How Backlist Makes the Bottom Line Better
by Linda Carlson
Still thinking about New Year’s resolutions? Think backlist promotion. Backlist is the backbone of a publisher’s business, as one IBPA member emphasized, and much can be done to generate sales from last year’s—and last decade’s—titles.
When I polled publishers recently, I learned that those most successful with backlist sales promote them using almost all the same techniques they use for frontlist:
● author appearances
● exhibits and conferences
● traditional media
● Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and other social media
● niche market promotion
Other strategies include taking advantage of new editions and new titles in a series to promote backlist, and using giveaways and big price discounts.
In general, what backlist promotion requires is time, and small publishers can often supply more of that than people in large companies. “The advantage of independent publishing is that you can continue to promote your books when major publishers are too busy with their new books,” Award Press founder Elliott Katz reminds us.
Before we talk how-to’s for backlist promotion, let’s define backlist success. At White Cloud Press, two backlist titles—one issued in 1999 and the other in 2002—have each sold nearly 100,000 copies. At Chelsea Green, 8 of the 20 top-selling titles in terms of unit sales are backlist; if you’re counting gross revenue, it’s 11 of the top 20. At Parenting Press, a 2000 hardback picture book has been the top-selling title every year since 2002, with sales far exceeding 100,000 in 2004 alone. The board book edition of the same title has been the #2 seller every year since it was introduced in 2005.
Building Blocks for Backlist Success
Author appearances. At White Cloud, Yin Yoga: Principles and Practices is in its 10th anniversary edition and nearing 100,000 copies sold since 2002, mostly thanks to author Paul Grilley, who tours giving workshops 150–180 days each year. Steve Scholl, publisher at this Ashland, OR, publisher, also credits Grilley and his partner, Suzee Grilley, for their vigorous social media marketing.
White Cloud supports Grilley’s appearances with what Scholl calls “old-fashioned media blitzing: press releases to our list of writers and yoga teachers, studios, magazines, and Websites to inform everybody about his schedule and provide information on yin yoga topics.”
Another White Cloud title that has nearly 100,000 in sales is Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations, published in 1999 and acclaimed as an excellent introduction to and translation of the Qur’an. Its sales gather momentum with every controversy about Islam.
The title became widely known in 2002, when the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill made it required reading for incoming freshmen and a conservative Christian group filed suit, claiming a public university was encouraging students to convert to Islam. “The case was thrown out as without merit, but it led to a national debate on teaching religion and especially on the teaching of Islam in public schools,” Scholl recalls. “The book was featured on the front page of every major newspaper in the country and on network and cable news. Our favorite story was the Daily Show’s coverage.
“Since 2002 we have kept the book active through promotion during every public debate on Islam in America, and today especially with the rise of the Islamophobia industry.”
Unlike White Cloud, which has more than 100 titles in print, Fun Adventure Wildlife Books is a one-person company operated by Dallas-area wildlife photographer Tim Ostermeyer, who uses images from his 25 years of shooting around the world for children’s books. He makes about 40 appearances a year at home-school and early childhood education conventions, balloon festivals, and library conferences, and that pays off. He has direct-sold more than 3,500 copies of his 2010 title, Snowball’s Antarctic Adventures. Like all of his other books, it’s priced at $18.95.
Another small publisher, Pardey Books in Arcata, CA, also relies on personal appearances for most of its sales.
“Our backlist definitely is the backbone of our publishing income,” says Lin Pardey, who with husband Larry does an extensive promotional tour every other year, appearing at boat shows, yacht clubs, and adventure clubs. “Six of our eleven titles earn at least $6,000 a year,” she reports.
Pardey’s bestseller, Storm Tactics Handbook, was first issued in 1996 as a $19.95 paperback. It was updated twice before being redesigned in 2006, and repriced at $22.95. “The book continues to sell approximately 2,400 print copies and 1,000 e-book copies a year,” Pardey says, adding, “A second title that stands out is Details of Classic Boat Construction, which we acquired the rights to from W.W. Norton in 1996. In 2002 we updated and expanded the book, and reissued it at $49.”
Although this title sells only about 500 copies a year, the profit margin is what Pardey calls “nice.”
Pardey also says her company keeps awareness of its titles high with a Website and blog that provides dozens of sailing tips, their speaking schedule, and posts from readers. And she’s right: When I typed “Pardey Books” into Google, I saw 50 pages of references to its books and newsletters before I quit searching.
Martingale, a Bothell, WA, quilt and craft book publisher, has always encouraged its authors to make appearances, and because many of those authors teach quilting, knitting, or other crafts, 80 percent of them do visit retail outlets, often fabric and yarn shops, for signings and often presentations.
The company, founded in 1976 as That Patchwork Place, also has a huge exhibit at the twice-annual International Quilt Market in Houston, where two thirds of the titles on display are backlist. Martingale authors who present at this national show are invited to the publisher’s booth to meet shop owners and industry editors and sign complimentary copies of their books for them.
Many Martingale authors tour extensively—some with schedules approaching that of White Cloud’s Paul Grilley—doing demonstrations and conducting classes at shops, quilt shows, and sewing expos. When they keep Martingale marketing director Karen Johnson updated on their schedules, she tries to arrange book signings for them at the show bookstores and publicizes their appearances via Twitter and Facebook.
Some Martingale authors are teaching through Craftsy (craftsy.com), a division of Denver startup Sympoz, which offers more than 100 online seminars and “enrolled” more than half a million “attendees” in its first two years. Some of its quilting programs have attracted more than 1,000 participants, Martingale authors report. Although Craftsy was not selling books as this was written, it does sell fabric and yarn, and authors are free to promote their books through their online bios and their sessions.
Johnson also encourages the company’s authors, most of them quilters, to lend the projects featured in their books for quilt store “trunk shows.” These shows involve trunks shipped to between 50 and 100 stores for three weeks of display at each retailer, sometimes with tie-in presentations and author appearances. Although they focus on projects in new books, Johnson points out that by the time they get to their last stops, the featured titles are backlist. Depending on local promotion, each trunk show stop can increase a title’s sales in the host store by as much as 50 copies in a month.
At Chelsea Green Publishing, headquartered in tiny White River Junction, VT, author appearances are considered so important that a third of the six-member communications team focuses on author events, alerting authors to professional association calls for conference proposals and helping some authors write their proposals for keynotes and breakout session presentations. Occasionally, either in person or via a conference call, a Chelsea Green staffer will work through a presentation with an author.
“We know conference organizers well, and we know what associations want from speakers,” explains Shay Totten, communications director.
Chelsea Green also helps authors arrange other speeches and events and helps negotiate fees and honorariums when that’s appropriate. Also, the house often covers authors’ travel costs for presentations.
Increased support for appearances is one of the changes Totten has seen in publishing recently. When he returned to Chelsea Green a year ago after a five-year stint in the media, he found a far greater focus on author appearances—and it shows in the numbers. In 2011, 110 “active” Chelsea Green authors made a total of 650 appearances; in 2012, the figure was nearly 800.
At the much smaller Miami-based Piggy Press, publisher Pat Alvarado must depend on authors to do more. And some do: “We have four or five authors who move mountains to sell their titles, and then there are a few who sit back and expect sales to appear as if by magic.”
One who doesn’t wait for magic to create sales is Todd-Michael St. Pierre, whom Alvarado describes as “a mover and a shaker when it comes to promoting.”
Piggy Press has published 16 of his children’s books over the past four years, and he has outsold all its other authors combined, she says. Besides his own Website, Facebook and Twitter accounts, and Amazon author page, he makes hundreds of appearances each year. Between Halloween and Christmas alone, he did 14 signings.
Email. Chelsea Green uses its own 35,000-name contact list for its emails, which go out twice a month, each featuring books on a different topic—food and health, simple living, and green building, for example. Both frontlist and backlist titles are included.
A similar approach is common at Seattle-based Parenting Press, whose emails often feature a new title along with several older titles appropriate for a certain market, such as special education teachers or bilingual school programs. When the California Department of Education approved Asi me siento yo, the Spanish edition of top-selling The Way I Feel, sales for the backlist picture book spiked as the press contacted Southern California bilingual and migrant program educators, reports Homer Henderson, operations manager.
Last March, Martingale introduced a daily consumer email newsletter, Stitch This. A second newsletter, Shop Talk, is sent two or three times a week to specialty store owners. Chatty and informative, both include backlist titles.
These email offerings also promote PDFs of patterns excerpted from books that are at least a year old, which sell for $4.99 apiece. Johnson, who was hired in mid-2011 with a mandate to increase direct-to-consumer business, says the e-pattern sales are attracting many customers new to the company.
Media relations. Media relations is “Common Sense 101,” exclaims Totten, who believes too many publishers neglect their backlist because “they’re busy chasing the next trend.” By contrast, the Chelsea Green staff “never takes its eyes off the backlist” despite the work involved in promoting 35 new titles a year, all of them in both print and digital formats.
“We recognize that a book may take two or three years to get a foothold,” Totten says, explaining that many of the company’s books become authoritative references that gain momentum in sales through word-of-mouth promotion. Besides turning older titles into top sellers, this can create a following for the author, and pent-up demand for the author’s next title.
As an example, Totten cites fermentation expert Sandor Katz, whose first book for Chelsea Green was published in 2003. By the time his next book came out in 2012, Katz’s reputation was such that his Art of Fermentation made the New York Times bestseller list despite a $40 cover price, and got extensive coverage in feature sections too. “Say this about Sandor Ellix Katz: the man knows how to get you revved up to eat bacteria,” wrote a Times food critic in a 1,500-word story in September. The same month, Katz was described as “one of the unlikely rock stars of the American food scene” by the paper when he did an online Q&A that attracted 86 comments.
Totten believes that most marketing involves relationship building, and his team works hard on that with the media. “It’s pretty simple, but it takes time,” he says.
To supplement the company’s existing media database, the staff asks each newly contracted author what publications the author reads, and what publications the author would like to be published in.
“We have a greater emphasis on community and regional media than we did several years ago,” Totten says, “and sometimes it’s more effective in terms of publicity.” Like many marketing managers, Totten reads the thrice-daily HARO newsletter (free at helpareporter.com) for leads on generating interviews with authors and reviews of books, and he often follows up on news articles by offering a relevant review copy to a reporter. Whenever possible, a handwritten note to the particular media person goes out with the review copy.
Martingale’s Johnson also works to establish relationships with the media, although her focus is national. New titles are what she emphasizes when she meets with quilt and craft magazine editors twice yearly at Quilt Market. “They’re hungry for material,” she says, “and often what we’re launching can help determine a magazine theme in the next six or eight months.” Sometimes, however, a backlist title will fit into a theme already on a publication’s editorial calendar, or a title will be backlist by the time it’s featured. When a story runs about an author’s project, the brief accompanying bio may mention the designer’s most recent book for Martingale.
Toronto publisher Elliott Katz, founder of Award Press, contacts media to remind editors and producers that the need for his books’ content “didn’t stop after the books’ launches.” This, he says, is especially true for his Being the Strong Man a Woman Wants, which discusses how many men today are unsure of their roles in relationships.
In the spring, when good weather invites people outdoors, and in the fall, when foliage turns vibrant, Katz promotes Great Country Walks Around Toronto and The Great Toronto Bicycling Guide. He also takes advantage of milestones: “A few years ago it was the 25th anniversary of the publication of Great Country Walks Around Toronto, and my news release got the book covered in the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest-circulation daily, and on the top two morning radio shows in Toronto,” Katz remembers.
For IBPA members who publish many authors, good media relations also involve frequent author-publisher discussions of publicity opportunities and possible promotions. At Chelsea Green, Totten says he usually supplements authors’ contacts with the events staff by touching base twice a week with authors such as Matthew Stein, whose When Technology Fails is in the top 10 in unit sales for the publisher.
Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, YouTube, and the like. Of course, social media matters in marketing of almost any kind today, and book publishers agree it’s a valuable tool. But it’s not a slam-dunk. As Karen Anderson, publisher at Mbedzi Publishing in Dallas, says, “Social networking takes a lot of time, and it is something that I definitely think works if you can garner enough likes and keep the interaction going on a daily basis. But you have to engage readers, and you have to engage them a lot, to produce results.”
A 140-character press release: that may be the easiest way to think about a tweet. At Chelsea Green, which has close to 20,000 followers on Twitter, staff members tweet as often as five times a day, with information about author appearances and promotional messages such as “Don’t let winter stop your #locavore mission. Learn #HowTo Grow Oyster Mushrooms Indoors: http://ow.ly/eJLOW.”
Chicago-based Sourcebooks has several staff members who post to Twitter, so it may provide as many as a half-dozen tweets a day for its 6,600 followers, announcing reviews, author appearances, and blog tours or commenting on publishing industry news.
Publishers overwhelmed by the prospect of tweeting a couple of times a day, or even once a week, can use free tweet-scheduling Websites such as Social Oomph (socialoomph.com), which allow you to write dozens of tweets at one time and schedule each one for delivery at a different date and hour. This means you can write the promotional messages for an author appearance as soon as it’s confirmed, confident that tweets will be posted at appropriate moments.
Another way to save time involves tying your Facebook and Twitter accounts together. Cynthia Reeser, the publisher at Aqueous Books in New Orleans, explains: “I never use Twitter directly, but everything I post to the Aqueous Books Facebook page feeds directly to the Twitter account. I normally post to the page one to three times per week—announcements of books available for preorder; praise in the form of blurbs, reviews, interviews, or reviews; new cover art, author events, and so on.”
Martingale is among the publishers using messages that are both promotional and informational on Facebook pages. Right before the International Quilt Market last fall, for example, the company had posts such as “We’ll be at Quilt Market—with Eva A. Larkin-Hawkins, author of Easy and Fun Free-Motion Quilting. Not going to the show? Don’t miss our Quilt Market Recap on November 6 at Stitch This!” Each post had a photo of a different author and her featured title, and each told when the online recap would be available.
By last fall, Martingale had 33 Pinterest “boards” (i.e., topics), some with as many as 77 images.
Carolyn Howard-Johnson of HowToDoItFrugally Publishing, Glendale, CA, is also active on Pinterest, and she tells other publishers and authors that if they pin one of her book covers, she’ll pin one of theirs.
“My special bulletin board for this, Books by Friends, is separate from my Recommended Books board,” she explains. “That way I can pin at will—and ethically—without necessarily recommending a book. And I often suggest to those who subscribe to my blog and my newsletter that they use the same method to help out their fellow authors.”
“Pinterest has definitely helped our backlist titles, and we have seen an increase in single title online orders,” reports Heather Williams, who handles public relations for the Mount Pleasant, SC, publisher Sylvan Dell. After checking with company accountants for sales figures attributable to this social media channel, Williams expressed both surprise and enthusiasm.
Williams created Pinterest boards for Newton and Me, a title published in early 2010, in September 2012. Between September 15 and October 30 of that year, she reports, “sales of Newton and Me increased 64 percent over the average of previous months’ sales, and by Halloween we were sold out of the paperback. I don’t know if there are any other factors in these numbers, but I will be paying much more attention to our Pinterest boards.”
Williams’s emphasis on providing creative classroom ideas on Pinterest may have helped boost sales of this backlist title. “Teachers have definitely taken note of the Sylvan Dell board,” she says, explaining that her account page shows who is repinning and what boards people have pinned an item to. “Many of our repins and new followers are using teaching boards: physics unit, science ideas, classroom ideas, and so on,” Williams notes.
At Bamboo Forest Publishing in Orlando, Leonard Kinsey posts to YouTube each week to promote a 2011 publication, The Dark Side of Disney (youtube.com/darksidedisney). “Google Analytics data shows that these videos drive a significant amount of traffic to my site, and they also seem to drive sales,” says Kinsey, who sold more than 30,000 copies (print and digital) in the book’s first 15 months.
During the first month of the book’s second year, there were more than 20,500 views of the videos, and YouTube sent 310 viewers directly to darksideofdisney.com. That represented more than a third of the direct referrals to Bamboo Forest’s Website for the book, higher than the six-month average. In total that month, Kinsey sold 900 e-books and 136 paperbacks.
Specialty markets. Gift stores, craft shops, schools, and catalogs are all good examples of channels where backlist is a meaningless term. These retailers don’t care about pub date. They focus on whether a book will sell to their customers.
White Cloud’s Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations has been used in 300,000 colleges, and Parenting Press is among the many publishers pursuing special education teachers, who constitute a market for its Self-Calming Cards, created in 2004.
At Martingale, there’s a national sales manager who works with Ingram and other major wholesalers as well as with JoAnn Fabrics, Michaels Stores, and other specialty retailers for both new and backlist titles. The dump bin in-store displays that the company makes available to specialty retail outlets include a cross-section of titles.
And some special market promotions include extra discounts. For example, Martingale’s twice-annual Stock Up Sale offers independent retailers as much as 55 percent off cover price on backlist titles vs. the 40 or 45 percent more typical in that market.
Co-op style promotion. Publishers also encourage independent bookstores and specialty retailers to promote backlist with rewards for displays and events. For instance, Martingale’s Samples Sell program offers retailers a free copy of a book that is featured in a display with a sample from the book. And Parenting Press offers a free copy of the picture book The Way I Feel to any store or library that displays the book and promotes the Fish Lips Face Photo Contest, which asks kids to imitate the face on the book cover.
Giveaways and discounts. Publishers are holding sales for backlist titles, sometimes using newer options such as the Kindle Select Program through Amazon.com, as well as giveaways and discounts. Will Aebi of Ibea Publishing in Salem, SC, released A Pius Wake in 2006 and reports: “Now that I have it on Amazon as a paperback and for the Kindle, I’m using the Kindle edition to reintroduce the title to the marketplace with a five-day giveaway. Then I use Amazon Author Central to show the cover of the book and the first few pages, to further encourage people to get the book or buy other titles.”
In the first four days of an autumn promotion on Kindle, 79 U.S. readers requested copies of A Pius Wake (compared to none in the previous six months); in the United Kingdom the giveaway count for the promotion was 70.
With more than 140 backlist titles, Bitingduck Press in Pasadena, CA, uses Facebook and Twitter to advertise such specials as the 99-cent deal on the e-book Writing Fiction and Poetry, which editor in chief Jay Nadeau says raised the sales from nothing to about 30 per month. Another promotion, for The Classic Star Trek Trivia Book, involved reissuing the backlist title in print in time for last summer’s Shore Leave 34 sci-fi convention, which resulted in more than 100 sales.
Promoting backlist through frontlist. Seattle self-publisher Trish Weenolsen, hard at work on the fourth in her Rubythroat Press series of American historical novels, which launched in 2009, notes the value of describing backlist titles in promotion for new titles, a tactic that costs nothing. “Every time I publish a new novel, all the others get featured in press releases, on the Website, and in the occasional book review,” she says, adding: “That’s one way to keep the backlist alive, publish another in the series!”
New editions of old titles also provide a PR opp. Parenting Press has used the publication of the board and Spanish editions of The Way I Feel to promote the 2000 original, and when a companion title, The Way I Act, was issued in 2011, the two hardbacks were offered as a package at a discount.
At Pardey Books, promotion of the new digital edition of Details of Classic Boat Construction clearly sparked new interest in the hardcover edition. “Interestingly, when we made this large-format title with more than 600 diagrams and photos available as an e-book, sales of the hardcover edition increased about 15 percent,” says Lin Pardey.
Linda Carlson (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes for the Independent from Seattle, where she continues to promote her 2003 history from University of Washington Press, Company Towns of the Pacific Northwest.