Business Musings: IP Is The New Frontlist (Part Two)

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For six months now, I’ve been contemplating the sentence, “IP is the new frontlist.” I wrote about the implications of that twice in the past two months, first as part of the fear-based decisionmaking blogs, and then in the previous post called “Untapped.”

First a few terms for those of you who don’t know. IP is intellectual property—which is what you create when you write a book. (If you don’t understand this, pick up the Copyright Handbook from Nolo Press, and read the damn thing.)

Frontlist is a traditional publishing term for the new books being promoted to the bookstores. (Trad pub was and is all about bookstores.) Frontlist is the place that traditional publishing puts all of its advertising dollars, in fact, all of its efforts and expenditures.

The backlist is everything they published before. Some of the backlist is still in print. Most is not. Rarely does the backlist get revived.

This is the way the entire entertainment industry used to run. It took a long time for the movie/TV industry to figure out that people wanted to see old movies, for example. Turner Classic Movies was a revelation when it started in the 1980s. It could generate ad revenue, because people liked watching the channel. It took a while for the movie companies to put old movies on video, and even longer for them to see value in old TV shows on video.

Then Netflix came along with its gigantic appetite for content, and back in the days when they mailed you the DVDs on a subscription model, they discovered that people liked to binge old TV shows.

It took a couple of decades for the movie/TV industry to put all of that together. They weren’t sure how to handle it at first, which is why we saw so many old shows getting revived and revamped.

In the entertainment industry, we were all raised to think new is better, so of course, we had to make new TV shows out of old ones, and new movies out of old ones. Slowly, the realization came that new isn’t always better. You don’t improve on greatness.

So when the pandemic hit as the industry was trying to deal with streaming, they were primed to look at ways to change the industry. Prime time—the TV word for frontlist—wasn’t that prime anymore. People watched it at their own pace and in their own time.

That’s happening with books, but traditional publishers still don’t see it. Read the previous two blogs that I linked to above to see what I mean.

The problem is that most indie writers follow the traditional publishing model on everything. Indies put all their hopes and dreams and money into the newest book of theirs. They ignore their backlist. They think the only thing that has value is the book they’re releasing right now.

It’s not a surprise that indies think this way. After all, we were all raised in the same entertainment environment. For the past 150 years, books have been produce—something that spoils as it ages and needs to be tossed out. All entertainment has been based on the attitude that the latest is the greatest.

That attitude has seeped into our subconscious whether we like it or not.

But if you look at your own behavior, you’ll find that you’re not consuming the latest things all the time. You might stream a new show, but you’ll also stream a new-to-you show, based on recommendations from friends.

If you have a big To-Be-Read pile, like I do, you’ll read the latest novel followed by a novel that’s been on your shelf since 2015. None of us consume only newly published/newly released things. Let’s exclude returning to old favorites (which is a blog topic all its own). Most of us consume new-to-us things all the time.

So…step back from that for a moment and think about it.

If new-to-you is the model, then most indie writers are going about promotion all wrong.

Instead of always focusing on the real new product, writers need to focus on the project that makes the most sense to promote.

What do I mean by that? Well, it depends. So you’re going to release a new book in your series. You can market that book to the people who’ve already bought the series and to your newsletter of regular readers.

Or you can revamp and spruce up the series for the new release…and do a new-to-you promotion that will bring the first book in the series to the attention of people who have never read the series.

That’s a tried-and-true way to promote, one that even traditional publishing does.

But there are other ways to do a new-to-you promotion. You can pay attention to what’s happening in the culture and promote around that.

Imagine, for example, that suddenly books about Hawaii are in demand—and you just happened to publish a standalone Hawaii book five years ago. Time to put some promotion behind that, to catch the Hawaii wave, so to speak.

But what if you have nothing that’s au courant? What if you have a lot of books and some faithful readers and that’s it?

Well, then, time to set up a schedule to revisit your old titles. Rather than constantly improving the new, think about doing new covers and new promotion on your older works.

Set up a schedule—this series gets new covers and a refreshed interior in 2022, that one gets its revival in 2023, and so on.

Make sure all of your books are available to readers on all platforms. Take advantage of group marketing efforts like bundles—or create bundles of your own—so that readers can get introduced to all that you do.

What do I mean about bundles of your own? Say you wrote five standalone books about pets. Do a pet bundle—buy four and get one free—and sell it on your website for a short time only. Or put all of the books together in a pet bundle and make it available as a gigantic ebook, for a discounted price. (Cheaper than you could buy the books as a standalone.)

There are as many ideas as there are books.

Remember the inspiration for this: IP is the new prime time/ the new frontlist.

Intellectual property is what you’re putting your advertising dollars behind. Not the latest novel.

What the TV studios are doing is putting as much of their catalog as possible on a streaming service. For NBC, it’s Peacock. For CBS, it’s Paramount Plus. And so on.

All of these channels contain new and old product. Some allow you to binge an entire new season of a new show all at once. All of them allow you to watch something that’s been around a while, but is new to you, in one long lump, if you so choose.

That’s the kind of attitude we writers need to our own work. We need to be aware that there is no frontlist or backlist anymore. There’s just the work.

Readers will find you through a variety of ways, and then they’ll follow their own path of reading your work—provided your work is easily accessible to them.

You might make it simpler by having a reading order on your website or do the old marketing trick: If you liked this book, then you will like that book.

It takes a different way of thinking, a way that incorporates all that you do as your work, rather than just your current project.

In the beginning, it was easy to design our own indie publishing businesses like traditional publishing. But that industry was started in a different century, and still follows those norms.

We don’t have to. We can and should invent new norms. And we need to adjust our thinking completely to IP is the new frontlist.

We put our advertising dollars, our promotion mindset, and our way of discussing our work into the new-to-you idea. All of our novels and our short stories as something that can be marketed now.

Heck, you might even want to wait to promote the new book until you’ve finished a few other books—and bundle all of them together. Or you might want to do promotions of existing material to jumpstart a project that won’t see the light of day until 2024.

Do you have a bunch of short stories on the same theme? Put them in a collection. Offer them—one per week—to the readers of your newsletter. Come up with some cool creative idea I haven’t even thought of yet.

But look at all of your writing projects as if they are of equal value. The old ones are worth the exact same amount of love that you give to your new projects. They are equal to each other.

Readers only care about new in two instances.

The first instance is a series. Readers want the next installment of the story. They’ll want that new book as soon as its published because they want the story to continue. When the story ends, they won’t have the same level of desire to pick up the next non-series book.

That’s not a failure on your part. That just shows the power of a story that someone likes.

The second instance is the true fan. The true fan has read everything of yours that they can find. They want the next book because it’s the only unread book of yours in their library. They’re always going to want the latest because they want everything that you do.

Other than that, readers don’t care about new. They care about new-to-them.

If you keep that in mind, you’ll do a lot better in managing your business, and managing your product (your books and stories). You’ll also take the pressure off the newest, latest, most important book.

The next book is just the next book, another piece of inventory in your intellectual property library. Yeah, it’s fun to have another book out, but it won’t be this major big deal, because it’s what you do.

Then you can be as creative about your limited promotion time as you are in your actual storytelling. You can have fun with it, if your promotional attitude is always on making sure your books fall into that new-to-you category that brings new readers to your work.

I know many of you are reading this and saying to yourself, Yeah, I get this. It sounds easy.

That’s the point. It sounds easy. But that old entertainment-must-be-new attitude is deeply engrained in all of us, as writers and as readers. We need to work hard daily in shoving that ancient attitude into the past, where it belongs.

We’re writers. We produce IP. IP has a lot of uses. One of them is appealing to readers who are new to us. We can do that, if we see what we do as an entire piece, rather than as one brand-new item in a sea of old stuff.

It’s a tough shift to make, but I think we can all do it.

It’ll just take a bit of time.


Over the years, this weekly blog has created a lot of IP. I’ve developed a lot of books out of it, but, if you’ll look, you’ll find that all of the blog posts from the past 12 years are still on this website.

Yeah, I haven’t spruced them all up, but they’re here, some in old annoying format, some with out-of-date assumptions, some dealing with controversies long gone, and many dealing with concepts still relevant today.

I love the way this new world means that nothing disappears for good, and people can discover the old stuff relatively easily.

I’ve done this all because the blogs are reader-supported.

If you feel like supporting the blog on an on-going basis, then please head to my Patreon page.

If you liked this post, and want to show your one-time appreciation, the place to do that is PayPal. If you go that route, please include your email address in the notes section, so I can say thank you.

Which I am going to say right now. Thank you!

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“Business Musings: IP Is The New Frontlist (Part Two),” copyright © 2021 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / shandrus


6 thoughts on “Business Musings: IP Is The New Frontlist (Part Two)

  1. I have a series I’m doing a spruce up of right now. I published the first book 10 (!) years ago. New covers are done. Now I have to revamp all the blurbs. These books used to sell enough to cover my mortgage. Not so much anymore. But I’m hoping this spit-shine will help capture new readers. The current covers definitely look a bit moldy…er…dated. ?

    The final trick will be to figure out how to let those potential new readers know about these refreshed books.

  2. Keeper ideas, as usual. “Look at all of your writing projects as if they are of equal value.”

    It may be that one more reason we don’t value “new to you” is the same as some blind spots in writing itself: our past stories are never new to *us*. We may be imagining readers as a bit like ourselves (and those True Fans), as having made their way through everything out there so far and drawing a line between old and new. But in fact most readers would have missed the stories we released before they discovered us, and might have let some more pass by since then if they didn’t hear a reason that grabbed them.

    And those are opportunities we can keep trying for. When we think like the reader instead of the writer..

  3. Thank you for saying this about the so-called backlist, Kris.

    During June and July, I promoted the first novel I released. It was ten years old, but I’d updated the cover., plus there were 8 novels in the series as well as 4 shorter related works. Most of my writer friends said I shouldn’t waste my time or money on this series since it was “so old”.

    The promotion not only perked up the sales of the entire series, but it had two unexpected results: (1) new readers picked up, not my other paranormal series, but my superhero and epic fantasy series, and (2) sales didn’t slump August like they’ve done for the past ten years because of public schools being back in session. Seriously, I could time it down to the day Cy-Fair ISD in Houston started classes. Even with the pandemic, the same slump occurred in 2020 because parents and teachers had their hands full.

    I know this is anecdotal, but it was interesting to see, and it gives me some ideas for the summer of 2022. Thanks again for confirming I’m not a total idiot. *grin*

  4. I suggest one extension to the concept of “revamp and spruce up” that commercial publishing just doesn’t do. Here’s a hint: Han Shot First!

    Well, whether he did or not, that’s a key point. One of the big advantages that indie writers have, when reissuing their backlists, is the control and ability to correct certain kinds of errors. Production errors, of course (I’m thinking in particular of a doorstop-sized third volume in a series in the 1990s that was broken into two mass-market paperbacks… omitting half of a chapter at the end of the first volume… and that error was not corrected for nearly a decade, despite two “cover revisions” of that work). Typos, of course. Inverted character names that misidentify the speaker in the middle of chapter 17, of course. Misidentification of an organization (“It’s Fountain International, not Fountain International School!”), of course.

    There’s a decent chance that, as an indie, you’ve been told about errors like the above. (Maybe even hounded about them if they turned a quotation in a foreign language into an obscenity due to an unfortunate page break. Fortunately, that author had a good sense of humor about the whole thing… the publisher, not so much.)

    Substantive revision is a trickier question. So is retconned continuity. But objective errors? Fix ’em!

    P.S. Given the marksmanship standards in the Star Wars universe, I’m not sure it matters whether Han shot first…

  5. I would also add that if people writers are looking back over their old covers, they should also check out their book descriptions and see if they can write a better one now.

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