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How to Build Profits with Your Backlist

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After a few years of producing a steady stream of titles, life as a publisher in some ways gets easier. Not only have you learned the ropes, but (I hope) you also have a revenue stream from your backlist–the books you published last year and the year before and the year before that. Better still, because the initial costs–editorial, design, pre-press production, marketing–of backlist titles have already been paid, your profit margins on these books are better than when they were new.

Because these books seem to sell themselves long after your initial marketing push, should you concentrate on your new and forthcoming books and simply ignore the backlist? When you ask the question this way, the obvious answer is “No.” Nevertheless, though their financial lives depend on backlist sales, publishers vary greatly in their backlist marketing efforts.

What’s reasonable? What’s optimal? What should you do?

Set Realistic Goals for the Backlist

About a year ago, Publishers Weekly ran an article on backlist sales in which they surveyed executives from some of the largest publishers and imprints. These folks gave estimates of backlist sales as a percentage of total sales that ranged from 25% (Hyperion) at the low end to 75% (Modern Library) and 80% (Sterling) at the high end.

Though there is no one-size-fits-all solution, my own experience in observing a great many publishers suggests that it’s extremely difficult to break even in this business–let alone make a profit–with less than 50% of sales derived from the backlist. Certainly the size of your company and the nature of your line will affect your break-even point. As a rule of thumb, though, I suggest that publishers set this figure as a minimum goal and allocate their resources accordingly.

Here are some tips on how to create strong backlist sales.


Acquire with the Backlist in Mind

Nothing you do as a publisher affects the bottom line more than your choice of books. That’s where you succeed or fail. If you’re a niche publisher, you should know what people want. You can survey your readers, attend conferences, and actually talk to the people who are your prime audience.

If your books are more general, it will be harder to gauge the marketplace. As a nonfiction publisher, you need to look for holes in the market and offer solid information. If you can’t attract big name authors–and most small publishers can’t–your books have to be that much better. You have to offer information that isn’t available elsewhere and a lot of it. If you’re a fiction publisher, then you have to offer exceptional writing. Good solid writing will get some attention when a book is new, but to attract readers year after year, the writing needs to have, as a literary agent once told me, “a certain element of genius.”

When making a publishing decision, you need to ask yourself with as much dispassion as you can muster, “Does this title have staying power?”

Promote Your Books Year-Round

Full-scale author tours are appropriate for only a few titles and only when they are new. But any book that continues to have a presence on bookstore shelves can be publicized and promoted throughout the year and from year to year. Your efforts should include some or all of the items in this list.

Devote some of your PR budget to backlist titles.

Contrary to what many believe, a book does not need be new to attract a radio or television author-interview. Most hosts and producers don’t care when a book was published. Their only concern is whether the author has something to say that is timely and interesting to their audience. If you have a staff publicist, you can assign a certain percentage of that person’s time to setting up radio phoner-interviews for backlist authors.

Take advantage of your authors’ travel plans.

Many authors combine speaking with writing and are on the road a lot. Keep in touch with your authors, get their schedules, and arrange media events in the cities they are visiting. Over the course of a year or two, the promotional results can equal your initial marketing push.

Promote the backlist with the frontlist.

When authors have a new book, you can take the opportunity to promote their previous titles as well. Readers of fiction will often buy several books by the same author, but nonfiction writers also build up followings. It doesn’t matter which book was written first; if I read a book by someone and like it, the chances are good that I will look for others by the same author.

Encourage bookstores to stock an author’s previous works along with their new books (even if the new book is from another publisher), and include information about previous works, if you’ve published them, in your press kits. While you don’t want to dilute frontlist promotions, you can coach authors to mention their previous works in interviews.

Create an annual calendar with campaigns for niche topics.

The advantage of promoting the backlist is that you can plan ahead, linking your campaigns to events throughout the year. A fathering book, for instance, can be promoted every Father’s Day, gardening books every spring, and travel books in the months before summer. Consumer magazines have year-long editorial calendars (often starting with health topics in January) that give you an opportunity to pitch a backlist title. Likewise, bookstores have category promotions throughout the year that you can buy into for your backlist as well as for new titles.

Promote the backlist to the media.

If you have cultivated a publishing niche, you should also have a database of editors and producers who cover your field. Make the most of your media contacts by promoting your backlist when you mail to them.

Years ago, as the Marketing and Public Relations Director for Nolo Press, a publisher of self-help legal information, I assembled an “A-list” of consumer action reporters. Whenever I sent them a press kit for a new title, I would include a complete catalog. Reporters read through these catalogs and would often pick out books that fit into stories they were already working on. Occasionally they would even decide to do a topical roundup and mention several titles. The overall effect of including these catalogs was incredible.

Refresh the Content and the Packaging

Like buildings, books age, some more quickly than others. Also, like buildings, you can remodel them or give them a facelift–a new cover, a new edition with updated material, and even a new title.

Take, for example, Huston Smith’s classic work, The Religions of Man. The book, first published in 1958, became an instant hit and continued to sell well for decades. By 1992, however, the title was no longer acceptable and was changed to The World’s Religions. With the new title, the book continues to be one of the best-selling works in its genre.

A less radical and more common tactic than changing titles is redesigning covers of the books that continue to sell long enough for graphic styles to change. When, for instance, Penguin Classics were first introduced in the ’40s and ’50s, a two-color cover with a simple border and type was adequate. By the late ’60s, however, this series was competing with a number of attractively packaged lines, and Penguin moved to dramatically illustrated four-color covers.

Publishers with nonfiction titles that feature timely material can extend the life of such books by updating the contents and creating new editions. While subsequent editions won’t draw the review attention of a new book, they can be occasions for author interviews and bookstore promotions.


By changing at least 25% of the content, publishers will also draw orders from librarians who are concerned about providing patrons with current information.

Backlist Benefits in Brief

With the right books and proper handling, your backlist sales will help fund the growth of your company. You can maximize your backlist sales by actively managing their marketing. Your company will profit, and, as an added benefit, your authors will love you to the end of time. The backlist should never be out of sight or out of mind.

David Cole is a publishing and marketing consultant with more than 25 years of experience working with small and medium-sized publishers. He is also the author of “The Complete Guide to Book Marketing” (Allworth Press). He can be reached by phone at 510/525-6902 or by e-mail at dcole@geminicole.com.

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