Death to the Midlist, Long Live the Ownlist

In all the talk about types of authors (indie, traditional, blended, A-list, midlist) there is, in my view, emerging a more definitive typology. I’m calling it the “ownlist writer.”
The old designation of “midlist writer” referred to that land of lean where writers who were not of bestselling status used to hang out. These were the writers who did not get much more than catalogue placement, who were not given significant marketing dollars or push from the publisher. This often made economic sense for the company. After all, they are in business, and the goal of business is to maximize profit. The way to do that is to invest in “sure things.” In the case of a publishing company, the sure thing is the A-list author–the author whose books have already proved popular with readers and have a sales record that can be largely depended upon.
Case in point: I remember reading a Publishers Weekly article some years ago about how a publisher had decided to make one of their authors the next “big name.” This was after five or six thrillers, which were gathering great word of mouth and increasing sales. The significant marketing push behind his next book did exactly what the publisher anticipated, elevating that author to the A list, where said author is a dominant force to this day. A fellow named Child.
But only a handful of authors ever get this treatment. The overwhelming majority wind up as midlisters, where the seas are turbulent.
Now, In the very old days (pre-1980 or so) a midlist writer might actually forge something of a career. If he showed steady but not spectacular sales, accepted advances commensurate with those sales, then he could actually hang on. Almost always he’d have to supplement the writing income with a “day job.” But at least he could say he was published.
Then came the era of the blockbuster. Sidney Sheldon. Stephen King. Judith Krantz. Robert Ludlum, Michael Crichton, Tom Clancy, John Grisham and lately a guy named Patterson. They became the “tent poles” that held up the edifice for everyone else. And of course, this is who the publishers put their money behind.
And the midlist, as a place of repose, began to dry up.
Which meant that more and more writers began to lose the writing part of their lives. The only place they could go was to tiny publishing companies outside Manhattan, hoping for  placement in enough independent bookstores to make the effort worthwhile.
Then digital self-publishing became a viable alternative. Each month we hear about more writers making significant income self-publishing (we also hear about writers who have not realized that level…yet. See my post on “harsh realities.”) And we also now know that the best way to market your self-published work is by owning your own list.
That means readers who have opted to be on the writer’s list and notified directly when a new book is available. As the author adds quality product to his line, the list grows, along with the author’s income.
How do you start growing such a list?
1. Have a website which has a place for people to sign up for your list.
2. Offer an incentive to sign up. I give away a free book. It’s a win-win. 
3. Speak everywhere you can. Yes you, unknown author, go to your local library and volunteer to do a talk on the subject of your novel. Go wherever they’ll have you. At these talks pass around a legal pad and ask people to put their email on it if they’d like to be notified when something of yours comes out. What, you don’t do public speaking? Afraid? Nervous? Join Toastmasters. Or get The Quick and Easy Way to Effective Speaking by Dale Carnegie and practice!
4. Put your email list on a service like MailChimp, Constant Contact or Vertical Response.
5. Put this information in the back matter of your book. It should be a short descriptive paragraph and a link. Something like:
For a complete list of my fiction and writing books, please visit my website and sign up for my occasional updates. I will not share your info with anyone for any reason, and won’t stuff your mailbox, either.
6. Make your emails short, entertaining and with a soft sell. This, to me, is something a lot of authors are missing. I don’t send out a “newslettery” email. I don’t want to give the feel of a sales brochure, or even something that’s going to take too much time to get through. I send short emails, and try to include a bit of humor, something about what I’m working on, and a link to one or two items for sale. If it’s a book launch, I make the entire email about that.
7. Be careful with subject lines. Avoid words like FREE and DEAL and other sales-type language, because sometimes those get dumped into spam folders. Do, however, make it specific. For example, an email I sent about my online novel writing course had the subject: Especially For Writers. It did quite well. I once sent out an email with the subject line: News from James Scott Bell. That didn’t get nearly as many clicks, because it’s too generic.
8. Mail regularly, but not too frequently. My rules of thumb:
a. More than once a month is too much. If there’s some sort of really crucial news you must share in the same month, go ahead. Just don’t make a habit out of it.
b. Less than once every three months is too little. Even if you don’t have a book coming out, update your readers on your progress, a little window into your writing life. 
Nurturing your own list is the best single platform-building tool you have. Start now. Don’t stress about numbers. Some is better none, and having an ongoing process is the key. Another bonus: If you are angling to become traditionally published someday, having a list is one very good sign to a publisher that you’re out there doing something to support your books.

35 thoughts on “Death to the Midlist, Long Live the Ownlist

  1. Excellent advice, Mr. Bell. Email is still king, and as it turned out, social media is no more than a condiment to the mix, rather than the main course as we have been led to believe.

    I write about Middle East-inspired international thrillers, and have first hand access to unique, fascinating insight from the region which I hope would be enticing for would-be email subscribers. And giveaways always work. We are after all, human.

    • I like your metaphor for social media, AM. You’re exactly right. And your expertise in this area is good not only for subscribers, but media interviews down the line. Good luck.

  2. I pitched to Karen Ball at the ACFW conference. She asked if I had an online following. I said only a few. Then mentioned offhand that I write a newsletter for a trailer hitch company with 25k subscribers. She wanted to know why in the world it wasn’t linked on my website. It hadn’t occurred to me that followers don’t necessarily have to be subscribers to my blog. I also write, without pay, for a local women’s magazine with 10k subscribers. There’s tons of small magazines, offline and print, who will gladly take on new writers. No or little pay, true, but it’s a great way to develop a following. Though I suggest a safer route for my male writing friends than a regular print column entitled “Don’t tell my wife I wrote this.” Still married. But she occasionally changes her facebook relationship status to “Under Review.”

  3. Thank you, JSB, this is exactly what I needed at exactly the right time. I have a head start on it. I needed a promo pic so I treated myself to the whole hair, make-up, and professional photo treatment, and everywhere I went I took down e-mail addresses. Because my hometown is around 75000, having a book published is still kind of big news so everyone was happy to sign up.

    Question; If I’m promising to keep everyone’s email addresses private, can I rely on sites like Mailchimp to respect that promise? I haven’t been to their site yet, but I will right now.

    • Amanda,
      As someone who has had the job of collecting author pix and bios (for the Edgar annual) I want to say thank you! For getting a good photo of yourself (I assume you’ve make a jpeg easily accessible on your website). I am amazed at the number of authors — some big names and bestsellers — who don’t have a “media” page on their websites where someone — be a librarian or a bookstore owner — can find a high rez pic and a short bio.

    • James, all 75000 will be my goal, 🙂

      Kris, I will be putting the photo on my website, once I pick the best of the litter this coming Thursday. And then I want to wait until the cover is decided so I can start including that on my media page and on all my marketing and promotions.

      It’s just that, well, traditional publishing seems to be a slow ride.

  4. Jim,

    Thanks for the great advice on the “ownlist.”
    Thanks also for mentioning Joanna Penn’s book, How to Market a Book ( two or three months ago). It has been very helpful.

  5. Thank you! This is much needed advice for me. I have been remiss in doing a “ownlist” (love that term), something I’m going to change ASAP. Your advice to keep it short and include some humor is gold as far as I’m concerned. While I’m not ruling out a trad deal someday, the fact for now is I’m looking at indie for my novels and probably much of my short fiction. I like your sweet spot frequency wise, between 1-3 months. Giving a peek into what you’re up to even if you don’t have a release is a great idea. An ownlist really does seem essential these days if you are anything other than a best-selling A-lister. Thanks again for another great column!

  6. I was midlist for 20 years watching tons of other midlisters flame out. I don’t think having an email list or web site or all the rest of that is as important as content. I stayed in business, and stay in business by producing content. I was always a spec manuscript ahead in traditional publishing while other were happy with having a two or three book deal.

    As my own publisher I just finished my 56th book and it will be out soon.

    The best career move is a good book; the nest best is more good books.

    • Right on, Bob. As I’ve posted many times here, it’s quality content over time that’s the most important thing. That’s the product side. You’ve got to have a good product.

      On the marketing side, being able to get to your satisfied customers directly is far and away the best move, which is where the list comes in.

      Any good business guru knows there are two ways to grow a biz: add new customers and sell more to current customers. The former is much more difficult, but that’s where virtually all the “discoverability” advice is directed. The latter is less expensive and more efficient, thus the ownlist idea.

  7. The absurdity of the publishing business…it’s a miracle we even try. I read a funny (or sad, I don’t know) except from a book today, written by an ex Random House editor. Here’s one graph:

    “Publishing is an often incredibly frustrating culture. If you want to buy a project—let’s say a nonfiction proposal for a book about the history of Sicily—some of your colleagues will say, “The proposal is too dry” or “Cletis Trebuchet did a book for Grendel Books five years ago about Sardinia and it sold, like, eight copies,” or, airily, “I don’t think many people want to read about little islands.” When Seabiscuit first came up for discussion at an editorial meeting at Random House, some skeptic muttered, “Talk about beating a dead horse!””

    Here’s the link if you want to see the insanity from the other side:

    • I know, Kris, right? I’ve always said that this shouldn’t be called a “business” (from the writer’s side). In a true business you can very well predict what you effort might bring in return for your investment. But writers never could predict, even if their books got picked up. How it was treated was out of their hands.

      Until now, of course. Self-publishing writers now, in reality, run their own small businesses. And that’s a good thing.

  8. Interesting post and thread.
    I have a problem with email lists. I practice the Golden Rule in my writing business: I don’t like people to collect my email address, so I won’t collect theirs. I think my “News and Notices…” newsletter (most Fridays on my blog) serves the same purpose, i.e. my regular blog readers are my list, and they can remain anonymous.
    I just thought you’d like an alternative. BTW, email lists are becoming less useful, but might come back with smart phone technology. My Golden Rule conundrum would still hold, though.

    • A list must be purely voluntary. People who want to be on the list can do so. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Every time I send out an email, I get several responses that are glad I notified them. I think people like being part of a “team” and getting “inside information” from authors. I also give them first looks and deals no one else gets.

      IOW, being on the list has value to them. That’s what we have to work at.

  9. Another excellent post, as usual.

    Here are some thoughts I’ve been chewing over.

    You, and other writers whose opinions I respect, have been advocating the path of self publishing with or without the pursuit of trad publishing. The general idea seems to be as follows:

    *Start small, with a collection of short stories, maybe a serialization, and work your way up to bigger, full length novels.

    *Try to keep costs down, but also realize that there’s going to be an initial investment in editing, cover art etc.

    *Keep expectations low. You’re not going to be a kindle millionaire over night, and there’s a good chance it’s going to take a while for the book to earn out the initial monetary investment you put into it. Let’s not even talk time investment, because that’s a dicey game no matter what, and realistically, you should be loving the craft first and foremost.

    And finally, as you put it today, know your marketing groups. Keep an email list of readers so you can directly engage with the people who are buying your stuff.

    (Side Note: Jeff Walkers’s Product Launch Formula class, while very expensive, has received high reviews from people).

    I probably missed an important step, but as it stands, that appears to be the best suggested path of getting your work out there in the self publishing game. This looks like a very good strategy to me.

    I guess my only confusion or hesitant is I was never very good at writing short stories. I like the idea of making collections of them and offering them for free, or doing a novel serial in the vein of the old pulp classics, but as for a short story my brain seems to come up dry.

    I supposed I could take the same path, just with novels, but I feel like it’s missing some of the frequency that also putting short fiction out there offers. Instead of having to wait months for something new, readers only need to wait a few weeks if you’re also putting up short stories.

    I feel very empowered that there’s all these different paths offered to me, but honestly, also sort of overwhelmed and confused.

    Thanks for the great post, once again. I’m going to go review my copy of Self Publishing Attack!

    • Elizabeth, with new freedoms come an array of choices, which can indeed seem overwhelming at the start. The thing is to take steps, and let the path appear.

      Short stories: not an easy form, IMO. I would counsel you to write a story and let it go on for as long as it lasts. Keep it to one lead character and one objective. Get to at least 15K (novelette) or 20k-40k (novella). These feel more like novel structure. I write both “on the side” while concentrating on the full length form.

      Get lots of ideas and pick the ones that really excite you, and then write them until they naturally end.

      You’re not alone.

    • Thank you for the advice. Just because I’m not “good” at something doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try to be better, but almost all of my short stories tend to run too long (although studying short stories is a great excuse to read Stephen King, Dean Koontz and Raymond Chandler).

      I do have an idea of a series of linked novellas, and coupled with your post on how to write a novella well, I think that might be a better choice than trying to force stories to be short.

      I do plan to look through my vast collection of ideas for stuff that suggests a shorter story to be told.

      As I mused on this yesterday, it also occurred to me that shorter works more frequently published might be a great way to experiment with structure, moreso than a longer novel length piece would be. Like a collection of short stories that add up to a larger story about two immortals feuding over the centuries for example.

      The boys in the basement are working on this one, at least.

  10. I always look forward to James Scott Bell’s Sunday post. A relatively new fiction short story writer, I learn something new with each post. Thank you for the valuable information. Frances

  11. It always amused me that there’s the bestsellers and the midlist, but no bottom list. It’s like the hamburger chains that have a super size, a grand, and a regular, but no small size.

    Own List sounds like a good place to be.

  12. How timely! I’ve been stressing for way too long about my inability to break through in the trad. way. Not that I haven’t had interest. I’m now taking the plunge and have no qualms about the challenges ahead. This post has been very helpful. Thanks.

  13. Another excellent Sunday blog post with helpful, concrete info and advice for writers! Thanks for continuing to share your know-how on both the craft of writing and the writing biz with us all, James!

    Am signing up for your email list right after I click “Publish” here. 🙂

    • I did exactly the same thing, Jodie! Figured I had to make it worth his while and fitting that a great piece on email lists would at least net him a few new subscribers! 🙂 Stay warm!

  14. I haven’t read all the comments, but in the past year I’ve joined forces with 7 other publishers authors in a “Lifeboat Team.” We cross promote with Twitter, FB and contests and offerings in each others newsletters. My mailing list has grown quite a bit as a result. So consider teaming up with other authors for his purpose. To see what I mean, visit us at And that might be a good subject for a post.

  15. Good Afternoon Professor Bell:

    I used to use Constant Contact for the family online business. I like that you can create separate lists that people can opt in and out of, good for those in multiple genres. With no effort whatsoever, I had 1K+ names on the list and you can check things like your open rate and they have nice templates for different newsletters and announcements.

    Yes, the list is key. Social media can serve the list and you hope your friends will act as your street team and help spread the word. Not to mention that a share or retweet from a big name can break your host server.

    Janet Reid does her “7 Rules For Writers” and one of them is to “be accessible.” A media page is an excellent idea and does everyone here have an email in their blog profile? The divine Ms. Reid randomly clicked on profiles of her readers one day and said it was appalling. What if she saw something she liked and wanted to chat with you about it?

    Serendipity has also given me another venue. I work for a small local newspaper with a digital imprint, I mean small, as in nano-press. Health issues and other shake-ups suddenly left me as the last editor standing and my choice was to take over as publisher or close the doors. Yeah, I own my own newspaper. *snerk* Sorry, hard not to laugh when I say that. Along with that comes the Editor’s Blog which I have decided to dedicate to writing. I will be moving over anything of value from my blogger site and using it as my platform. Double duty – pimp myself and page views for the paper.

    And, yes, I am signed up for your mailing list, so you forgot one additional idea: be part of a really cool multi-author writing blog.


  16. JSB–
    Way Back When, it was SOP to begin with publishing short stories in the “right” juried little magazines. If you then got picked up by an editor, he/she invested in a first and sometimes a second novel, knowing the books would lose money. But editors did this in hopes the books would be reviewed, and slowly but surely develop a following for the writer.
    All this has gone the way of the dodo bird. Accompanying the demise of bookstores has been the virtual end of book reviewing in newspapers–that is, reviews written by people paid to write them (not to mention the demise of newspapers themselves). Taking the place of all this is an emphasis among agents and editors on discovering writers–be they good or otherwise–who have demonstrated a talent for self-promotion. With few exceptions, anyone today with writing aspirations must accept this new reality: publishers require new hires in their stable of authors to peddle their own wares.
    For those unwilling to accept this new fact of life, it makes much more sense to open a cheese shop.

  17. I’ve got a list. I’m checking it twice.

    Gonna find out who’s…

    Hey! HEY!!


    Dadgum reindeer hoodlums!

    Blitsen – naughty, check … Prancer – naughty, check … Vixen … not in my book! … double naughty! Check!!

    anybody out there know how to get reindeer dookie out of carpet?

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