Saturday, June 09, 2007

Backlistics

I was reorganizing my library (late Spring cleaning) and a few hours into it I was hit by a terrifying revelation.

I have about 5000 books, paperback and hardcover. More than 4500 of these books are no longer in print.

These books are dead. Completely dead. And some of them are damn good reads.

If that wasn't scary enough, a lot of my favorite authors from years past are no longer being published.

Maybe some of them have passed on. But I suspect that there's also another, more sinister reason:

They simply can't sell their latest book.

When a book is published, the writer and the publisher have big hopes for it. They want it to sell well. They want it to make money. And they probably want it to keep making money for a long time.

But the majority of books published don't get a second printing. Like comets, they have their moment, then burn out.

This is bad for the writer for several reasons. First, because an out of print book isn't likely to see print again, which means no royalties. And second, because an out of print book often indicates a lack of sales, and these numbers are tracked by publishers who won't want to buy new books from this author. It's a downward spiral.

Having your backlist in print is hugely important. Not only do your sales accrue, but so does your fan base. The longer you're on the bookshelf, the likelier you are to be discovered, and the more books you'll sell in the future.

I've heard that publishers make most of their money on backlist titles. The huge bestsellers usually cost them huge advances, and those books can take years to earn out. But a steady backlist title can be a money machine, bringing in dollars year after year without any advances paid or marketing/advertising funds required.

So why isn't more attention paid to selling the backlist?

A few bestselling authors get dump boxes or cameos or endcap shelf space, dedicated to their backlist titles. In my opinion, this is the very best use of coop dollars. Even better than being on the New Release tables and towers. This does more than push the backlist and keep it in print. This is a message to potential readers which subconsciously says "This author is obviously worth reading because he has a big expensive display, and if I like him I'll be able to read more of his books because they're all right here."

If you're a series author, keeping the first few titles in print is critical. People want to start at the beginning.

But, unfortunately, it's unlikely your publisher will push your backlist titles. Those cardboard displays are expensive to produce, and bookstore real estate doesn't come cheap either. The irony is that the writers who get these displays are probably the ones who really don't need them, because they're already selling gazillions of copies.

Of course, it's not entirely your publisher's fault. Demand drives supply. If your books aren't selling, the bookstores won't order any more. Then they go out of print, and barring a miracle they'll stay out of print forever. Thus begins the downward spiral.

So what can you, the author, do to ensure your books stay in print?

More than you think.

Meeting Booksellers. A bookseller who likes you won't listen when the home office tells them to return a book. Instead, they'll handsell you. Last year, I met more than 1700 booksellers. I thank most of them by name in the acknowledgements of DIRTY MARTINI, coming out July 3. My new book also has back jacket blurbs by booksellers rather than the usual authors and reviewers.

Signing Books. It's a myth that signed books can't be returned. They get returned all the time. But they're less likely to get returned, and they're more likely to sell. Plus, a signed book often gets prime bookstore real estate without costing coop dollars.

Speaking in Public. Every chance you have to pimp your books should be taken. The more you stay in the public eye, the more books you'll sell. Speak at all of the libraries, conferences, conventions, and book festivals you can.

The Media. I'm not a fan of advertising. But getting a review, or doing an interview (for zines, newspapers, websites, blogs, radio, etc) is a free and easy way to get your name out there.

Writing. The very best way to stay in the writing spotlight is to keep writing. A book a year is essential. Two books a year is better. And don't forget short stories and articles--these not only pay you, but give you a much wider exposure than your books alone.

The Internet. Be active on your website, blog, MySpace, newsletter, newsgroups, message boards, listservs, and email correspondence. The more people you can reach, the better off you are.

Will this guarantee you never go out of print? No. There are no guarantees. But the fact remains: the more you do, the more books you'll sell.

20 comments:

Michele Lee said...

>My new book also has back jacket blurbs by booksellers rather than the usual authors and reviewers.

Brilliant idea!

Ty said...

Joe, what about distributors? Do you think meeting with them could help?
Seems I've read here and there about a few writers who have done so, and went away feeling it paid off.

WayneThomasBatson said...

Joe, any statistical feedback from that epic tour last summer. Personally, I think it was a brilliant idea to meet so many booksellers. Your approach is so friendly and respectful--I've adopted most of your techniques by the way.

But now that all is said and done, is there any way for you to measure its impact on your sales, preorders for DM, etc?

Tasha Alexander said...

Joe, I couldn't agree more--an author's backlist is hugely important. There's nothing better than having titles continue to go back to press long after the book's first months on the front table.

There's certainly a lot publishers can--and do--do to promote the backlist. I've been thrilled with what Harper's done for the paperback of the first in my series. Big distribution and co-op on paperback reprints is a beautiful thing.

Mark Terry said...

I agree. And I was absolutely FLOORED when David Morrell noted recently that a couple of his books were out of print. David Morrell????

David, being David, may very well find a way for those to remain in print, but I guess if it can happen to him, it can happen to any of us.

Stacey Cochran said...

I would rather be out of print, than never having been in print.

I guess the fear of where you could be is somewhat relative to where you are.

Stacey

elkit said...

> an out of print book often indicates a lack of sales, and these numbers are tracked by publishers who won't want to buy new books from this author. It's a downward spiral.

I didn't know this until very recently. I'd bought a thriller (a sci-fi noir, actually, great genre mix!). "The Bright Spot" by Robert Sydney. I loved it, and wanted to find out more about the author, but he blurb in the back said that Robert Sydney was the pseudonym of an author who usually writes under a different name. Puzzled me to no end ... why would you not publish such a great story under your own name? I blogged it, and the author, whose real name is Dennis Danvers, happened to find my post and took the time to stop by and explain it. The publishing world sure is an odd place!

Diana Celesky said...

Joe,

I'm curious. Did you schedule appointments with a lot of the booksellers you visited ahead of time, or did you just drop by the store? Do you basically just stop by, introduce yourself and thank them for carrying your books? Thanks. Great post.

Helen Ginger said...

I agree with everything you said. Thought I'd comment on two:
signing a book -- Christmas often, okay always, creeps up on me and when I shop, I look for autographed books to give to friends.
writing -- of course! But, also, if I find a new author and it's a series, I want to read them all from beginning to end, so even if the series, started ten years ago, I'm looking for #1

Jim said...

Backlists—like everything else in the book business—are driven by money. If the publisher will continue to sell enough of an older title on a trickle basis to justify either (1) keeping some in the warehouse (which costs money) or (2) reprinting as needed (which costs money), then it will happen. If the profit margin isn’t there, it won’t happen. In both situations, the odds are against authors who are not bestsellers and/or do not continue to pump out current books, because they don't have enough trickle sales.

The best way for an author to keep older books in print (short of writing “Catcher in the Rye” or its equivalent) is to continue to have good, new books introduced to the public on a regular basis. Readers then discover the author and look for older titles (i.e. “demand.”). Continuing to pump out good books on a regular basis is the best way to have a backlist that is not out of print. Your suggestions as to what the author can do are directed towards selling current books to new readers and engaging in promotion. They are therefore dead-on.

However, the concept of being “out of print” is becoming more and more obsolete as POD and other technologies advance and become more cost efficient. In X years, publishers will be able to get an order, print a POD book just as good as the original, and fulfill the order at a price where they can still make a profit. At that point, everyone’s backlist will be available, because the publisher will be able to make money.

Until then, the author should do everything he/she can to crank out and sell new titles.

Patti said...

i appreciate this blog...thanky.

The Dark Scribe said...

Excellent, albeit somewhat frightening, observation, Joe. And entirely true: My bookstore (which does just shy of 5 million in sales/year) receives an average of eight dumps every Tuesday. Guess how many we actually put out on the floor.

That's right, zip and zilch. Every now and then we'll put up one or two, if there's no room in the section for the copies, or if we're taking down one of the previous dumps.

More often than not, the dumps are destroyed, the books stripped, and zero sales result in that publisher's investment.

Anyway, you've got the right idea--making sure your backlist continues to sell is the only way to give yourself a chance and keeping your books in print. I'm always amazed at how many titles I look up, only to find out they're out of print, and they were published in 2005.

Jude Hardin said...

Great post, Joe.

I suppose there might be certain rare instances where an author cringes at their backlist coming back in print. Some of Tess Gerritsen's romances (originally published under a psuedonym), for example, have been re-released using her real name. This was not her choice, and she feels it confuses some of her fans regarding the books she writes now. Her old publisher is using her bestselling brand to promote titles long out of print and in a different genre. She still gets the royalties, of course, but I think she would have liked for those books to stay under the pseudonym.

spyscribbler said...

I was recently depressed to learn how many of my favorite authors are no long being published. :-(

My pseudonym has a backlist that I need to promote this summer. I swear, I may as well be self-published, for all the momentum I have!

Is it possible to promote a backlist, without the momentum of a new release?

Ann Voss Peterson said...

Jude--

Tess never published under a pseudonym. Her Harlequin Intrigues were all originally published under her own name. And they are quite terrific, I might add. But some readers are afraid of reading romance, no matter how well done. And when the books are re-released, the packaging doesn't always make it clear that these novels aren't new releases and are ROMANTIC suspense. Hence the problem.

Keep up the good blogs, Joe!

Jude Hardin said...

Thanks, Ann. My mistake. I was thinking about another author. Tess blogged about her problem a while back, and I must have gotten mixed up on the pseudonym thing.

Derrick said...

It is a sad day when authors go out of fashion, even when they are still capable of producing new and interesting work.

There are other avenues now but authors are looked down upon when they decide to take those other avenues. In addition to that, these avenues don't have the same level of compensation that traditional publishing does.

A write must have compensation to continue his/her craft. There is no way around that. Continue the craft on a commercial level I should say.

Josephine Damian said...

I think the best advice I ever got from my dad was: You've got to peddle your wares.

He's gone now, but not a day goes by when I don't repeat those words of wisdom to myself.

Joe, you really drive home the point with this post. And that piece on book signing in WD was a big help as well.

Josephine

http://quoteitwrite.blogspot.com
http://forensicsdiary.blogspot.com
http://josephinedamian.blogspot.com

The Dark Scribe said...

Spyscribbler,

It IS possible to promote your backlist without a new release driving it, but much more difficult. You can use the same strategies, however: signing stock, making appearances at local stores, talking to booksellers about your work, etc.

Several local authors do this at our store, and they enjoy continued success (relatively speaking), despite not having released anything new for a couple of years.

Good luck!

Good luck!

MaryK said...

* I've heard that publishers make most of their money on backlist titles

I was in my favourite bookstore looking for two books and was told by the bookseller that they too make most of their money from backlists titles.

Given this, I found it odd that they did not stock Michael Cummingham's, Flesh and Blood and A home at the end of the world. The guy won a Pulitzer Prize for The Hours, and they had that, but not no others. Odd.