For those not familiar with publishing lingo, the midlist is one of the publishing ranks. There are debut authors (just getting started), the midlist (established authors with a moderate following) and superstars (Nora Roberts, JK Rowling, James Patterson).
Most successful authors fall into the midlist. As NYT bestseller Deborah Cooke put it when she spoke at the Ottawa Romance Writers, these are the ones quietly putting in a pool. They're known within their genres and by their fans but didn't make the leap to cultural phenomenon.
In the old days when the big New York Six were the only route to having your book published, editors would take time to develop an author. It didn't matter if the first book was a runaway success. As long as there was interest, it was understood that building a brand and a reputation took time.
Hollywood and TV used to take a similar approach. Many of the classic television shows didn't make great showings their first seasons (M*A*S*H is my favourite example) but became cultural superstars. In Hollywood, the studio system would build and develop an actor's career (not always the way he or she wanted though).
It's hard to judge just how supportive these systems really were. The old days always seem to get painted with a nostalgic gloss. But there is no denying that time seems to be a luxury in the entertainment world these days.
If the first book doesn't go well, it's very hard to get anyone interested in looking at your second one. Most authors switch pen names to "start fresh" rather than try to build on their existing work. The traditional publishers seem less willing to take a chance on fresh talent. They want someone with a ready-made audience, which is why they are offering deals to the successfully self-published authors. There are still people out there looking for new writers but the time they have to develop and grow is limited.
Here's my problem with that system: even talented people need time to learn. An author should be prepared, should take classes on writing and constantly be looking to learn better techniques, that is all true but there are some things you can only learn after you've started. Theory is a good foundation, practice polishes the details.
Pick any of your favourite authors and look at their very first books. There will be gleams of talent but there will also be glaring mistakes. This is why a number of authors will rerelease the early books in a series with improvements after they become successful. They know people will begin the series from book one and they don't want an inferior story out there.
I have another problem with that system: not everyone is going to be JK Rowling. Widescale popular phenoms shouldn't even be considered in the standard business model. They are outliers by definition. And even JK Rowling took a long time to become JK Rowling. Harry Potter wasn't an instant success. It took time to develop.
I assume that the industry has reasons for making the choices they do. It's never as simple as it appears to be from the outside. But I would argue that expecting instant success has become something of a widespread issue across life in general. People tend to be more interested in picking up something new or finding short cuts, which pushes artists to churn rather than take the time to develop.
Call me old fashioned, but I'm ready to dig in and take some time.