Boston — The manuscript that landed on editor Peter Davison's desk in early 1982 had suffered rejection at the hands of eight publishers. It was a highly personal, diarylike ramble through America by an unknown author, who accompanied his submission with a handful of awkwardly posed snapshots. Nevertheless, after reading the work, Mr. Davison, then working at Atlantic Monthly Press, found himself won over by its narrative strength and humanity; and he believed it could sell respectably, if not spectacularly well. Thus did William Least Heat Moon's ``Blue Highways'' enter the world of publishing: as a ``midlist'' or middle book, one with modest expectations and a minor promotional budget behind it.
Some surprising best sellers
Most middle books (those that fall somewhere between a slim volume of poetry destined to lose money and the blockbuster that publishers hope will be a cash cow) tend to stay middle books. But the category has produced such surprises as Tracy Kidder's ``The Soul of a New Machine'' - winner of a Pulitzer Prize - and Rachel Carson's ``The Sea Around Us.''
So it was with ``Blue Highways,'' which slowly gathered momentum - a letter of praise from Robert Penn Warren, a rave review in the New York Times - and went on to demolish sales predictions of 15,000 to 20,000 copies, breaking the 200,000 mark and surprising author, editor, and everyone else.
But these days, says Houghton Mifflin editor Richard Todd, ``there seem to be fewer and fewer of these surprises.''
The publisher's middle list, which provided a refuge for such authors as Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, and Edmund Wilson during sluggish stages of their careers, is caught in a squeeze. An increasing number of editors in major publishing houses have become less and less comfortable with books they can neither underwrite with a small advance nor, at the other end of the scale, promote for a huge advance sale.
The `midlist book' fighting for its life
Disdained by the powerful bookstore chains, looked upon with increasing skepticism by publishing committees in big conglomerates, the midlist book - defined variously as one that will sell from 10,000 to 30,000 copies - is ``fighting for its life,'' says Little, Brown & Co. executive William Guthrie.
The outcome of this fight, according to book editors and others who watch the industry, means a great deal to the level of scholarship and literature in the country.
``W.H. Auden once said that some books are undeservedly forgotten, but none are undeservedly remembered. And that goes to the heart of the problem,'' observes Daniel J. Boorstin, retiring United States Librarian of Congress, whose book ``The Image,'' sold in the midlist range at first, but ultimately went into 25 editions and became his most translated work. ``You can never tell whether a book has a claim to immortality by the number of people who read it at the moment. It's a cautionary experience to look back at books that have been on the best-seller list and are now remembered only to be forgotten.''
Today, however, the industry is proving less and less hospitable to the biography or history that doesn't offer a string of glitzy endorsements on the jacket, or the latest novel of a distinguished, but not wildly popular novelist. Publishers who once went ``actively looking for midlist authors - those who made some difference financially, but who also made a much larger difference in literature and history - now say, `Yeah, but how are we going to do on this particular book?''' observes Corlies Smith, editorial director of Ticknor & Fields. The oasis that has nourished such authors may not have dried up but, according to Mr. Smith, ``it sure is getting smaller.''
How independent bookstores, publishers help
``The so-called middle book is being eschewed,'' says Roger W. Straus, head of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. ``The book that Doubleday and Simon & Schuster used to be pleased to publish ... is in danger of not finding a home. It's more and more difficult to publish the fourth and fifth work of an author of some distinction who never made it big.'' Mr. Straus and his colleagues maintain that the reluctance of bookstore chains to carry such books is helping to squeeze them out of existence.
Not everyone agrees. A number of observers feel that small, independent publishers and independent bookstores provide a ready home for midlist books and authors orphaned by the giant concerns, and that large companies can and will continue to move such books.
``The independent bookstore is the heart of our business,'' says Carol B. Janeway, vice-president and editor at Alfred A. Knopf, a publisher that has, she says, always built a substantial portion of its trade on books in the midlist range. ``What we live on is the book that performs in that range,'' she says, adding that midlist books can turn a solid profit for publishers who know how to handle them.
Crowded out of the shopping-mall bookstores
The prospects for middle books and the authors who produce them ``are now rather better than before,'' says Richard Marek, president of E.P. Dutton. ``This is something I feel in the air. When the chains go heavily into one kind of book, the indpendents are likely to turn to another kind of book.... Books have a certain audience, they'll find that audience.''
The problem may be, however, that many editors feel something else in the air and have concluded that these books will simply be crowded out of the stores.
``Make a trip to a `mall' bookstore and count the number of nonfiction titles you find,'' suggests Donald Lamm, chairman and chief executive officer of W.W. Norton, using nonfiction as a bellwether of midlist fortunes. ``I did, recently, and only got up to 60 titles ... which is a pretty sorry showing.''
Pressed for solutions, most observers point to the hope offered by independent publishers, such as North Point Press in San Francisco, which was founded in 1980 with the assumption that even then ``the midlist book was being squeezed out,'' as Tom Christensen, an editor with the firm puts it. North Point has taken on the works of such authors as Wendell Berry, who has published nine or 10 mostly midlist books with the firm since leaving Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
But many observers feel that the independents cannot absorb the great mainstream of midlist books and look for a deeper solution. According to Davison, who now has his own imprint at Houghton Mifflin, this solution is as simple, and perhaps quixotic, as calling for ``people in the publishing business who believe in real books and won't sell out to schlock.''
``A book's power to inform or to elucidate problems in the nation does not necessarily depend on its sales,'' observes E.P. Dutton's Marek, in support of the argument that midlist books can and should be publishable. ``A book can have an enormous impact without necessarily becoming a best seller.''