Old assets can create new income. That’s the lesson Ira Silverberg, strategic advisor on author brands at Open Road Media, reminded the audience this morning at the “Monetizing the Backlist” conference hosted by Publishing Perspectives in New York.
Sometimes “things pop and nobody knows why,” said Silverberg, a self-described reluctant believer in the opportunities of digital back-list publishing. The challenge for publishers, authors and agents is finding more things that pop.
While panelists speaking about that challenge admitted it’s still early days when it comes to building a business around a digital back-list, they agreed new audiences and effective metadata are among the two biggest factors.
According to Lori Benton, vice president and group publisher for Scholastic, “every front-list book is a new back-list opportunity.” That’s not exactly a novel idea among publishers; Jason Epstein saw it as the distinguishing feature of publishers’ business going back decades, in Book Business, his classic history of the industry.
It’s the mechanics of that model, though, that are radically different today. Benton called it a particular “luxury” of children’s publishing that, on the one hand, “children are not the ones in the store buying…[which] gives all of our books much longer legs,” while on the other, digital natives “consume content in an entirely different way.”
She pointed to the popular Baby-Sitters Club series, which Scholastic repackaged in new digital editions featuring original cover art. “The beauty of digital is it’s a very elastic binding,” Benton said. Scholastic found that the series appealed tremendously to the series’s “nostalgia fanbase” of adult women who then shared it with their own daughters.
Jacob Lewis, publishing director at Crown, agreed that monetizing trade adult back-list titles rested equally on finding new audiences to get excited about them. The flexibility to experiment afforded by ebooks, not to mention the immediacy of digital distribution, have proven decisive. “Just tagging things differently, putting new descriptions in,” Lewis said, “can drive incredible results.”
How do you identify back-list content that isn’t already associated with a strong brand like The Baby-Sitters Club? Often, “the process begins with a frantic phone call,” said Julie Trelstad, director of digital rights at Writers House. “Something has happened that all of a sudden makes this book relevant again.”
But without comprehensive, accurate metadata, those assets are essentially useless. “It’s the way people find our content,” said Lewis. Crown maintains an extensive database cataloging “everything that exists” within each of its titles, Lewis said, so “when things happen in the world…and we want to capture something,” we have this “deep searchability” to locate a relevant book and “find a way to introduce it.”
Benton recalled a remark Susan Katz, president and publisher of HarperCollins Children’s Books, made at Digital Book World earlier this year, that the pace of change in publishing today is the slowest it will ever be in our lifetimes. If publishers are disappointed in their back-list sales now, Benton continued, they might not be further down the road, but only with the proper preparation. “If you don’t take care of the metadata,” she half-joked, “it will take care of you.”