Historically, American publishing houses had three seasons a year: fall, winter, and spring. This had a lot to do with the physical limitations of selling and shipping books across the country, especially in the eras before air-conditioning and Skype. Most modern publishers still operate on two to three seasons a year, in part because it’s often easier to break a year’s business goals down into sub-goals.
After six months, a once-new title is replaced by something even newer, and the focus of the industry moves on – and that’s where the backlist comes in. Once a publisher has been in business for more than a season, its catalog will list all of in-print titles, not only the forthcoming ones. A house that publishes only a dozen books a year is still responsible for over a hundred after a decade; houses like W.W. Norton (founded in 1923) or Penguin Random House (home to almost 250 imprints and houses) have catalogs listing thousands of titles. It’s perhaps no surprise that backlist sales account for a large amount of total revenue, which can then be used to fuel future frontlists.
Of course, not all titles are created equal. There’s no guarantee that a book will continue to be sold indefinitely by a publisher, and quite a few go out of print for reasons ranging from declining sales to contract negotiation to controversy. (Stephen King famously allowed Rage to fall out of print after it became associated with several school shootings.) Most books go out of print at some point in their lifespan, and though many do make it back into circulation – like William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, which sold less than 3,000 copies in its initial run – many don’t. Back in 2010, Google Books estimated the total number of different books ever published as 129 million, a sum that can’t have been comprehensive even before self-publishing further muddied the waters. Only a tiny minority are in the marketplace at any given moment.
If a title is profitable, though, it obviously has a better shot at longevity. There’s a steady demand for certain books, including classics that are commonly assigned in schools. Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried was routinely selling 100,000 copies a year back in 2006, sixteen years after it was released; today, the paperback edition ranks #10 in War Fiction, #15 in Short Stories, and #1,022 on Books overall on Amazon. Other titles have continued appeal for niche audiences. Irma Rombauer’s 1931 classic The Joy of Cooking can be easily found in multiple versions: two editions (the eighth, released through Scribner in 2006, and a perfect facsimile of the 1931 original, released in 1997) continue to be printed and stocked. Earlier editions circulate through the used-book trade as well, although those sales are unrelated to publishers’ profits.
In other words, all is not lost for publishers that don’t happen to have a stable of perennial bestsellers. A more modest property with devoted fans will bring in revenue too. Books for young readers provide plenty of examples: Green Eggs and Ham, first published in 1960, and The Going To Bed Book, first published in 1982, ranked in the top 20 for Publishers Weekly’s Bestselling Children’s Picture Books as of November 2016.
This is part of what’s known as the long tail, a business model that has come to prominence across multiple industries in the Internet age. With more options for warehousing, digital publishing, and print-on-demand fulfillment than ever before, it’s possible for a house to keep many titles in print even if some of them don’t move much volume. (It remains to be seen how print-on-demand will change publishing in the future. As the technology continues to evolve toward more individualization and efficiency, a book might never truly be out of print.) Broadly speaking, as long as those costs are low enough, there’s no reason not to offer a book for sale if someone wants to buy it. Of course, there’s plenty of debate over whether this is the best way to conceptualize the book business, and the decline of chain bookstores has changed the course of the long tail since it was first proposed. For now, though, the basic principle holds: planning around a single blockbuster is less practical than planning around the sales of many smaller books.
(A note about “moving volume”: booksellers often buy backlist packages from large publishers, like Penguin Random House. Books that sell over a certain threshold – sometimes as low as 25 copies a year – are eligible for the packages. The earlier example of The Things They Carried should not be considered representative of sales for all backlist titles.)
Relying on the backlist can and does change how the frontlist operates. If pressure is lessened on each new book to be a bestseller, there’s a better incentive to invest in titles that might sell slowly but consistently over the years. This is how Akashic, otherwise best-known as a publisher of minority and dissident voices, has proceeded in the wake of its immensely popular Go the F**k to Sleep. Proceeds from that 2011 title, a humorous picture book for beleaguered parents, funds the publication of new books by and publicity for the press’s other authors, which include Edwidge Danticat, Chris Abani, and Amiri Baraka.
So, if backlist sales can propel frontlist programming, it’s worthwhile to know how to market them both. To that end, as 21st-century consumers become accustomed to resource accessibility being the norm, many publishers are hiring for specifically backlist-focused jobs. Associate managers, backlist; inventory analysts; and reprint managers deal directly with the unique problems of older books, and plenty of the job postings for editorial assistantships viewable at the time of this writing list both frontlist and backlist as responsibilities. If a frontlist manager must drum up excitement and press for a new title, possibly by a debut author, then a backlist manager must sustain that excitement and translate it into continued sales.
The specific marketing practices that most benefit frontlist and backlist are in constant flux and could fill another article. As a general principle, then, it’s useful to think of these two sides of the business as being in constant conversation with each other. With ingenuity and savvy, a press can help its books can find their way to an interested reader no matter when they were originally published. Every book, to quote Charlie Nurnberg, is new to the person who hasn’t heard of it yet. Publishing might have seasons, but some ideas never go out of style.