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Putting Backlists to Work: How Indie Publishers Breathe New life Into Seasoned Titles

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by Deb Vanasse, IBPA Independent staff reporter

Deb Vanasse

To the casual observer, publishing seems to be all about the new—new releases, debut authors, new lists—an impression created by a prevailing model that emphasizes frontlist sales over seasoned titles.

But publishers who embrace this model miss substantial opportunities for sales. Without much fanfare, independent publishers are prospering through strategic management of both lists, front and back. Through perseverance, commitment, and creative tactics, they defy the notion that the backlist is where old books go to die.

Front and Back Lists

“The trade publishing ecosystem expects and rewards active marketing and publicity of titles in the initial months of publication,” says Sasquatch Books Publisher Gary Luke, who defines frontlist titles as those within the 12 months of publication. But new releases alone aren’t sufficient to sustain an independent publisher or its authors, Luke points out.

YMAA Publication Center directs an estimated 70 percent of its promotional efforts toward the frontlist, but the attention reserved for its backlist yields big returns. “Backlist titles are the bread and butter of our bottom line,” says YMAA Publisher David Ripianzi.

Promontory Press Publisher Bennett R. Coles concurs. “Certainly our frontlist titles get a lot of attention and effort as we pitch them to the national chains and provide a marketing surge before launch,” Coles says. “But all our titles remain active, and we will put fresh marketing effort into any title—even one that’s several years old—if there is a relevant reason to do so.”

After all, Coles adds, “Every backlist title was once a frontlist title, carrying with it our full support and belief. That doesn’t change just because a book is a few months old. We consider most books to be timeless. They are always fresh and new to readers who have never seen them before.”

Robin Cutler

Robin Cutler, manager at Ingram Spark, affirms the wisdom in marketing backlist titles. “Word of mouth takes time to build and can take longer than one year for a new author or publisher,” Cutler says. “We all know stories of a best-selling author who achieved acclaim on their third or fourth book. When this happens, the earlier works suddenly become frontlist and find new life.”

Coles agrees, noting the importance of not abandoning titles too quickly. “Each book will have a surge of sales when it’s launched, but many of them need time to build a fan base and sales will continue to slowly grow over time,” he explains.

The steady sales of backlist books allow a publisher to invest in new authors and manuscripts, Luke says, adding that it doesn’t make sense to abandon these investments because they’ve dropped from the frontlist. “Creating a book results from a lot of work and creativity on the part of the author and the publisher,” he says. “It only makes sense we do what we can to ensure a good long life for the book.”

Backlist Gold

At YMAA, Ripianzi estimates backlist sales account for 60 percent of book channel top-line sales. “Nurturing them has proven effective in terms of return on investment to the bottom line,” he explains, adding that the backlist offers predictability in terms of sales that frontlist can’t match.

The backlist can also be a central component of a company’s brand promise, Ripianzi says, with the added benefit of providing content for continuing engagement of customers via customer relation management (CRM) tactics. “Think of a consumer channel as a moving parade,” he suggests. “A backlist title can be ‘new’ to a consumer when she sees it for the first time.”

Publishing one book a year, Rose Alley Press builds its backlist slowly, but that doesn’t negate the value of the list. “Selling backlist titles is critical to earning sufficient money to sustain my company,” says Publisher David Horowitz, adding that he has learned the value of not wasting time and money on marketing that fails to yield results.

To build a profitable backlist, publishers have to first acquire strong frontlist titles. “Solid, smart, well-presented information that is deemed necessary can live for years and years,” Luke says. “We are always considering these factors when acquiring new books.”

To maximize the connections between frontlists and backlists, Coles points to the value of series titles. “One of our editorial requirements is that any book which is part of a series must also be able to stand on its own, meaning readers will often discover—and enjoy—a later book in a series, encouraging them to go back and read the previous installments,” he says. “Conversely, we can sell book one in a series at a big discount online, encouraging readers to discover a new reading love and, in turn, support our frontlist by buying the latest installment.”

Ripianzi suggests publishers look for books that won’t “expire” because they’re not anchored in current events. He also notes the importance of maintaining supply chain momentum by keeping best-selling backlist titles in stock. To assess whether these titles are selling in sufficient quantities to satisfy chain-store modeling, he requests annual model reviews through YMAA’s trade distributor, National Book Network. For slower-selling backlist titles, he opts for print-on-demand production.

With the goal of ensuring that backlist sales either match or exceed sales from the initial launch period, Ripianzi pays special attention to the top 20 percent of the company’s backlist. These are the titles from which YMAA generates much of the content for its search engine optimization articles as well as content matched to the behavior and interests of new CRM prospects.

Coles advises publishers to respond to award nominations, new reviews, and current events that can renew interest in particular titles. Backlist promotions can also be thematic, notes Luke—cookbooks for Mother’s Day or travel guidebooks in the spring and summer seasons.

Another way to maximize backlist benefits is by making old books new again—literally. “We frequently ask authors to update older titles to keep them current,” Luke says. “And our designers take that opportunity to freshen up the design.”

To boost backlist sales, Cutler recommends paying attention to how titles are presented to retailers and readers. “The best way for publishers to keep their backlists going is to constantly be updating their metadata through the addition of reviews, endorsements, and changes in keywords,” she says.

Repurposing content in new formats is yet another way to help readers discover backlist titles. “If your book was only offered as a hardcover, you should definitely launch a paperback and/or e-book edition,” Cutler recommends. “Large print is something not to be overlooked if the content is for either young or older readers. Or perhaps there’s a cookbook or coloring book tie-in that is really big.”

For small publishers, Horowitz stresses the benefits of a personal approach to all titles, front and back. Cultivate a good memory about people who have been customers in the past, he recommends, and cultivate long-term relationships with the authors you publish.

“For me, the core of marketing is friendly, in-person persuasion and passionate, skillful performance,” he says. “I still schedule and promote readings for authors whose work I published 20 years ago. They are my friends, not just ‘my authors.’ I show them support—and, in turn, they’ll actively promote Rose Alley Press readings and urge their friends to support my company. This is how many backlist sales happen.”

Success Stories

Among many successful backlist titles at YMAA, Ripianzi cites The Root of Chinese Qigong by Yang Jwing-Ming and Thomas Gutheil, Tai Chi Chuan Classical Yang Style by Yang Jwing-Ming, and Mediations on Violence by Rory Miller. Each of these books demonstrate factors that Ripianzi identifies as crucial to backlist success—delivering to the company’s brand promise, riding the tide of growing interest in their respective subject categories, ample reviews with online vendors, and evergreen subject matter.

To ensure these books continue to sell, YMAA provides marketing support by assessing the modeling in chain stores and ensuring that the titles are always in stock. From the books, YMAA also extracts content for weekly articles (750 to 1,000 words in length) which are posted to its website. When prospecting for new customers and creating special marketing campaigns, it draws on content from these articles. To interest groups in its CRM base, YMAA also sends “Article News” messages with links to relevant articles. In order to gauge the reach of these efforts, it measures the page value and number of reads (or sessions) for the article pages.

At Promontory, Coles cites Patrick Hill’s Home on the Waves and Andrew Benedict Acheampong’s Created for Wholeness as examples of titles that had slow starts at launch but have grown in popularity over the years. “These two titles are each in a specific niche (travel and spirituality, respectively),” he explains, “and once that niche audience discovers them, word can spread efficiently to many like-minded readers.”

Sales of Dark Seed, another Promontory backlist book, surged after the title won several awards. “The sequel, Seed of Control, is being released in Autumn 2016,” Coles notes. “This is a perfect example of where we expect the frontlist and backlist to complement each other well.”

The Encyclopedia of Country Living by Carla Emery, a manual of country wisdom and advice for living off the land, has been on the Sasquatch list since 1994 and continues to sell well. “It keeps finding new audiences,” Luke explains. “Initially rural back to-the-land folks, now urban hipsters plowing up their backyards.”

LarryGetsLost_BookCoverAnother steady seller is Larry Gets Lost in Seattle by John Skewes, first published in 2007, one in a series of children’s picture books, each set in a different city, about a dog that wanders among local sights. “Lots of tourists discover the book when they visit the city,” Luke says, “and there’s always a new crop of kids ready and willing to fall in love with Larry.”

The Cast Iron Skillet Cookbook by Sharon Kramis and Julie Kramis Hearne, published in 2004, is yet another perennial favorite. “I think people bought a lot of fancy cookware in the 90s only to discover that the classic cast iron pan is still the most versatile kitchen tool,” Luke says. “Plus the recipes are terrific.”

At Rose Alley Press, two backlist poetry anthologies continue to find readers—Limbs of the Pine, Peaks of the Range (2007) and Many Trails to the Summit (2010). “They sell well because many authors with work in them still perform, and I will often include them in readings I organize and host,” Horowitz says. “Moreover, at book fairs, passersby often recognize the authors’ names as their favorites, and both anthologies feature beautiful covers and meticulously edited and appealingly presented texts.”

In assessing the success of these titles, Horowitz maintains a realistic perspective. “I’m leery of hype of the sort that states ‘and we sold 40,000 copies in our first two weeks!’ Well, congratulations if you do that. Marvelous! That’s rare, though, so don’t give up if your numbers are much lower. Publishing is a competitive business, so try to learn from and support other publishers rather than simply striving to be number one in sales.”

Deb Vanasse, who co-founded 49 Writers and founded the author co-op Running Fox Books, is the author of 16 books. Among her most recent are Write Your Best Book, a practical guide to writing books that rise above the rest, and WHAT EVERY AUTHOR SHOULD KNOW, a comprehensive guide to book publishing and promotion, as well as WEALTH WOMAN: KATE CARMACK AND THE KLONDIKE RACE.

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