Publishing Trendsetter is a production of Market Partners International and Publishing Trends.

The Beginner’s Guide to the Backlist

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.

Top 5 Publishing News Stories 11/14-11/18

number_5_orangeEvery week we recommend 5 publishing news stories that young book professionals should read to feel more connected to what’s going on in the industry. There are only 5, so even if you weren’t able to read a thing all week, these should help keep you in the know.

Wednesday night’s National Book Awards offered stirring speeches.

Bob Dylan won’t be attending the Nobel ceremony after all.

Penguin Random House‘s employees will start 2017 with a new chairman and a student loan repayment program

Barnes & Noble announced a new $49.99 Nook ahead of Black Friday.

After a lease scare, Greenwich Village’s Three Lives Bookstore is staying put.

Bonus: The Oxford Dictionaries‘ word of the year is “post-truth.”

The 11th Annual 5 Under 35 National Book Award Ceremony

The Ace Hotel’s Liberty Hall was filled to capacity last night for the National Book Foundation’s eleventh annual 5 Under 35 ceremony. The closing of powerHouse Arena over the summer prompted the event’s move to Midtown Manhattan. Though the space was smaller than last year’s, the crowd was no less lively. The cocktail hour preceding the official ceremony was well lubricated, thanks to the able bar staff, and attendees mingled with plates of hummus and charcuterie until the very seconds before the event officially began.

After affectionately instructing the audience to settle down, executive director Lisa Lucas shared a few thoughts about community. “In this time we’re living through, it’s nice to see the tribe,” she said, which prompted a round of applause. She added that, post-election, it had been tempting to wonder if books and literature were important, but she’d come to a simple conclusion: “hell yes.” Books, and all of their attendant values – particularly those of listening well, thinking deeply, and speaking with purpose – are “worth our time, worth our spirit, and worth our care,” she said.

Before the reading got underway, program director Benjamin Samuel expressed gratitude for the space the gathering represented. “It’s wonderful to be together in a room where we can feel safe,” he said simply. He then introduced the evening’s host, BJ Novak. Novak, best known for his work as a stand-up comedian; as a producer, writer, and actor on The Office; and as the author of multiple books, including One More Thing and The Book With No Pictures, expressed delight about being among bookish people. “I can tell jokes that wouldn’t work with other audiences,” he said, before launching into a detailed description of the way global politics shape and constrain creative work that ended with a classic stinger: what’s up with that? The audience cheered.

Before concluding his brief, heartfelt remarks, Novak also discussed the strangeness of writing in an uncertain time. After the last week, he said that he felt “like I was suddenly living in an era that whatever I did creatively had to be in conversation with.” And then it was time to bring up the writers who interact with our era.

The event followed a simple format: each selector was introduced by emcee Ben Greenman, and then in turn introduced their chosen honoree, who read a page from their winning book. Several of the selectors used their moment at the podium to acknowledge possible futures for literature. Jacqueline Woodson charged all attendees to “finish [their] book!” and added, “Writers have always written toward a revolution…[they focus] not on what’s going to sell but what’s going to change the world.” Chris Jackson, subbing in for Ta-Nehisi Coates, reminded the crowd of the stakes of the art. “Black people pay a price for their imaginations,” he said. And Karen Bender, too, found a lesson in the book she had chosen for celebration: as she said, “Literature of immigration is especially important now.”

Illustration of Jacqueline Woodson by Last Night’s Reading

There was room for levity, too. Amity Gaige, herself a 5 Under 35 honoree in 2006, quoted her professor George Saunders as saying that “humor is intelligence manifesting itself” before describing the joy Hall of Small Mammals had brought her. And Meg Wolitzer, speaking on behalf of Lauren Groff, drew laughter with an aside about youth in the industry. “You think you’re young but you’re not,” she said, gesturing at the five honorees. “Tomorrow I’m actually officiating at 35 Under 5. Watch your backs.”

This year’s winners were:

  • Brit Bennett, author of The Mothers (Riverhead / Penguin Random House), selected by Jacqueline Woodson
  • Yaa Gyasi, author of Homegoing (Knopf / Penguin Random House), selected by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • Greg Jackson, author of Prodigals (Farrar, Straus & Giroux / Macmillan), selected by Lauren Groff
  • S. Li, author of Transoceanic Lights (Harvard Square Editions), selected by Karen Bender
  • Thomas Pierce, author of Hall of Small Mammals (Riverhead / Penguin Random House), selected by Amity Gaige

After all five authors had read, Greenman sat down with them for a lightning round of questions. These ranged the gamut from the straightforward (“where were you born?”) to the challenging (“if you had to summarize your book in five words or less, could you? Don’t do it – just tell us if you could”). Only Brit Bennett felt that she could, and Yaa Gyasi gave it a maybe; the others, especially the short story authors Greg Jackson and Thomas Pierce, were unequivocal. “Absolutely not,” said S. Li.

 Asked what form of art they felt an affinity for besides writing, though, the response was universal: music. Bennett also chose dance, Jackson specified genre (rap or K-Pop), and Li clarified that he felt an affinity for John Coltrane in particular, but the five honorees each expressed admiration for that other orally communicative form.

With one last question (could the authors name the last word of their books? all but Pierce could), Greenman reopened the floor for writers and book-lovers to socialize again. Between the flashes of light from the photo booth and the clumps of admirers holding books to be signed, the whole scene was one of joy. The evening ended exactly as Lucas had noted: with the tribe, together.

2016-11-14-20-36-11

From left: Brit Bennett, Yaa Gyasi, Greg Jackson, S. Li, Thomas Pierce, and Ben Greenman.

Top 5 Publishing News Stories 11/7-11/11

number_5_orangeEvery week we recommend 5 publishing news stories that young book professionals should read to feel more connected to what’s going on in the industry. There are only 5, so even if you weren’t able to read a thing all week, these should help keep you in the know.

American book publishers emphasize the power of books after the election. 

PEN America composed a response to Trump’s election win

Independent Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF) approved a plan to merge with the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) this week.

Third quarter profit results came in for several publishers this week: Simon & Schuster, Hachette & HarperCollins.

Amazon has been ordered to refund in-app purchases made by children by federal judge

 

 

Top 5 Publishing News Stories 10/31-11/4

number_5_orangeEvery week we recommend 5 publishing news stories that young book professionals should read to feel more connected to what’s going on in the industry. There are only 5, so even if you weren’t able to read a thing all week, these should help keep you in the know.

Amazon rolled out a reading app for kids.

Next year’s BookExpo America will be retooled and renamed.

Bookstore and library records retain protection from search under the PATRIOT Act.

Ron Boire is leaving Barnes & Noble with $4.8 million in severance. 

Non-Prime members pay more at Amazon‘s physical bookstores.

Bonus: Electric Literature is launching a card game “for the rude and well-read.”

Top 5 Publishing News Stories 10/24-10/28

number_5_orangeEvery week we recommend 5 publishing news stories that young book professionals should read to feel more connected to what’s going on in the industry. There are only 5, so even if you weren’t able to read a thing all week, these should help keep you in the know.

American Paul Beatty’s novel The Sellout won the Man Booker Prize this week.

Maria Pallantethe Register of Copyrights and Director of the United States Copyright Office resigned this week, creating a stir in the copyright community. 

Barnes & Noble is merging their online print and press platforms.

Consumers can now purchase Google Play ebooks as gifts.  

Retailer of audiobooks for independent bookstores, Libro.fm, is now available in over 150 bookstores in the U.S. 

Top 5 Publishing News Stories 10/17-10/21

number_5_orangeEvery week we recommend 5 publishing news stories that young book professionals should read to feel more connected to what’s going on in the industry. There are only 5, so even if you weren’t able to read a thing all week, these should help keep you in the know.

Pearson shares fell 10% following a lackluster sales report.

Spanish police arrested their first-ever ebook pirate.

The bankruptcy of Hanjin Shipping Co. has left many books stranded at sea.

Baker & Taylor Global Publishers Services announced their first four clients.

Following InterVarsity Christian Fellowship‘s announcement that employees who disagree with the ministry’s opposition to same-sex marriage would face “involuntary termination,” InterVarsity Press’s authors have responded to denounce the new policy.

Top 5 Publishing News Stories 10/10-10/14

number_5_orangeEvery week we recommend 5 publishing news stories that young book professionals should read to feel more connected to what’s going on in the industry. There are only 5, so even if you weren’t able to read a thing all week, these should help keep you in the know.

Bob Dylan adds a new honor to his mantelpiece: the Nobel Prize for Literature.

NetGalley bought Bookish.com for an undisclosed price.

The Authors Guild is opening up membership to new and unpublished writers.

Wattpad and Gallery Books are teaming up on a contemporary fairy tale anthology, to be sold at Target.

Aldi is the latest company to branch out into ebooks.

Bonus: meet the man who invented modern bookselling.

The Beginner’s Guide to American Literary Organizations

Believe it or not, it’s not just publishing houses that keep the literary world moving and grooving. There’s a whole host of foundations that keep the American publishing industry on its feet. Here’s a list of the groups, communities, and foundations helping keep literary life fun, exciting, and fair.

National Book Foundationnbf_logo

The National Book Foundation is most famous for their yearly National Book Awards, but they also host a bevy of other literary awards, like Trendsetter favorite 5 Under 35, as well as events like Eat, Drink, and Be Literary, and programs like BookUp, dedicated to youth reading. The National Book Foundation wants American citizens to be excited about American literature of all kinds.

Mission Statement: The mission of the National Book Foundation and the National Book Awards is to celebrate the best of American literature, to expand its audience, and to enhance the cultural value of great writing in America.

Community of Literary Magazines and Presses

clmp-logoThe Community of Literary Magazines and Presses, or CLMP, is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a group of small, independent literary magazines and publishers who team up to make sure they are seen, heard, and appreciated. They provide resources for writers, readers, and publishers as well as put on events to aid their fundraising efforts like LitCrawl, as well as programming to help publishers and magazines be able to better sell their wares.

Condensed Mission Statement: CLMP ensures the vitality of small literary publishers and communicates the art of literary publishing to readers, writers, booksellers, librarians, educators, funders, and other literary stakeholders. We believe small publishers make up an underserved, uniquely vulnerable and essential field that connects the greatest diversity of writers to equally diverse communities of readers.

PEN America

pen-americaPEN America is one of hundreds of PEN International outposts that work together to ensure that the power of the written word is used to usher forward human rights. Through their awards and programs like their Prison Writing Project, World Voices Festival and many other projects, they want words to shape the world into a better, freer place.

Mission Statement: PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world.  Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.


Association of Writers and Writing Programs

awp-logoThe Association of Writers and Writing Programs is perhaps most famously known for their annual conference. It’s the largest writers’ conference in the United States. AWP brings together writers and college writing programs from all over the nation to advance writing and writing education. AWP itself also offers career services, a magazine, and resources on applying to writing programs across the country.

Mission Statement: AWP provides support, advocacy, resources, and community to nearly 50,000 writers, 550 college and university creative writing programs, and 150 writers’ conferences and centers. Our mission is to foster literary achievement, advance the art of writing as essential to a good education, and serve the makers, teachers, students, and readers of contemporary writing.

National Endowment of the Arts

The NEA provides grants nea_logoto individuals and organizations to allow them to pursue creative efforts. The NEA is perhaps most well known for their award, the National Medal of Arts. Previous authors who have won include Sandra Cisneros, Stephen King, Tobias Wolff, and Maxine Hong Kingston. While these winners are not necessarily related to literature, the NEA provides several translation and creative writing grants each year.

Condensed Mission Statement: Established by Congress in 1965, the NEA is the independent federal agency whose funding and support gives Americans the opportunity to participate in the arts, exercise their imaginations, and develop their creative capacities. Through partnerships with state arts agencies, local leaders, other federal agencies, and the philanthropic sector, the NEA supports arts learning, affirms and celebrates America’s rich and diverse cultural heritage, and extends its work to promote equal access to the arts in every community across America.

National Endowment of the Humanities
neh-logoThe NEH provides grant money to groups, institutions, and individuals so that they can continue their work in the humanities. This money goes to all US states and territories. Not unlike the NEA, these grants go to humanities beyond the written word, but several authors have won this award throughout the years, such as Ron Chernow, Isabel Wilkerson, Elaine Pagels, and James McBride from 2015 alone.

Mission Statement: The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) is an independent federal agency created in 1965. It is one of the largest funders of humanities programs in the United States.

Because democracy demands wisdom, NEH serves and strengthens our republic by promoting excellence in the humanities and conveying the lessons of history to all Americans. The Endowment accomplishes this mission by awarding grants for top-rated proposals examined by panels of independent, external reviewers.

Center for Fiction

center-for-fictionHoused in New York City’s historical Mercantile Library, the Center for Fiction is exactly as advertised: a single site that serves as an event space and bookstore. The Center for Fiction also gives out several different annual awards, including The First Novel Prize, and puts on classes and reading groups. Their goal is to create a community of readers and writers around fiction in whatever way possible.

Condensed Mission Statement:  The Center for Fiction is the only nonprofit literary organization in the U.S. solely dedicated to celebrating fiction, and we work every day to connect readers and writers.

We recognize the best in the world of fiction through our annual awards, and we operate one of the few independent fiction book shops in the country.


Readers, publishers, and authors alike have these organizations – and many others! – to thank for keeping America’s literary trajectory on the upward track.

Top 5 Publishing News Stories 10/3-10/7

number_5_orangeEvery week we recommend 5 publishing news stories that young book professionals should read to feel more connected to what’s going on in the industry. There are only 5, so even if you weren’t able to read a thing all week, these should help keep you in the know.

The possible unmasking of Elena Ferrante has drawn swift condemnation from her fans.

National Book Awards finalists were revealed yesterday morning.

Amazon launched a new benefit for Prime subscribers: increased ebook access.

Penguin Random House and Crown Publishing Group are getting into the serialized fiction game on October 11.

New imprints are forthcoming from Harlequin and from Sarah Jessica Parker.