Guest Post: The Value of the Backlist

Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice.
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May 19, 2014

Hurray, regular commenter –E has finally written me a guest post! <3

Natalie’s been prodding me for a guest post for a while. My area of expertise is in book production and the usual internet kerfuffles rarely come to blows over whether notch gluing or perfect binding is better.

But this past weekend Hugh Howey, the bestselling self-publishing author who went on to a major contract with a traditional publisher for his print editions, waved his ignorance of the publishing industry around.

I don’t want to get into the whole background, because I intend this to be a post about publishing, not discussion of a recent kefuffle in the writerly world. I particularly don’t want to talk about the kefuffle because I wasn’t there, I don’t know the full situation, and lots of people with more knowledge are talking about it in great depth. So go look at their blogs; I’m sure Natalie will have links at the end of the week, if not earlier today (or right now, sez Natalie: The Backlist Is Not The Back Seat: On Indie Authors Appropriating Language and RT’s Giant Bookfair).

The reason I’m smacking a bit on Mr. Howey is that he also wasn’t at the precipitating event, but nevertheless decided to dangle a clickbait of high dudgeon because that’s how he’s made his career. I find such shenanigans laughable, so I make fun of them when I see them. But also, because he offended my sensibility both as a production specialist and as a writer by being massively wrong.

He titled his post “Being Forced to Sit in the Backlist.”

I’ll let others deconstruct the appropriation of civil-rights language.

I’m going to point out that in his crashing failure of an attempt to be clever, he equated “backlist” with “a place one is forced to sit because one is perceived as lesser.”

Both “backlist” and “back of the bus” start with “back,” but that is exactly everything they have in common.

Dude’s a bestseller and all, hooray for him, but seriously, this is bad writing. He could have titled his piece “Being Forced to Sit in the Backyard” and it would have made as much (if not more) sense.

Because the backlist? NOT A BAD PLACE TO BE.

Sure, lots of publishers let an author’s backlist languish and eventually fall out of print (“OP” in publishing lingo). For an author with a series, this can be a bad thing–people want the older books before the newer ones, and an OP backlist makes it difficult for readers to get the older books.

But let’s note that OP backlist typically reverts to the author, and a lot of authors have made a decent income by, ahem, self-publishing their backlists. Mr. Howey should be cheering this sort of thing, not insinuating that it’s a negative.

But let’s say an author’s backlist sells well. Either they have a bestselling series that takes off (e.g., Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, Hunger Games), or they write a lot of standalone books and people want the next book by Nora Roberts or Stephen King. These authors and series have new readers coming to them all the time, and those new readers will want to read the previous books by the author. This is the backlist, folks, and this is what publishers depend on to make money.

A frontlist book is a big risk. The publisher invests a bunch of money in the production costs and marketing, and then either the book earns out the investment or it doesn’t. Sometimes it earns out, but takes years to do it. Even with bestselling authors, there’s an inherent risk.

But if a book goes into regular reprint? Becomes a steady selling book in the backlist? THE MUTHAFUCKING MOTHERLODE, KIDS.

All the investment in the book is done. The only expenses of backlist are printing, freight, author royalties, and a bit of overhead. Printing backlist books is like printing money. If your backlist is ebooks, you don’t even have the printing and freight, and you have a bit less overhead (though still some).

PUBLISHERS LOVE THE BACKLIST. Any talk about publishers not supporting the backlist is ignorant crap. Publishers won’t support all books in the backlist, true. But the ones that can sell a dependable quantity year after year? Hell yes.

I worked 14 years for a large NYC trade publisher. The plan there was to acquire authors, build them up, and keep their backlist in print forever if at all possible. Only a small percentage of the authors were successful enough, but those who were? Oh, baby, backlist bonanza.

(Random observation: If you backlist for long enough, you become “classic.” Talk to Agatha Christie and Zane Grey and Erle Stanley Gardner. Or more specifically, their descendants. Money for everyone until the copyright runs out!)

Jargon: “Repub,” short for “re-publishing.” It’s what you do with a backlist when a new book comes out. Have you noticed that every time a new Game of Thrones book comes out, the entire series gets new covers to match the newest book? And the whole thing gets a push all together? Often with display endcaps in the stores with the new hardcover and the complete paperback backlist all in one place. Not a coincidence, my friends.

Publishers also repub backlist for no reason other than to goose sales of books they know still have a market out there. We used to regularly repub all 30 of [bestselling romance author]’s backlist. Every 4 or 6 months, another 3 or 4 of her books would get new covers and new sales push. This would continue for several years, putting similarly designed covers on each book, until the whole list was done. Then we would start over at the beginning with a new cover treatment. Cycle, recycle, lather rinse repeat. This is a bit more work and investment than simply reprinting, but it keeps an author in the public eye (and the eyes of the sales force and bookbuyers).

We kept right on doing this even after the author went to another publisher. Because after 30 years in print with 30 bestsellers, an author is regarded as “classic.”

We did this for lots of authors, from all genres. Literary, SF/F, thriller, romance, mystery. And it’s not just repubbed backlist. We reprinted–with the same old packaging–between 30 and 50 titles every month, minimum of 3000 copies each. That was just in my division; I’m sure other divisions had plenty of backlist, too. That’s a lot of sales and a lot of money, all for very little overhead.

The joy of the steady-selling backlist book (in German, ein steadyseller, apparently), is that the publisher doesn’t risk overprinting. They know the sell-through history, and can budget almost scientifically, with very little of the risk taken with any new book.

This is dependable money. It’s what allows the publisher to take chances on new authors and weird books and all those frontlist things that may or may not be profitable. Backlist pays the salaries of the staff and underwrites the advertising and fronts the cash to the printers. Backlist keeps the lights on. Pretty much the only reason a publisher publishes frontlist is to keep developing the stable of the backlist. (Note all the small publishers who specialize in backlist. They can run an entire company on backlist alone.)

The backlist is so valuable, that often when a publisher coaxes an author away from their old publisher, they’ll pay the old publisher for rights to the backlist. They pay a lot of money for this! But they pay it, because they can repackage the books with the author’s new frontlist and sell the hell out of the whole lot. The old publisher is willing to sell the rights because they don’t have the juice of new frontlist to help goose the backlist; better to take the money and let the production and marketing be someone else’s problem.

Sometimes the repackaging takes the form of reformatting. A lot of old mass-market paperbacks see new life as trade paperbacks. There’s almost as much work on them as new books (no editing/copyediting, but everything else), but if the mass market was moving 2000 copies a year, there isn’t a lot of risk in moving to a more prestigious format and getting the sales force to push it again. (And depending on the contract, the publisher might already have the rights to that format–no additional advance needed.)

I don’t know how ebooks are affecting this. Probably a lot. My gut-sense (and all the caveats that implies) is that a lot of backlist sales have moved to ebook from pbook, but that may be the longer tail of things that were only selling a few hundred copies a year, not thousands.

I’m not in trade publishing anymore (I’m with an academic press now), so I don’t have front-row seats to this show. I’m not sure how publishers are making ebook backlist more visible–I’m sure it involves a lot more than putting a package in the catalog and telling the sales force to tout it to the bookshops.

But that’s not the point. The point is, to use “backlist” as some cack-handed attempt to imply persecution is stupid. THE BACKLIST IS AWESOME. IT’S WHERE EVERY WRITER SHOULD WISH TO BE. If you’re on the backlist, it means you’re selling steadily. It means you’re on the way to becoming “classic.” That you have a possibility of leaving an income to your heirs for 75 years after you die.

Not every author gets to backlist. Some have to keep writing as fast as possible, make their sales, and then watch as their older books’ sales fall to zero and they need to get another one out there. But if they have strong backlist sales, they have dependable income for years. EVERY WRITER WANTS THIS.

We all know what the failure mode of clever is. In Mr. Howey’s case, it’s also just plain wrong.

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