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Thursday, July 9, 2009

Classification of Titles: Backlist

In the last related post, we discussed "Frontlist" titles. Today's post explains what "backlist" is, and why it is important to authors and publishers. (There is an important message in this post for authors, so read on even if you think you know what "backlist" means.)

The most basic definition of "backlist" is: older books still available from a publisher (i.e., older books still in print).

Compiling a robust backlist is the best way for a publishing company to build a valuable company. Why? Because by the time a book is "older," say more than one year from the date of publication, the cost of each book has been amortized across many units. When a book is reprinted and is on the backlist, that means steady orders are coming in for the book with little or no marketing effort. As each book is sold, the most expensive aspects of book production cost (original design, editing, formatting, printing, et. al.) has already been paid. The only primary expense left is reprinting. This results in a steady stream of revenue for the company.

It also means that it creates a steady stream of income for the author, whose hundreds of hours, initial research costs, etc. are long ago paid. (More on why this is important later in this post.)

How the term "backlist" originated is tied to the presentation publishers use in their catalogs. As I have noted before, there are two publishing seasons each year: Spring (January to June) and Fall (July to December). Publishers who issue catalogs used to (and usually still do) offer them twice a year to match the publishing seasons. The new titles were listed in front of the catalog ("frontist"), and older books were listed in the rear of the catalog ("backlist").

Obviously not all books (or even most books) obtain "backlist" status. Why? They don't sell well enough to remain in print. The books that sell steadily in non-fiction tend to be reference titles (like our Ultimate Guide to Basic Training), foundational monographs on a particular topic (like our Shioh and the Western Campaign of 1862), and books that have a lasting message that resonates with a wide number of people (like our Playing with the Enemy, which Penguin is reprinting in paperback for the fourth time already.)

None of these books would be in print today were it not for the cooperative formed by the publisher and author. The former produced a professional quality product, introduced it into the stream of commerce (bookstores, Amazon, wholesalers, etc.) and the author worked tirelessly with the publisher to drive people into the stores, create a demand, and then worked HARDER to create a wider foundation of readers for a LASTING demand.

Astute readers of this blog will already recognize that the efforts put forth by the author while his or her book is a frontlist title will create the success necessary to keep the book in print as a backlist title.

This is why we work so hard to get authors to understand that there is only so much a publisher can do for each book. No one will sell a book more forcefully, more aggressively, and more passionately than its author. So it never ceases to amaze me when some authors push back to ideas that are designed to help him make more money and sell more books.

To me, it is the same thing as telling the publisher, "Look, I wrote the book, you take the risk, and I don't really care if it makes money." Lasting revenue--$100 a month, or thousands of dollars each year--is sitting on the table, and this horse won't put his head down to drink! The excuses we hear, day in and day out, used to make me angry. Now they make me laugh, shake my head with a smile--AND MOVE ON to the next author who wants to earn permanent backlist status.

Today, with social networking, it is not too difficult to achieve the same thing in your pajamas that used to require a 10-city book speaking tour. Hard work now--focused, dedicated, prioritized--can fund your IRA for years or indefinitely. Get up 15 minutes earlier each day; stay up 15 minutes later; skip the TV show and head to the computer. As the saying goes, "just do it."

The moral to this story is a simple one. If you want to get to backlist status, work with your publisher while your book is still a frontlist title. There is no magic to the equation. Hard work early, often, and daily might not make your book a backlist title, but I can guarantee you that sitting on your hind end will make sure it goes out of print--quickly.

Next post on this topic will discuss midlist titles.

Be well.



J David Petruzzi said...


How did you know I do most of my work in my pajamas?? Your insight always amazes me.

Great post. I'm still learning.


Anonymous said...

Some years ago, a disaster novel had Mt. Ranier going volcano. Quickly it fizzled.

Then. months after the book had been forgotten, Mt. St. Helen's blew up. What a marketing ploy!

Anonymous said...

Interesting and helpful as usual. A class organization. Thank you.


Anonymous said...

I wish I had known all this information nine years ago when I published my first (and likely only) book on computers. It is very enlightening, and you write at a nice easy conversational style so everyone who is not an industry professional can understand. I thank you for doing so, sir.

Lawrence F.