Business Musings: The Sad State of the Traditional Publishing Backlist (The Year in Review 3)

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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.

The Vanity Fair article did talk about the declining advances, though, and contained this bombshell:

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.

Gershon told Digiday this:

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!

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“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.


15 thoughts on “Business Musings: The Sad State of the Traditional Publishing Backlist (The Year in Review 3)

  1. Interesting article. I really don’t think we’re far from AI writing books. Obviously it’s already possible for AI to scan through the data, and find the common patterns between successful stories. At the very least that information could be used to form the basis of a novel in whatever genre and then it’s not that much of a stretch to go from that to writing a whole book. It would then be given to a human editor to give it that ‘human’ touch. This would work better in some genres than others. So genre’s which rely upon a common template, with changes applied between the stories would be easier for an AI as apposed to more academic literary fiction, which I imagine is still many years away for an AI to manage. But I won’t be surprised to see some software within the next 5 years, which does a lot of the legwork for authors.

  2. You write, “Here’s the other problem that traditional publishers have. They have no idea what’s in their backlist.”

    That ignorance fueled my indie startup. For over a decade I repeatedly begged my tradpub to bring my 16 OP titles back into print. Nope, no interest whatever, and this was after I’d hit the list. I still don’t know what they were thinking but I took those 16 titles into indie and paid off my mortgage.

  3. I had a short but interesting stint in the Wattpad Stars program. At one point I had a novella in the Studios program.

    They shut down the forums, (due to flame wars) which was the primary way to get readers, and shifted the Stars to Discord where there was an effort to educate the writers in that program to writer’s mechanics. It started to look more like they were grooming the Stars writers to write to order for advertisers.

    When the sale was announced, I deleted all my work to see what would happen next.

    I had a pretty good experience on Wattpad, until their genre/tagging system crashed. But once that went, it was very hard to get one’s work in front of readers. It was then a matter of getting in contact with other writers and swapping reads.

    My work never got many readers – but the quality level was high enough to keep me in the Stars Program. But I self-published anything that was finished after a few months. I was pretty frustrated that there was no way to get readers, and I expressed that frustration more than once. The genre system had stopped working, the tag system was full of bugs, and the most popular works were fan-fiction and an odd brand of slash that I don’t like.

    I was just getting ready to post more work when I was informed that since I had self-published my work, instead of letting it sit dead and unread on WattPad, I could no longer be part of Stars. I needed to have a finished work, exclusive to them, on their server.

    I find it interesting that VIACOM was the buyer. I don’t have the emails any more, so I can’t say for sure who the supposed buyer was but VIACOM wasn’t mentioned. I thought it was a South Korean company.

    I find it ironic that the biggest problem with Wattpad was the buggy genre/tagging system, but VIACOM want’s the analytics! I have no idea how they will get any kind of valid data out of a system so laced with faulty Algorithms. Maybe the part that still worked was enough?

    Thanks, as always, for such an interesting read!

      1. There is one thing that Wattpad does that I found very interesting. There’s an advanced grammer checker called Story Insights that skims all content. It puts the content into categories, 1 through 5.

        1 – Direct Writing Style
        Does not follow traditional writing practices for grammar or sentence structure. It is less commonly found in descriptive, long-form narrative.
        2 – Straightforward Writing Style
        More commonly found with stories that are less descriptive, and contain shorter sentences.
        3 – Modern Narrative Style
        More commonly found with stories that are faster paced, and sometimes more dialogue-heavy than in traditional literature.
        4 – Advanced Narrative Style
        More commonly found within modern-day literature; where stories contain more dialogue and shorter sentences than in traditional literature.
        5 – Literary Writing Style
        More commonly found in traditional literature; where narrative is descriptive, sentences are longer than average, and the writing is filled with more prose than dialogue.

        I’m not sure what this does on the WP-HQ side of Wattpad. It might flag a story for attention. I just know that it doesn’t bump the story to the attention of Readers. Which is a shame.

          1. Story Insights was discontinued recently but Wattpad has some other stats in place now which they say they will eventually improve and expand, apparently free for all writers. (SI was a paid report IIRC.) It’s not super-useful – what’s there currently – but I sometimes look at the graph for how many readers completed a certain chapter.

            A big problem, though, is that the system does not distinguish between your own reads (e.g. when you edit) and other people’s reads. It all gets mixed up, so for writers like me with few readers it is to be taken with a grain of salt (like the other stats I have access to).

            I work in the IT-business and I will say it’s almost certain they have better stats backend than what we users get access to front end (including the rubbish genre and tagging system). They may also be really, really good at pitching their product to Viacom, Naver and others. The truth is probably somewhere in between. 🙂

  4. Devil’s advocate: It is entirely possible to write a terrific story inspired by a pile of data.
    In the same way that it’s entirely possible to write a terrific story inspired by a daughter’s sickness, or a recurring dream, or a scrap of an insight from your childhood diary, or a video game, or an app, or even a pair of phrases jammed together from a file in your desk (looking at you, Dean).
    Anything that juices your brain counts.
    Imagine this: It’s 2040. A new data-driven publisher tells me that their data indicates that 12-year-old boys really like to buy stories about mutant worms, and would I be willing to write a series on that topic. Well, that sounds a LOT like the ghostwriting work I did for four years.
    So I wouldn’t dismiss reverse engineering. No, it’s not “pure” or personal self-expression, but it probably could create some art that some readers really like.

  5. Tying up a backlist should be a strong note of caution for any writer; too many never think ahead. It’s always this book now. The indies, at least, aren’t lost in the mountains on this one.

    Andre Norton was not only my introduction to the sf/f genre but inspired my own need for writing. At least her books are going into digital with decent covers now … although that indie project seems to have slowed down. The Witch World and High Halleck spin-offs are up.

    I was not surprised that she received low advances and little recognition/acceptance from traditional publishing. Her profile didn’t fit what the tiny hats of trad publishing thought the sf/f readers wanted, but the sale numbers kept proving them wrong.

    ‘Paying selling writers what they should receive’ VS ‘paying the writers who fit the tiny hats’ shelves’ is still a massive problem for trad publishing and will not vanish anytime soon. The tiny hats will still offer huge advances to those who “fit” their imaginary writing world. They keep enough story-tellers coming in to keep the business viable, but that’s the only reason they do so.

    The gatekeeping world has lost many walls. I’m happy to see even more come tumbling down.

    For those new to Andre Norton, start with the fantasy: Witch World novels through *Three Against the Witch World*, and anything in High Halleck —with my favorite *Year of the Unicorn*. For science fiction, start with the *Zero Stone* duo loft. These are her most accessible. That’s a judgment based on my most recent re-read, The above a paperbacks that I’ve held onto since finding them in the late ‘70s while many other authors’ books didn’t survive the shelf purges over the decades. Happy Reading times await.

  6. Now I know what traditional sales remind me of! A fancy funeral.

    Everyone hears about the book, and has a chance to show up for it briefly. And then it’s buried.

  7. “Penguin Random publishes roughly 70,000 digital and 15,000 print books annually.” That’s a big surprise to me that PR has so many books that it has so little faith in that it doesn’t produce a paper version. I’m surprised that authors would accept this, too.

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