Business Musings: Frontlist? Backlist? Books!
Maybe two months ago, at our weekly professional writers’ lunch, we discussed frontlist and backlist, and how old-fashioned those terms are now. I came home, wrote that on a sticky note for a future blog post, pasted it to my computer, and planned to get to it.
This is that post.
In the meantime, I read part of Carolyn Reidy’s keynote address on September 18 at the Book Industry Study Group’s annual meeting, as excerpted on the publishing aggregation site, The Passive Voice. Reidy is president and CEO of Simon & Schuster. Passive Guy, who runs the site, added a snarky comment at the end of the excerpt:
Big Publishing discovers Marketing 101 (sort of).
And he’s right, for as far as it goes. A lot of the stuff that Reidy says in her remarks are Marketing 101 for any other business. But traditional publishing hasn’t had to do real marketing for more than fifty years now, and has no idea how to do it.
The article PG excerpted is “Carolyn Reidy at BISG: ‘The Sales Power of Metadata’” by John Mutter on Shelf Awareness. I urge you to read the entire article. (You have to scroll down Monday, September 21’s articles.) A lot of that basic marketing PG snarfs at is stuff that indie publishers don’t do either—which is rather mind-boggling, considering most indies are only dealing with five to ten books.
As I mentioned last week, for those with five to ten books, basic marketing on each title is easy. It takes little concentration and even less organization. But when you get to where I am—400 short stories, assorted collections, 50 [?] novels, six active series, six more starting up, and so on—even basic marketing is hard.
Reidy is the CEO of Simon and Schuster, which deals with so many books per year that most people can’t imagine it. So I’m going to help you. 🙂 Get ready for your brain to explode:
Simon & Schuster has 12 active imprints for adult fiction. Imprints are book lines, standalone, with their own catalogues and their own voice (in theory). On its website, S&S defines the imprints this way:
The Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing Group includes a number of publishing units that offer books in several formats. Each unit has its own publisher, editorial group and publicity department. Common sales and business departments support all the units. The managing editorial, art, production, marketing, and subsidiary rights departments have staff members dedicated to the individual imprints.
S&S has 10 active imprints for children’s fiction of one form or another. S&S has two audio imprints.
S&S International lists three major companies (not imprints): S&S UK, S&S Australia, and S&S Canada. These companies publish different books (with some overlap) from the U.S. company. Those three companies have their own imprints. For kicks and giggles, I clicked on the U.S. link for S&S Australia and got this little note:
Simon & Schuster Australia is one of the region’s Top 10 book publishers. We publish and distribute fabulous books in Australia and New Zealand across a broad range of fiction, non-fiction and children’s categories under our local and international imprints, including Aladdin, Atheneum, Atria, Fireside, Free Press, Howard, Kangaroo Press, Little Simon, Pocket, Scribner, Simon & Schuster, Simon Spotlight Entertainment and Touchstone. Simon & Schuster Australia also acts as the local sales and distribution partners for Duncan Baird Publishing (mind, body & spirit, well-being, and cultural reference) and Kyle Cathie (illustrated cooking and lifestyle books).
Now, consider this: In 1939, Simon & Schuster started America’s first paperback publisher, Pocket Books, when S&S was still wet behind the ears. (The company was founded with crossword books in 1924.) It has had corporate ownership of one form or another since 1975.
According to Wikipedia, S&S has at least nine former or inactive imprints. This number is on the low side. I know of a few that aren’t on Wikipedia’s list.
So, think about this: S&S has been publishing fiction and nonfiction books continually since 1939. Some of those books have gone out of print. Some of them have had their rights reverted to the authors. Many of those books were licensed before all the changes in the U.S. copyright laws in the 1970s. Some of those books (very few) have slid into the public domain.
According to S&S’s corporate overview, S&S “publishes approximately 2000 titles annually.” The word “approximately” is theirs, not mine. In 2014, S&S placed 294 titles on the New York Times bestseller list. Individual titles—different books.
Now, let’s pretend that S&S has consistently published 2000 titles per year in the 21st century. (Honestly, it was probably more pre-Recession, but we’re waving our magic wand—and guessing.) Since a few of those S&S books are mine, I can safely tell you that S&S still controls most of the rights to those 21st century books. (S&S is almost impossible to get rights back from and has been that way for almost a decade.)
This means that for the past 15 years, S&S has published 2000 titles per year. Which means it controls the license of roughly 30,000 titles.
Thirty thousand different book titles. And that doesn’t count the titles it still controls from the 1990s or the 1980s or the renewed licenses for books that have been continuously in print from the 1970s, 1960s, 1950s, and so on. Or the books it has under contract for 2016, 2017, 2018….
I have no idea what S&S’s book inventory is, how many rights and titles it still controls, but it’s at least 50,000 titles.
Makes my roughly 500 seem like nothing—and an indie-published writers’ titles seem link a speck of sand on a gigantic swath of beach.
Consider all of those 50,000 book titles. Then realize that the bulk of those titles are merely names on a spreadsheet. Long ago, the acquiring editor was fired, downsized, acquired by another imprint, moved to a different job, or, gosh-golly-gee, dead. Many of the earlier titles (those still in print from the 1950s upward) are controlled by estates. The authors are dead too.
What this means is that no one who controls the rights to these still-in-print book titles knows what’s in the books. Nor does anyone know what awards the books won, whether or not they hit a bestseller list back in the day, or if the author had done something that’s newsworthy to a 2015 audience.
You can post here about how stupid it is for a corporation whose livelihood is based on content doesn’t know the content of the properties it owns—and I will agree with that statement.
However, mentioning that will change nothing. It’s a fact. It is what it is.
No one in these big conglomerates (and the other Big 5 publishers are the same) knows what their backlist is composed of at all.
Now, in that context, consider the following statements from Carolyn Reidy. She was speaking to a traditional publishing audience. In that context (the context of 50,000 titles or more), realize just how revolutionary her comments are.
“…exercise a deep knowledge of our entire catalogue and determine how our books relate to what’s happening in the world today,” whether that involves an entertainment or media hit or to tie in with a current event. And now it’s a part of S&S’s weekly marketing meeting, she said, to bring up those and a range of other opportunities, whether a book is listed for a prize or mentioned on a TV show or in a tweet by a celebrity.
Making these connections applies to the full backlist (which is “really frontlist to the consumer who hasn’t read it”), and needs to go from monthly and weekly planning to “looking at our lists through a lens of daily opportunities.”
These statements are revolutionary because they change the entire focus in the publishing part of the huge S&S conglomerate. For the past fifty years or more, all of traditional publishing had limitations. Bookstores were small, first in comparison to the chain stores that sprouted up later, and then in comparison to the unlimited virtual shelf space of online competitors.
Shelf space really and truly was limited. Books that didn’t sell had to be pulled off shelves to make room for books that might sell. Books that sold well stayed on the shelves, and books that sold a little stayed on the shelves longer than books that didn’t sell at all.
This need to churn product turned into the velocity model. A big push to get the books onto the shelf and selling immediately so that they would stay on the shelf—for two weeks, a month, maybe three months, but rarely longer than that.
It was a necessary business model for its time that started to fade in the 1990s and has been slowly dying ever since. Well, not so slowly now. 2015 will probably be the year that traditional publishing realizes the velocity model is well and truly dead.
Hence, Carolyn Reidy’s comments. She once tried to prevent this decline in the velocity model, which is one of the reasons she participated in the ebook price fixing that got her corporation slapped by the courts and the U.S. Justice Department. The traditional publishing business has not improved since those fateful conversations with Apple five years ago. In fact, things for big publishers have gotten worse.
And, as those of us who understand big business were trying to say back then, wait. The big publishers will catch a clue that the business has irrevocably changed.
Carolyn Reidy’s statements show that. Now she, and the other Big 5 publishers (and the other traditional publishers—those with 500 books per year instead of 2000), have decided to change the way they do business.
They will have to hire people to examine the history of their inactive books—what we used to call the backlist. Those new employees will have to read the backlist, rebrand it, and figure out how to market it.
Then, those new employees will have to continually update the inventory on a daily basis. If an independent film company wins the Cannes Film Festival with a film made from a thirty-year-old novel that sold 5,000 copies in its lifetime, the new employees at the publishing house that still retains the rights to the novel can update the metadata to reflect that. If some Turkish writer who has had only one book published in translation in the U.S. wins the Nobel Prize for literature for her body of work, those employees at the U.S. house where the English language book is in print can change the metadata that day to reflect the win, while the company works on rebranding that book (and acquiring and translating the rest of her work).
If some community chooses To The Lighthouse by Virginia Wolfe as its Community Reads book, the metadata from its publisher will reflect that. (By the way, when I typed this, I looked up To The Lighthouse to doublecheck the title, and found that it’s still in print from a variety of sellers, all with five- to twenty-five-year-old covers, all of them ugly, even for their day.)
But these are new jobs at the traditional publishing houses and new ways of thinking about publishing and brand new ways—for a traditional publisher—to market books.
The task, when looked at from the perspective of 50,000 titles is overwhelming.
In that keynote address, Reidy went on to speculate that the plateauing of ebook sales at Simon & Schuster “occurred in part because in early digital days, readers buying a new book from an author would buy their backlist, too, something that’s apparently not happening at the same rate.”
She is truly speculating here, and she misses part of the big picture, which Data Guy and Hugh Howey have dealt with in the Authors Earnings Reports last month (yes, I’ll get to those in a future blog post Real Soon Now). Those of us who work as hybrid or indie writers know that the “shadow industry” as the Authors Earnings Report calls it has continued to grow, while traditionally published books have slipped in sales—mostly due to ridiculous pricing.
(For example, Little, Brown and Company’s $12.99 ebook edition for Ian Rankin’s The Beat Goes On actively discouraged me from assigning the entire book at the last minute to my students at last week’s mystery workshop. Instead, I waited until they all arrived, gave them my hardback copy of the book, and had them read only one story in it. [I would have had them read at least three if they could have had the ebook edition one week ahead.] Not only did that ridiculous price lose 12 or more sales for the book, it also discouraged these avid mystery readers from sampling more of Rankin’s work, which probably resulted in a missed opportunity for even more sales.)
Reidy is right about one thing: In the early days of the ebook revolution, readers were picking up backlist at an astonishing rate. What Reidy misunderstands is that those backlist sales pointed to a huge problem in traditional publishing.
Readers were hungry for those backlist books, so the readers snatched them up, even in badly scanned editions with typos on every page. Readers generally don’t care if a book was published last week or five years ago. Readers only care about writers who are new to them.
Readers are the original binge consumers. Readers find a writer whose work they like and read everything the writer has done.
Nowadays, everything by that writer can remain in print—if the writer is indie or hybrid.
But not if the writer is traditionally published.
Because there’s another whole set of employees that traditional publishers need to hire. The traditional publishers need to beef up their legal department, and have many employees finding and reading old contracts, to see if the publishing company still has the rights to the book, the rights to reprint, the rights to reprint in an ebook, the rights to reprint in paper…
It’s a mess.
And every contract is different, even contracts with the same author. The manpower involved in implementing the tasks in Reidy’s keynote address is astonishing.
Think of it this way. Simon & Schuster is a gigantic cruise ship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, heading from the UK to the East Coast of the U.S. Suddenly, that ship gets orders to head to Australia. The ship has to plot a new route, figure out the difficulties of doing that, refuel, stock up on new supplies, and at some point, begin to move in that new direction.
The cruise ship won’t get to Australia on the same day it would have arrived in New York. That ship will take much, much longer to get to Australia.
It’s exceedingly hard to move a ship of that size.
But indie publishers are anything from a cigarette boat to a top-of-the-line yacht. The top-of-the-line yacht will have more trouble changing its direction as well (having some of those cruise-ship problems on a smaller scale), but the top-of-the-line yacht is built to travel the ocean. A cigarette boat is not.
We all have our issues. But we all need to stop thinking in the terms “frontlist” and “backlist.” I love Reidy’s phrase: backlist is “really frontlist to the consumer who hasn’t read it.”
But she doesn’t take it far enough. She’s only starting on this understanding.
Because a reader will get frustrated—deeply frustrated—if that book she’s heard about doesn’t come in the format she wants. That format might be paper. It might be a Kindle ebook. It might be a Kobo ebook. It might be audio.
Our Sunday professional writers lunch came up with a different way of thinking about back- and frontlist.
If a title isn’t accessible, it’s not going to get read. Not in this modern world. So the inaccessible title is the backlist—or out of print—title. And that will determine a reader’s purchasing decisions.
In other words, in the case of discoverability, all accessible books are created equal. They are new to the reader, and the reader can buy them at will.
But inaccessible books become forgotten books. Readers will try to get them, and then, after a few continual failures (including prices so high on rare book sites as to be unaffordable), the reader will move on to another book.
The days when readers would haunt used bookstores, trying to find that one copy of a missing book in a series are gone. Now, if a writer’s books aren’t all in print, the reader writes to the writer, demanding to know why. Explaining arcane contract terms simply won’t satisfy the reader, who just wants the book.
What does all of this mean?
A bunch of things to all writers.
First, the traditional publishers will implement that course correction. They will change the direction of that cruise ship. Their entire business depends on it. It will take years, but eventually, all of their “backlist” will become accessible.
Therefore, in the future, readers will expect accessibility even more than they do now.
Also, as traditional publishers change course, it will become even harder than it is now for a writer to get her rights reverted to a book. Right now, it’s hard, but not quite impossible. In a few years, it’ll be impossible. That asset (and that’s what a book is in business) has just become even more valuable to the publisher.
Second, once traditional publishers complete their course correction, an advantage that hybrid and indie writers have had since the beginning of this revolution will disappear.
In the beginning, lo these five years ago, writers who controlled their own backlist put that backlist out. Books that had been inaccessible became available in lovely editions (not the crap traditional publishers were putting out back then), and readers flocked to those older titles.
Readers will continue to read the older titles, but readers don’t care who publishes anything. They only care about the writer as a brand (like Raisin Bran), the series (also a brand), and the book itself. The brand is what sells the books, not the fact that it was packaged by JoeWriter or Simon & Schuster.
So, indies will no longer be the primary source of backlist titles. That will have no effect on indie sales—again, readers don’t care—but that divide between traditional and indie will close up a bit.
The divide will remain in the one area that savvy writers already understand: the older titles will pay the writer more if the writer publishes the book than if some conglomerate does. But readers won’t give a rat’s ass at all.
They just want the book when they want it.
Third, the velocity model will cease to be the only model in traditional publishing. That’s already happening. I looked at my BookBub emails last week, and I was startled to see books published by William Morrow, Bantam Books, Harlequin, HarperCollins, and other Big 5 imprints on Bookbub’s daily deals list.
I’ve been a Bookbub subscriber almost from the beginning, and way back when, every book advertised through Bookbub was indie or self-published. Last week, only about one-third were. I have no idea how that reflects across all of Bookbub’s offerings over the entire year, but the presence of so many traditional publishers shows me that this sea-change I’m talking about—the decline of the velocity model—is already well underway.
That means competition for post-publication ad space will go up. It also means that traditional publishers will not just concentrate their efforts and their dollars on those first few weeks after publication.
It will remain to be seen whether or not they’ll continue to promote books that sell poorly out of the gate. But they will change their behavior to be a lot more like indies.
In a nutshell, this means that the business we know as publishing is changing. It’s finally starting to reflect the way the modern world works. It has taken traditional publishers five years to realize that they can’t bring back the days when they were the only players in town. So they’ll start playing the new game.
With millions of dollars and entire companies behind them, they’ll play the game in a different way than indies will. But traditional publishers will also trod the paths that indies forged. As those Bookbub ads show, traditional publishers already are.
What do indies do? Keep collecting our 70% instead of 25% of net revenues. (25% of net revenues often comes out to pennies on the dollar, which is another blog post.) This change will affect readers more than it will affect us.
But it also means that hybrid writers have to be exceedingly careful. When a writer licenses a book to a traditional publisher, the writer is going to have to realize that the license will be for the life of the copyright, unless the writer has clout to get a better deal or unless the writer is hybrid only outside of the U.S.
If a writer goes to traditional for short-term discoverability and ad boost, then the writer better be prepared to get paid a small fraction for that book for the life of the book.
A writer’s choices are no different than they were last year. Indie, hybrid or traditional. But the traditional/hybrid path has become a lot more rigid, and will become even more rigid as traditional publishers hire those new employees, learn how to properly use metadata, and eventually hire people who actually know business and marketing to consumers, not just to bookstores.
Indies—your job also remains the same. You need to get your work in front of readers. But you need to get it in front of all readers. Leaving your work in one store only [cough: Amazon] becomes an even worse business decision than it was a year ago.
Traditional publishers can make deals with big stores like Amazon that allow the traditional publishers to participate in special deals without requiring the trad pubs to have the exclusivity that indies are required to have. So, if a traditionally published book is in Kindle Unlimited, that book is also available on Barnes & Noble. No self-published author can do that.
Again, it comes down to accessibility. As the traditional publishers make their books available on all platforms, in lovely editions, at all times, so too should indie publishers.
Because if the buzz word is now going to be accessibility, then readers will get mad at books that aren’t accessible—in the right format for that reader.
This attitude will only grow stronger as time goes on. Be prepared for it.
Make your published books accessible on all platforms now. Train your readers to find your stuff everywhere. Keep your readers happy.
Because that’ll be the key to success in the next five years—for all writers and publishers, not just a select few.
I hope these blogs make you happy. I know they give me the time to think about trends in publishing, which I appreciate. I also appreciate the support for the blog, in the shares, likes, and comments both personal and private. I also appreciate the donations, which keep me blogging.
Thanks so much for the support.
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“Business Musings: Frontlist? Backlist? Books!” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo Inc. / Tawng
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