My generation of publishers is distinguished by a few that really understand the opportunities and value to the enterprise of selling backlist and creating evergreens. Peter Workman is the master of this. Quite aside from the intrinsic quality and appeal of much of what he publishes — which is considerable — he has always pushed books based on their markets and the opportunities, not based on the date they were first issued. Charlie Nurnberg was the same way at Sterling. He has often reminded me that “every book is new to the person who hasn’t heard of it yet.”
Peter and Charlie, and other publishers and sales executives who also stressed the backlist, learned that in the physical world it became a game of managing inertia. The first challenge, with chains or independents, is to get a quantity in the store that will sell. The second challenge is to get it reordered when it sells. That requires fighting inertia because most books don’t get ordered for most stores and most books that are stocked only get an initial order and no re-order.
But after a while, you can get inertia on your side. If the book is seen to have “backlisted” (think Workman’s “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” or a perennial Charlie built called “Gemstones of the World”), it becomes one of the books that is put on auto-pilot with computers, and then it will get re-ordered as long as its performance passes a periodic review which is usually not frequent.
Most publishers “learn” (institutionally) that it isn’t worth promoting backlist. To begin with, most publishers aren’t staffed to do it: the head counts and working processes of publicity and marketing departments are built around the requirements of “launching” books, not “piloting” them. And there’s logic to this. Marketing should always be dedicated to books which are available for purchase. Up until 15 years ago, a book not in stores was not nearly as available as the ones which were. And up until very recently, the non-store sales for most titles was growing to significance, but actually growing pretty slowly.
The fact that the availability differential between new titles and backlist is sharply reduced and shrinking fast is a very significant change. When I came into the business, it was a sign of knowledge and savvy that you didn’t spend money promoting a book that wasn’t in the stores. That meant “don’t promote too soon before publication.”
And it also meant that any promotional opportunity for a backlist book was only seen to have value if you had the lead time to push books out before the promotional event occurred. This fundamental of publishing has been painstakingly explained to authors for years, usually triggered when they call their publisher to tell them they have a major newsbreak occurring the day after tomorrow.
This piece of wisdom becomes less important every day. Soon it will be anachronistic sophistication for those of us who are saddled with it.
Publishers, agents, and authors are all seeing bumps in backlist sales because of newly created ebook availability. It would be my hunch that, sure as there is such a thing as word-of-mouth, the ebook backlist sales will spark a pop in print sales for the very same titles. Alert publishers and the retailers that have stores and also have insight into ebook sales (you know who you are) will probably find ebook sales and online print sales good leading indicators of what should be brought back into stock in the stores as well.
Remember those ebook catalogs I suggested might be a good idea? Why not start by putting one with an entry for every title by an author into every ebook by that author? That’s a pretty obvious opportunity. I’ll make my last publishing prediction of 2010: anybody not doing this by the end of 2011 will be seen as “behind.” (It might be that any agent not already suggesting this, if not insisting on it, is behind now.)
Every ebook sold offers a publisher and an author a significant opportunity for engagement with a real human being who will, almost certainly, buy another ebook in the future. The Peter Workmans and Charlie Nurnbergs of 21st century publishing will build their success on that fact. How well that opportunity is exploited is a future success trait that should hit many consciousnesses soon. (That’s why we tried to stress the importance of direct-response marketing knowledge in two posts some months ago.) As people wake up to these opportunities, how they’re pursued is likely to become the focus of some extensive discussion along the value chain (between publishers and retailers, between publishers and authors, and among publishers).
PS. The first time I met Charlie Nurnberg was in about 1974 at the suggestion of my father. (Len said: he’s a smart guy; you ought to talk to him.) That day Charlie explained to me about granting permissions for excerpts. You do it, he said, and you require a credit line that reads “from Title X by Author Y, published by His Publisher, Address, book price plus $1.25 postage and handling”. That’s how he always did it and money just rolled in. Sometimes the credit line was appearing in Readers Digest with 20 million or more readers. Charlie worked for a small publisher called Frederick Fell at the time. (They had one huge author, but that’s another story.) With a standard device, he turned regular engagements into revenue streams. There’s a thought worth preserving in that.
I write this in my home aerie, 17 floors above snow-covered 2nd Avenue, within 10 minutes by foot or subway from just about all of American trade publishing. Like everybody else, most of my information exchanges are online, but the intense proximity of literally ALL of consumer publishing’s editorial, marketing, and business decision-making is, at the very least, an extraordinary daily convenience. (Last week Connie Sayre and I saw seven major company CEOs for 30-to-60 minute meetings in between lots of other work. Try that in any other industry and any other town.) It is a frequent source of joy. And it is an indispensable component of whatever knowledge feeds my consulting practice and this blog. One question that it is fair to ask is whether, in a wired world where we SKYPE today and will have conversations tomorrow with a hologram apparently sitting in the next chair, does Manhattan still matter? I believe that it still does and that it still will but I will admit to being as sentimental about the dense and quick-paced Manhattan gestalt as some people are about the smell of the paper and the smell of the glue. (And I’m well aware of how sentimentality can cloud their thinking!)
And on that flight of fancy, I wish everybody a Happy New Year and a healthy and prosperous 2011.