The Shatzkin Files

Publishers need to rethink their marketing deployments and tactics in the digital age to take advantage of their backlists

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Well-articulated complaints about the way traditional publishing compares to self-publishing have recently been posted by two accomplished authors, one who writes fiction and one who writes non-fiction.

These point to what most publishers really should already know. Some fundamental and time-honored truths about publishing need to be reexamined as we continue the digital transition. And one of the things that really needs to change is the distinction between backlist and frontlist.

There is a real baked-in logic to how publishers see their responsibilities and effort allocation across their list. Books have always been launched like rockets. The publisher commits maximum firepower to getting them off the ground. Most crash to earth. Some go into orbit. The ones that go into orbit have “backlisted” and, like satellites, it takes no power or effort to keep them in orbit for a long time if the initial blast-off gets them there.

In fact, a virtuous characteristic publishers have always recognized about backlist stands in the way of developing the right 21st century approach: backlist books sell without the marketing effort that it takes to introduce a new book. (This has, unfortunately, too often been interpreted in a way that discouraged extra effort that would make them sell better if they were actively marketed.) My Logical Marketing partner, Pete McCarthy, who worked for both Penguin and Random House in his corporate career, points out that titles in the backlist make can make up more than half the profits for a Big Five house in a given year.

But in the digital age, the “guided missile” is a more appropriate metaphor for best practice than the “rocket”. Audiences are discerned and they are targeted. The messages delivered to the target audiences should be as topical and current as today’s news and social graph and as relevant and useful to them as possible. And that means that marketing efforts for all books need to be continuous, or, at the very least, adjusted over time as necessary. It doesn’t make sense anymore to stop the marketing of a book after its first month, whether it has early success or early failure.

Experienced publishers learned over the years that it didn’t matter what promotion you did for a book not fully distributed. If it wasn’t available in stores, promotion and advertising wouldn’t make it sell. Savvy publishers would ignore news breaks or marketing opportunities for books that had gone through their peak bookstore distribution cycle — which can be as short as a few months or even less if a book doesn’t gain initial traction — because chasing them was wasted effort.

None of this is true anymore. Any break can get around quickly, or even “go viral”. And there don’t need to be books in any stores for a break to move print and digital copies. For many categories of books, most copies are already bought online. It’s probably the case for the majority of titles published and it is true for periods of time for just about any title, particularly an older one past its bookstore peak that has a sudden moment of relevance or fame. With hundreds of millions of consumers having online accounts, publishers should have no concerns about them finding and buying the books they feel they want or need at any moment.

The common experience of the two authors who have switched from traditionally published to self-published and written about it is that some marketing effort, including price-fiddling, applied to long-ago backlist can resuscitate a dormant book and that fact, combined with the higher share of revenues self-publishing brings, can make the effort of managing their own publishing business well worth the effort to them. Another component is that both authors want to work on making their books sell.

Of course, this constitutes a loss to the publishers whose initial efforts helped create both the product and the platform that the self-publisher and the self-publishing infrastructure (most prominently Amazon, but there are plenty of players there) then capitalizes on. This squares with our recent observation that there are two (and only two) categories of successful self-publishing authors so far: those who somehow manage to reclaim and republish a backlist and extremely prolific genre fiction writers. (There are other success stories, but they are isolated and relatively rare.)

Traits just about all of them share (along with the authors of the linked posts above) are marketing and publicity capability and constructive business sense. These are traits publishers should be looking for in their author partners and the fact that they can gain better expression and leverage outside a publishing house is a failing the industry really needs to fix. We have seen indications of some awakening to this in the literary agencies, some of which are actively learning about and teaching their authors how to best leverage their efforts and networks.

Aside from marketing effort that these authors expended long after their publishers’ efforts had ceased, the other variable here seems to be consolidation of effort across publishers’ lists. An author who has had a long career, as these two have, frequently find their backlist spread among several publishers. So only when the author reclaims rights across those publishers is a meaningful author-centric marketing effort even possible. This is a kind of middling-scale application. An author with a few books of his/her own to push can amortize marketing and management efforts — from putting titles up to watching sales to fiddling with prices — across a real list. Scale is supposed to be the advantage that the publisher provides, but it is diffused and ineffective if each of an author’s titles is viewed as a separate SKU and that is particularly likely if the number of SKUs each publisher has is a minority of the author’s total output.

There is a critical strategic question here that the industry has not resolved. Authors really need to control and manage their own personal web presences and decide on how to best leverage those presences — in conjunction with their publisher(s) or not. But managing a personal web presence is knowledge-, cost-, and labor-intensive and there is no great correlation between how well a person can write and how well they can manage their online opportunities. Still, an author can’t really totally entrust that work to any one publisher, because each is only really interested in the books they publish. Agents are aware of this reality and many of them work to help their clients understand the opportunities. But somebody’s got to pay for web sites and maintaining the Facebook account. Whoever does will effectively own the names and attention they can harvest. (At Logical Marketing, we’ve already done work with three of the largest literary agencies in New York, sometimes totally independently and sometimes in conjunction with publishers. And it is only about 100 days since we opened the doors.)

Publishers really need to work out ways to support authors who can contribute to their own marketing. But it is complicated and it can only done between a publisher and an author who acknowledge their own and each other’s interests and responsibilities. Working out how to make these efforts both fair and synergistic — including rules of the road for how email addresses that could really be attributed to either should be shared and used — will be a key characteristic of productive agent-publisher partnerships over the next ten years.

Digital marketing in this business can be defined as identifying and building audiences for books and for authors — two separate endeavors that need to be complementary — by enhancing discovery and understanding and using the social graph. Agents and publishers working together on marketing in a sustained way will increasingly be the key to commercial success. And the minute a publisher recognizes the author as a true marketing partner, the old industry attitude about backlist marketing must yield, because authors have a very long attention span to push their work. (Remember, in many cases it took them years to write!)

My longtime friend Charlie Nurnberg, who spent most of his career at Sterling and was always a champion of backlist, often said “any book is new to somebody who didn’t know about it before”. That’s an aphorism that must become every publisher’s motto. Combined with our ability today to understand audiences categorically, and to understand them better for backlist books (because the evidence of who really constitutes the audience is sprinkled across the Internet), the fact is that it is easier to do intelligent and targeted marketing for a book that is a year old than for one that hasn’t been published yet.

But publishing organizations are not structured to take advantage of that fact. In the past ten years, the ratio of marketing personnel to sales personnel has changed in every house: more marketers and fewer sales people. But there has not been a comparable shift in marketing deployment between new titles and backlist. If publishers want to stop losing their most marketing-savvy multi-book authors to self-publishing, that’s something that urgently needs to change.

Publishers need to apply both big scale and middling scale to address this issue. They need to create and employ new tools, such as an engine that digests the news and social graph on a daily basis to help identify specific backlist titles that could benefit from additional effort right now. To make that investment in tools productive, they need to go into their backlist and create new metadata — short and long descriptions — that reflect the audiences for those books. Doing all of that is a six-figure investment for big publishers, but not a seven-figure one. Though it is penny-wise and pound-foolish not to do it, we only know of one trade publisher who possesses the tech to digest today’s reality and systematically bounce it off their backlist. (Of course, there may be others; we don’t pretend that everybody tells us everything they do. But if a publisher “doesn’t know how”, Pete McCarthy and our Logical Marketing team can guide you or do it for you.)

Publishers should have specialist marketers for genres, topics, and multi-book authors. Having staff dedicated to marketing authors will make another unusual step that needs to become common much more likely: acquiring the rights to titles of that author that now belong to other publishers or to the author. As we move into the digital age, selling “one title at a time” — which was pretty much the only way to do it when books were bought in bookstores by consumers and bought by bookstores order by order — becomes decreasingly efficient. Publishers have always built their marketing around their understanding of their distribution channels. Those are changing and the marketing and publishing tactics need to change with them. Working in a collaborative way with an author who may have titles at other houses or self-published is essential. Acquiring the rest of the list of an author in whom a publisher wants to invest building their name should be even better.

There are a variety of additional tactics, some well-recognized already, that are all about marketing across a range of titles. Most publishers already know the value of discounting (or even giving away) the initial title of a compelling series. But to maximize sales, it is also necessary to spell out clearly the sequence of publication of a series so a consumer can easily read them in the order the author intended. It would probably also be helpful to provide a roster of characters with descriptions. All of these can be tools to stimulate additional sales, but they don’t fit comfortably with the “marketing each new title” workflows that publishers are used to.

One new publisher that I’ve seen reflect this thinking is Open Road. Their publishing program has always been about about bringing in authors with backlists. So their publishing calendar is not centered on pub dates of new and upcoming titles; it is about the holidays and occasions that we all celebrate. They think about “Easter” or “Father’s Day” and look for the books on their list that can benefit from the connection. Coding holiday connections into the metadata needs to be a standard part of preparing each new book for the market, but it also requires expending the effort to do it for backlist to be fully effective. (The longtime ebook publisher Rosetta Books is similar to Open Road in many of these respects.)

Of course, the new title publishing activity can’t stop; each new book needs to be properly introduced into the marketplace and, for at least a few more years, sales in the opening week or weeks need to be optimized. But that should become just part of the marketing effort and it should ultimately be the smaller part (if it shouldn’t be that already).

Publishers need to recognize that if authors can sell their backlist more effectively than their publisher(s) did, the publisher was doing something wrong — or failing to do some things right. Authors are right to leave and take matters into their own hands when that happens. Publishers further need to recognize that the authors who can effectively market themselves are the very authors they most want, and that figuring out how to create an environment of collaborative synergy with them is what the successful publisher of ten years from now will have done. More imagination, energy, and resources devoted to the backlist is a very good, and likely a very profitable, place to start.

Industry statistics on backlist and frontlist don’t exist. In fact, the definition of when a book is considered backlist varies across the industry or people work without any standard definition at all. Nonetheless, it is likely that most publishers are already benefiting from digital discovery and shopping increasing their backlist sales. Recent financial reporting from big publishers has been very upbeat, a fact usually attributed to the more favorable margins publishers achieve on ebook sales, which have positive margin attributes around costs of inventory, costs of royalties, and elimination of returns. However, it is almost certain that improved sales of backlist due to the natural effects of “unlimited shelf space” for discovery and fulfillment also play an important role in improving the financial picture for the publishers with the biggest backlists.

Our wildly unreliable Feedburner distribution system hasn’t emailed last week’s post on subscriptions as of when this one is being published.

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  • Rob Eagar


    I really like your article and totally agree with your perspective. As an example, I’ve been working on a backlist digital marketing project for a sister division of HarperCollins on their 20-year-old series of books called “Boundaries.” (See Using a specialized audience development approach, we’ve been able to get the original book back onto regional bestseller lists 5 times in the past 4 months.

    In my situation, the authors aren’t helping out with the promotional efforts, which is disappointing. But, we’re seeing fruit even without their participation, because we’re building an audience of readers who are hungry for the “Boundaries” material and helping spread word of mouth.

    Publishers would benefit by learning how to build their own audiences of readers. He who influences the reader influences the book sale.

    Always enjoy reading your blog posts,

    Rob Eagar
    WildFire Marketing

    • Thanks, Rob. It’s always bolstering to get confirmation from a pair of boots on the ground!


  • Bonnie Martin

    This especially applies to ebooks. Since they don’t have to be re-ordered, re-shipped, or re-stocked, they can be easily be sold again anytime a new marketing opportunity presents itself.

    Also, “This has, unfortunately, too often been interpreted in a way that discouraged extra effort that would make them sell better if they were actively marketed.” That has always bugged me. I’ve seen SEOs do that a lot. They say, well *this* thing is working so let’s focus all of our energy on it. Hmm … maybe the *other* things aren’t working because you haven’t put any effort into them. All eggs in one basket is never a good plan.

  • M.J. Rose

    Mike – yes! I hope publishers really pay attention to your post. Not only have we been saying that a book is new to someone who’s never heard of it before but we did a study with over 150,000 readers and found that only 5% ever looked at pub dates. In addition to a book being new to someone who has never heard of it – equally – no one can buy a book they have never heard of and many of us are realizing that if we can use our back list as a year long marketing strategy we can effect our front list titles – IF IF IF the price of the ebooks is reasonable. (Not talking about the “it” author or the branded author with 1/2 million fans) Pricing is even more important than marketing and I say that as someone who owns an ad agency. As well a publisher can’t do a $1.99 ebook flash sale one week and go back up to $9.99 the next week. (No back list should be $9.99 anyway – Amazon knows it and authors who do this know it needs to be at the most $7.99 but most often $6.99 or less) You can do all the marketing in the world but the pricing has to be right. My marketing company has worked with quite a few authors creating year long marketing plans and seen what powerful brand building that is.

  • Spot on! Great points about pricing, and backlists, but I particularly enjoyed your point about the need for ALL authors, “to control and manage their own personal web presences and decide on how to best leverage those presences . . . Whoever does will effectively own the names and attention they can harvest.”

    The relationship with the reader, which obviously includes social media, email lists, and the author website, should belong to the author. Even if an author chooses to allows a publisher to create her site, she needs to control the content. It’s the site creation that consumes most of the time and expense. The updating of content, which helps cement the bond with the reader, can be managed over time. An author’s website (and domain) are valuable parts of the brand, and can be immensely helpful when change occurs.

    • The key is owning the relationships. If the publishers make and own the sites, the authors don’t.

  • carmen webster buxton

    I totally agree on Open Road. They did a wonderful job on the Dorothy L Sayers “Lord Peter” books (it’s all backlist once you’ve been dead a few decades). The covers are consistent and look good in thumbnail size. I do wonder how you are using the word “break.” Do you just mean a new title?

  • Heywood Jablowme

    Welcome to 2009.

  • Sanford Gray Thatcher

    This post applies principally to trade publishing. Academic publishers have long been in the business of continuing marketing for backlist titles because they have lists consisting of titles grouped in special categories reflecting the disciplinary structure of academe. So older titles in these categories are re-marketed time and again as new books come along and both get included in subject catalogues sent to individuals as direct-mail pieces. There are also more comprehensive subject bibliographies, like the AAUP’s Books for Understanding, which group titles of interest to what is happening in the worlds that grabs people’s attention and motivates them to do reading for background. Of course, self-publishing is a nonstarter for academe since authors require the vetting done by academic publishers to satisfy tenure and promotion committees.

    • On the backlist consciousness in academic, I agree. On the irrelevance of self-publishing, I’m not so sure. We could see some sort of crowdsourcing of academia replacing the formal process. In time.

  • Great article, overall.

    I have been a successful self-publisher since 1989. I have had bad years, mediocre years, really good years for the last ten years, and in 2014 I will have my best year ever from a revenue and income point of view.

    Although my two best-selling books were originally self-published (the print edition of one is now with a major publisher and the other one is still entirely self-published ten years after its release), I have had three books published by traditional publishers.

    This I know: Even with a pretty good track record, I would have an extremely difficult time getting a traditional publisher to publish one of my new titles today. The problem is traditional publishers are just as boring and uncreative as the vast majority of self-publishers when it comes to marketing books — but are too delusional to admit it. They have got this thing about platform and social media being the most effective ways to market books. Fact is, I have 50 to 100 unique ways to market books, that 99 percent of publishers and writers would never come up with, most of which are much more effective than social media. Yet if I tell publishers this, they will not believe me regardless of my track record (over 800,000 copies of my books sold worldwide).

    Incidentally, I sent my two best-selling retirement books to Open Road offering them the opportunity to publish the titles as ebooks. I never heard from them (not even a generic rejection letter). I am glad I didn’t. I ended up self-publishing the ebook editions and am no doubt making a lot more money this way. As Joe Vitale says, “Turn it into something good.”

    Ernie J. Zelinski
    The Prosperity Guy
    “Helping Adventurous Souls Live Prosperous and Free”
    Author of the Bestseller “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free”
    (Over 200,000 copies sold and published in 9 languages)
    and the International Bestseller “The Joy of Not Working’
    (Over 275,000 copies sold and published in 17 languages)

  • Steven Zacharius

    This is a great article Mike.

    • Kind of you to say so, Steve.

      • Steven Zacharius

        It caused me to send a note to marketing about spending more marketing dollars on one of our bestselling “back to college” titles that we take for granted all the time.