Business Musings: The Sad State of the Traditional Publishing Backlist (The Year in Review 3)
A quietly astonishing moment happened on November 9, the first day of 20Booksto50K, in a panel titled “High-Powered Authors.” Multiple New York Times bestselling author Kat Martin said something that caught fire when the video of the panel went live.
At least three people sent me the video and pointed me to that moment, about 38 minutes into the panel. For those of you who don’t know, Kat Martin has written more than 65 novels, had them published traditionally, and has hit bestseller lists for three decades now.
I only ran into her once, and that was at RWA in 2001. Back then, RWA had an impress-the-others feature that Kat, and her writer-husband Larry, were very good at. Her jewelry alone for the important dinner on editors night would have paid off my car.
Her comments on this panel were all good, many of them about the importance of focus and of writing daily. She has published a few backlist titles through a specialty ebook press, but she’s not self-published. (I had no idea that 20Books had invited traditionally published authors this year, but they had for some reason. Or maybe the trad pubbed writers expressed an interest. Lord knows, they need to be interested in self- or indie-publishing.)
Anyway, at that 38-minute mark, Kat spoke up about her backlist. She was speaking after indie writers who were talking about the importance of the backlist, and how they kept the backlist fresh, how they actually made consistent money from their backlists.
When she received the mic, Kat said:
I think [the backlist is] a real negative for traditional publishing. Once you sell them your book, they have your book and they own it for years. And they do pay you a nice fat fee up front, so it’s kind of a trade off, but it’s not a long-term, it’s not a retirement thing, because they’re making money off the backlist. You don’t. They give you a percentage, but…the big money, I think, for long term is probably in self publishing.
Note that again: the big money, I think, for long term is probably in self publishing.
Traditionally published writers have said that privately for years now, with that same sense of sadness that Kat Martin had. They know their books are tied up, and not really usable. These days, traditional publishers are extremely unwilling to revert the rights to books, playing all kinds of games to keep the books “in print,” when in reality they’re very hard to find.
And that “nice fat fee up front”? It’s not so nice or so fat anymore.
An article on literary novels in the September Vanity Fair pointed out that Sally Rooney’s Normal People sold 325,000 copies in paperback, as if that was a good number.
Paperbacks, back when I met Kat Martin, weren’t successful unless they sold a million copies. If they were trade paperbacks, then half a million. Otherwise, they were midlist.
Last summer, Jesmyn Ward revealed that the advance for her follow-up to the National Book Award-winning Salvage the Bones was a mere $100,000—for Sing, Unburied, Sing, which also won a National Book Award. It’s telling that you can win American publishing’s highest honor and still (after taxes and agent fees) make not quite enough up front on your next book to buy a late-model Lexus sedan.
That advance is tiny for an award-winning novel…or used to be tiny, back in the day. But as I’ve been saying here, advances for traditionally published writers have been declining for more than a decade. And traditional publishers have been playing with the percentages so that when backlist books sell, they no longer earn what they used to.
What is traditional publishing doing wrong with their backlist? Pretty much everything. They’re throwing it out there, and hoping someone will buy it. They’re not repackaging it, they’re not really paying much attention to it at all.
One of the biggest shocks for me came at the end of this year when ViacomCBS partnered with Wattpad.
My first question when I heard of the deal was What’s Wattpad’s TOS? I needed to know what was going on with the copyrights of all of the people who’ve posted to Wattpad. A quick look at the TOS and the FAQs implies that the writer owns the content that they post to Wattpad. This seems clear, and unless a deep read of the TOS proves otherwise, then that’s the case. So copyrights don’t seem to be in jeopardy here—yet, anyway. (Writers can still sign a bad contract, and often do.) Certainly, those FAQs make it hard for Wattpad to copyright squat, at least if a case goes to court.
Once I settled that issue to my own satisfaction, however, my second question became something else. Why would ViacomCBS, which is selling its book publishing arm, Simon & Schuster, partner with Wattpad for the content? (ViacomCBS is actually part of that lawsuit filed by the DOJ earlier this year. If S&S merges with Random Penguin, as planned, that brings the Big Five to the Big Four.)
My second question was this: Why on earth would ViacomCBS make a deal to “work with the publisher’s entertainment arm to mine stories from Wattpad and its sister site Webtoon,” when ViacomCBS already owns millions of backlist title through the extreme licenses that Simon & Schuster demanded in its contracts for decades?
Well, the answer is simple. Really simple.
Data. The kind of data that traditional publishers have never ever ever bothered to put together.
Three years ago, in a Digiday article about Wattpad using its platform to sell stories to streaming services, the author, Tim Peterson, talked to Bernard Gershon of GershonMedia about this very thing. GershonMedia, a quick web search tells me, advises companies from start-ups to Fortune 500 corporations on starting or expanding their digital video business.
Thirty years ago, even if your book’s been published and sells a million copies, that’s a hit in book publishing, but then the movie flops. So this [Wattpad] is a much more data-driven way to find out if [these stories] actually resonate with an audience.
Oh, that makes so much sense to me. I’ve been asking for years—decades, really—why traditional publishing didn’t use any data at all in making its deals. It frustrated the heck out of me. It also meant that smart agents (back in the day) could truly game the system.
That’s how Andre Norton became one of the most underpaid writers of her generation, while idiot editors like—oh, shit. I’m not going to speak ill of the dead despite the temptation—could give $100,000 advances to their poor-selling buddies. The money came from Andre Norton’s book sales, not from the sales of books by the p-s buddies. And that’s how one idiot editor bankrupted an entire book company in the 1980s, but still managed to land on his feet and wreak havoc throughout the industry for the next thirty years.
Chain bookstores brought some of that data-driven accountability into publishing, but not a lot. Publishers had to use that data kicking and screaming—years after it accumulated—as they made new deals for their authors. It’s hard to argue for books that cost $100,000 just for the advance, but sold maybe 10,000 copies, while the poor author who got $5,000 sold 100,000 copies. Eventually, Andre Norton got the recognition she deserved, but oh, so many others did not.
I really love how Emily Gould describes this phenomenon in that Vanity Fair piece I mentioned above:
Modern American book publishing began to take shape in the early 1900s. Highly educated, overwhelmingly male editors and agents did handshake deals over three-martini lunches at the Century club, then went back to the office and sexually harassed their secretaries. This continued until two weeks ago, or maybe the late ’90s/early ’00s, when Bertelsmann bought Random House, Viacom took control of Simon & Schuster, and publishing started acting slightly more like a corporate industry than a perpetual Yale reunion. But lunches, while less boozy, are still the site of agents’ and editors’ most important work. Novels can sell at auction for well upwards of a million, sometimes based on little more than a hunch.
Yes, still. Even in these data-driven days. Or as Emily Gould puts it:
The dearth of market research prevents literature, for now, from being packaged based on algorithms, reverse engineered—like an Olivia Rodrigo album or a CBD soda in a lavender can—to appeal to a specific demographic.
Wattpad and other sites like it have a wealth of information. And some of it is forward-facing. Much of it is not, though. Partnering with Wattpad gives ViacomCBS—and all the other companies that have partnered with it—access to the private data, things like engagement time, how often things are reread, completion rates, and the parts of the world where a story is read the most. Wattpad can also see, in real time, when a subgenre is on the rise.
Data doesn’t guarantee a movie or tv series success, but it gives that project a leg up. Of course, the movie or the series needs to be good in its own right, but even if it’s not, the number of eyeballs on the first show or the first screenings increase when it’s a known and loved property.
Traditional publishing is still suffering from the heady days of dictated content. The publishers determined what was put into the world, where that content was available, and what we all read.
Sometimes, readers had a choice between something rather blah and something that was a little less blah. Now, readers have a lot of choice, and they’re making those choices in places that are not always intuitive—at least to traditional publishers.
Here’s the other problem that traditional publishers have. They have no idea what’s in their backlist.
For decades, they thought the backlist unimportant unless an author “took off.” Then that backlist, from that author, got spruced up and put out into the world. Before the internet expanded shelf space, any place that a backlist book sat took space away from a new book.
So traditional publishing didn’t learn how to handle books it had already published. It really didn’t care about them either.
And there’s soooo many books lost in traditional publishing backlist limbo. For another project, and something I’ll mention in-depth later, Allyson Longueira at WMG Publishing looked at how many titles Penguin Random House publishes in a year.
Penguin Random publishes roughly 70,000 digital and 15,000 print books annually.
These are new books because why keep track of the old ones? (That’s trad pub’s attitude.)
I’m sure they have a way of keeping track of the new titles—how many copies printed (of the new titles), where they’re distributed, and all of that.
But let’s just go with the 15,000 paper books—and not even count the ebooks. (I’m not sure if the numbers overlap anyway). That’s 15,000 in 2021, 15,000 in 2020, 15,000 in 2019—you get the idea.
In the past ten years, just on paper, Penguin Random (or their separate corporate entities when they were not fused into the same company) published 150,000 paper books.
I’m sure someone has the titles of all of those books in a database somewhere. I’m sure someone could look up the information to find out which of those books are actually in paper and which have been relegated to ebook only.
But anything more complicated than that, outside of the “sales” systems from which royalties are (often incorrectly) accounted, I doubt that information is easy to find.
Companies do not spend money on systems for items they consider worthless, and for decades, traditional publishers considered the backlist worthless—unless something triggered the backlist book and made it new again. (Like, say, a successful tv series based on the author’s series. Wait! That didn’t even work well in 2020, with the Bridgerton series. Sigh. Traditional publishing really don’t know what they have.)
In the previous post, I discussed the fact that the two industries—traditional and indie—are on separate paths. Nothing exemplifies that better than the backlist.
If you’re so inclined, listen to that entire section of the video around the Kat Martin quote. She sounds sad about her backlist, because she’s the only one trying to keep it in print and active, and even then, she only gets a tiny percentage of what her backlist books actually earn.
Nowadays, when I see a writer celebrate that they’ve made a sale to a traditional publisher, I pull my hands off the keyboard and walk away from my device. I can’t congratulate them, because they still think they’re living in 1970, when the only game in town was traditional publishing.
They have no idea—because most of them don’t research—that their sale is not going to be the success or the cash cow that they expect. If they’re lucky, their book will have maybe one year of actual published life. After that, nothing much at all.
I’ve watched trad pub make mistake after mistake with its backlist. But the thing that has really brought their failures into focus was this ViacomCBS-Wattpad deal.
If traditional publishing had maintained their backlist, and, decades ago, had started mining data about the books they published—all of the books they published, old and new—then ViacomCBS would not be trying to sell S&S while making partnerships with companies like Wattpad.
Wattpad is the wave of the future. This data synergy is also a major part of the present.
Traditional publishing has deliberately kept itself out of the unsavory (in their opinion) data mining operations. That decision has cost them for years. They keep relearning the lesson that the books their editors/publishers like are not the books the unwashed (who buy books) like. Every time that lesson strikes home—just like it did nearly 40 years ago with Andre Norton—those who work in traditional publishing find some excuse that lets them off the hook.
Now, they can’t even see what they’re doing. They’re arguing about table scraps, while others are using content in a way that can only be done in this century.
I’m sure someone will ask me in the comments if I think that the kind of data-driven information that Wattpad has and that ViacomCBS wants to use is a bad thing. So let me address that right now.
When I look at it as a business owner, I think data-driven information is very important. As a publisher, I need that information to run my own business. I need to know what’s doing well and what isn’t. We only have a finite number of dollars for promotion or for the use of our employees’ time, and we need to make those dollars work best for us.
However, as a writer, I think using data mining to “help” with my creativity is a terrible, terrible thing. The one thing that traditional publishing gets right—what anyone who understands the entertainment industry gets right—is that you can’t manufacture a beloved piece of art. That piece of art must come from the heart. It must be organic. Done that way, it will be unique.
When that book/story is finished, then the data-driven work begins. What’s this piece similar to? Should we put a cover on it that broadcasts this particular subgenre? What do the numbers say about the best places to put our advertising dollars on this particular story?
That traditional publishing fails to do any of those things is another reason this industry is, in the words of Emily Gould, “the most hidebound and retrogressive of all culture industries.”
Wattpad and WEBTOON Studios can claim 166 million users—whom they call fans—and can bring their data into creating more content, for places like ViacomCBS. Will that translate into blockbuster movies? Maybe. Will it help the success of other projects? Most certainly.
As I have written before, the future lies in intellectual property. IP is the new frontlist. Most entertainment industries have learned this lesson by now.
Traditional publishing has not.
Any writer selling their work into the traditional publishing industry needs to understand that they’re selling their novels into an industry that really still has no idea what it’s doing, and has no desire to learn how to improve their product.
Is this a recipe for disaster for traditional publishing?
Depends on what the traditional publishers want. If they want to continue to dominate the cultural landscape, well, that ship sailed about twenty years ago. If they want to make a small amount of money for a large expenditure, and maintain bragging rights that they are the curators of literature, then they’ll be able to do that, in one form or another, well into the future.
But the future no longer belongs to them. And the one thing that makes that adage true is their misuse of their own backlist.
2021 really clarified that—in subtle, verifiable ways.
I cannot believe this very busy year is coming to a close. I’m writing all of the year-in-review posts in the weeks between December 15 and the new year. I will post them all on my Patreon page first, and then over time as 2022 progresses. If you want to read them in 2021, then you need to go to Patreon.
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!
Click paypal.me/kristinekathrynrusch to go to PayPal.
“Business Musings: The Sad State of the Backlist,” copyright © 2021 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / andrewgenn.