The Un-tapped Potential of Backlist
While I am very big on looking to the future, there is one area where I think publishing should look to the past. Traditional publishers are sitting on top of a gold mine that they have traditionally never exploited except when an author broke out: backlist.
The reason for this was limited shelf space. For many years I wondered why no traditional publisher bought my latest manuscript, not only for the manuscript, but with the thought of breaking that book out and then acquiring my extensive backlist. I always felt like I was sitting on a gold mine, but not a single publisher saw it that way—in fact they viewed it quite the opposite way. I understand the problem was shelf space, but now that’s no longer an issue. Even though shelf space was an issue, it always felt like publishers belonged in gambler’s anonymous rather than in business. They were always betting on throwing one hundred new books against the wall, hoping one won the lottery. There was little sense of nurturing an author’s career or looking to the future with a long-term commitment. The reason for this is no one can really predict what will be the next Hunger Games. But this is a rather haphazard way to run a business when publishers do control the rights to a considerable amount of backlist. Remember, it isn’t backlist if someone hasn’t read it and Digital is a complete game changer in that regard.
I was very fortunate to hit the sweet spot in publishing. When my print sales had dropped so low, but my eBook sales had not taken off, I was able to exercise my reversion clauses in my contracts to get my books back (I’d already gotten the rights to most of them years earlier, but there were still some key ones I needed, like my Area 51 series). I even did a blog where I offered Random House reverse royalties on Area 51 if they just let me publish them. No response. When I proposed a promotional program for Area 51 to coincide with the release of Super 8, a blockbuster about Area 51, my editor told me they could barely promote their frontlist, never mind their backlist.
I know that publishers are focusing more on digital. There was recently an interview here with the head of Digital Publishing for Simon & Schuster. This is a position that didn’t even exist a few years ago. What she says makes a lot of sense and is a coherent plan for exploiting digital. I do think though, that in order to exploit backlist, publishers have to rethink some things.
The best salesperson a publisher has for a book is the author. Work with them. Make it worth their time. I actually think the advance model might be antiquated and a profit sharing model could work much better, if the author gets a bigger slice of the pie for motivation but also shares the cost of failure. I sell more in one day in eBook than Random House managed to do in six months with the same books. I just saw my royalty statements from St. Martins where three NY Times bestsellers sell less in six months than I can with a single title in a week.
This might be too radical, but if a book hasn’t earned out, and isn’t earning much, the publisher could consider restructuring the contract with the author. Erase the advance, and work out a profit sharing model that gives the author incentive to seriously promote. Right now many authors are locked into contracts where they have a disincentive to promote in the vain hopes they might get their rights back. Or offer the authors a chance at buying their rights back with reverse royalties.
I really think publishers have to change their attention from distribution and work hand in hand with authors. The investment has already been made in these books. Now a little investment in time and a rethinking of contracts could yield great benefits.