The Critical Journal of the British Science Fiction Association

The New X - Issue 246

The Vanishing Midlist, revisited, by Graham Sleight.

The problem with having lots of magazines in the house is that you wind up reading them. I was digging through a pile of old Interzones the other day, trying to find a quotation which had eluded me when I was writing my column for the last Vector. (If my memory isn't tricking me, it was Geoff Ryman, in his interview in IZ33, arguing for "good-faith sf"—which sounded remarkably like his prescription for Mundane sf fifteen years ahead of time. That was, naturally, the one issue I couldn't find.) Anyhow, I ended up reading Charles Platt's column, "The Vanishing Midlist", in IZ 29 (May-June 1989), and Platt's response to some disagreements from Darrell Schweitzer (IZ 32, Nov-Dec 1989). These pieces floored me because the conversation seemed to have predicted many aspects of where sf publishing is in 2005, and it's instructive to look at where Platt and Schwietzer went right and where they went wrong.

A quick summary of Platt's argument: interesting written sf is primarily a phenomenon of trade publishers' midlists, and midlist publishing looked (in 1989) in crisis. (Terminology: at the top of a publisher's list are the books on which they pay huge advances and spend vast amounts in marketing; at the bottom are, as Platt says, "westerns, cheap romances, and other types of formula fiction mass-produced with minimal expectations." Midlist is the stuff in between.) Sf publishing, Platt argued, owes its modern shape to the boom initiated by Dune and Stranger in a Strange Land and, later, Star Wars. It has tended to be created as mini-lists within larger houses which don't really understand it. When a cutback hits, or when economic hard times beckon (as they did in 1989), the midlist gets hit. In support of this argument, Platt adduced the inability of various US sf authors to get published, the then-new phenomenon of sf writers sharecropping their work to produce new frontlist titles (Robert Silverberg reifying Asimov's "Nightfall", for instance), and a remark by Greg Bear—then SFWA president—to the effect that midlist publishing might be dead within the decade.

Well, any reasonable observer would have to conclude that the worst of this hasn't happened. I'll look at US publishing because it's a bigger and more well-chronicled field. According to the Locus statistics, 1417 new books were published in the fantastic in 2004, compared with around 1100 in 1989. The shift that has taken place is within that area. In 1989, roughly equal numbers of sf and fantasy novels were published; in 2004, it was 253 sf versus 389 fantasy. And a significant number of both are midlist titles: a publisher like Tor, say, uses the success of its Robert Jordans and Orson Scott Cards to enable it to do more commercially marginal books. Yes, imprints have died since Platt's original column (the disastrous downsizing of Bantam Spectra in the early 90s, or the more recent loss of the Earthlight list here). Some of Platt's complaints have substance now: some well-known sf authors don't get published by trade houses, and collections are almost entirely the province of small presses. But the midlist survives.

So why look at these columns? (I certainly don't mean to take Platt to task for getting his predictions wrong: I would like pretty much everything I wrote in 1989 entombed in concrete, and Platt's non-fiction—recently collected in Loose Canon—is well worth rereading.) In Interzone 32, Platt published a follow-up to his original column, quoting a letter he'd received from the writer/editor/book-dealer Darrell Schweitzer, broadly agreeing with Platt's doomy words about the midlist but proposing a solution: "It's profoundly important [wrote Schweitzer] that sf conventions and the circuit of specialty stores and mail order dealers in the field have grown to the point that they are an alternate distribution system for books. Nowadays a specialty-press book can sell a couple thousand copies at least entirely through conventions and specialised outlets. This makes it, as we Americans say, an entirely new ballgame." Schweitzer was prescribing, in short, publishing and distribution of otherwise marginal speculative work to folk who would self-identify as sf fans. Platt agreed that this would help get work into print, but viewed it as a dead-end similar to, say, the contemporary classical music infrastructure: "it consists of dedicated, poverty-stricken musicians performing obscure works by publicly funded composers , at concerts which only other musicians bother to attend."

This is, apart from the "publicly funded" bit, pretty much what's happened in the last decade. Short-run digital printing technology, for all of its drawbacks, has put running a small publishing company within the financial reach of many more people. And the rise of internet bookselling has made it much easier to market niche books to those who already know that the niche exists. The result has been an unprecedented boom in small press works of speculative fiction—almost entirely under the radar of culture in general. (Once in a while, an exception achieves escape velocity: I'm writing this just after Kelly Link's superb Magic for Beginners (Small Beer Press) was listed by Time as one of its five books of the year.)

There are two big problems with this. The first is that the quality of small press work can be variable. I have been more consistently disappointed buying small press books from writers I didn't know than buying books from trade publishers. (I've been more consistently surprised, too.) Given the necessarily higher prices of shorter print-run books, this is going to start exhausting peoples' goodwill at some point; and my feeling is that the current small press boom is going to be followed by some kind of dieback. The second problem is what Platt pointed out back in 1989: it abandons the idea that odd or marginal sf—he cites Philip Dick as an example—could be a popular literary form. And it's certainly true that the very healthy trade publishing figures I quoted contain a pretty small proportion of genuinely weird work. Pick your metaphor: the small presses could be a writer's apprenticeship before graduation to "real" publishing; they could remain a ghetto for the ghetto, the place where everyone knows you can go for your fix of short fiction; or short-run print costs could drop further, prices could drop, and a further dot-commish expansion could be on the way. Frankly, I don't know which of these paths is likeliest; but I do think we need a more nuanced and careful vocabulary to describe this bit of the world. "Print-on-demand publishers", for instance, confuses a tool with an activity like "stethoscope doctors", and it's silly to describe a professional-level organisation like, say, NESFA as a "small press." The best of these publishers, the Small Beers and Golden Gryphons, are not about to replace the midlist, nor do they need to. But something strikingly new is happening, and it's no help to talk about it in terms which are decades old.

Graham Sleight lives in London and writes for The New York Review of Science Fiction, Strange Horizons and Interzone.

This article first appeared in Vector 246. Back issues of Vector are available from