big publishers are favouring the kind of titles that promise big branding, focusing on pushing one or two writers at the expense of the rest, because those one or two writers can really bring in the big bucks, if TV and film tie-ins are part of the package.

So far, so not-new. But the article ended on a note of hope for all struggling writers out there: "Those people with half-finished manuscripts in their drawers might take heart from the story of Nathan Filer, the mental health nurse who this week won a Costa award for his first novel. He had 11 publishers vying for the rights to publish The Shock of the Fall. The search for the new is not over yet."

Nathan Filer has become huge since winning the Costa - no midlist ignominy for him, he's set to become a 'brand' like Mantel, Rowling et al, the article suggests. In other words. the piece ends by arguing against itself - telling us the midlist is the interesting place to be, but that what you really want is headline-grabbing success.

Well - and my publishers may not like this! - I don't want that. I like the midlist. I like being there. I get published, I get reviewed, I get to speak at book festivals, I get to meet readers, and I even get (once!) shortlisted for a big prize. I don't earn enough to pay the bills from it because midlist writers don't attract those kinds of fees, but that also gives me the freedom to write exactly what I want. I don't have to worry that I'm not being commercial enough - I don't have to do things I don't want to do.

There's another aspect that's often overlooked. When my book, Between the Sheets first came out, it was published in the States first, in February 2010. Reviews started appearing, and continued right up until the end of August that year. It was hugely flattering and often exciting to get that kind of attention. It was also anxiety-inducing.

Since the death of my Dad almost eight years ago, I've suffered from mild anxiety attacks. They don't stop me performing my work, which I love doing anyway. But I think they'd increase and get worse if I did get the kind of attention that the real headliners get. Do I want the Mail launching a crusade against me, as they have done Hilary Mantel? Do I want to be in such demand at festivals that I don't get another word written for years? Yann Martel said that winning the Booker stopped him writing for 12 months, he was having to do so much other stuff.

Of course I'd love to win a major prize. Of course I'd love never to have to worry about money again. Of course 'd love to have publicists running around after me, booking the best hotels and restaurants to keep me happy. But I'm not sure I want all the other stuff that goes with it. the 'midlist' suits me, my writing, and my personality. Maybe that makes me unadventurous, too cautious about my life. But not, I hope, about my writing.  


  1. Thank you for this refreshingly honest article, Lesley. (And what a fabulous bookshop to be reading in - where is it, please?

  2. Thank you! The bookshop is Shakespeare and Company in Paris - yes, it's a beautiful place.

  3. Hi Lesley, I too saw Isabel's tweet this morning and read the article with interest. It's so refreshing to hear you embrace the idea of not craving the fame and fortune of being a 'brand'. The notion that you'd be under pressure to fulfill a certain set of expectations at that level would frighten me too. My debut will be published later in the year by a small independent Scottish publisher and that's the right fit for me. I originally had a London based agent but when I decided to write Scottish fiction using dialect in dialogue etc. she felt my writing wasn't commercial enough for the the mass market and couldn't help me find a London based publisher. I was cut loose but this meant I could find a publisher who was keen to champion Scottish contemporary fiction however niche a market. I admire your honesty in this post and found it inspiring. Mon the midlisters! ;)

  4. Thanks Helen, and congrats about your book, I'll look forward to seeing it out there! I don't see why it should be brave to say you're a midlister, which is what a few people are saying to me right now - but yes, that's the point we've been brought to, I think. Will that change any time soon? There are plenty of us, so hopefully yes!


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