The myth of backlist and a dramatic change in publishing

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. And I have the numbers to prove it. 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.

I was very fortunate to hit the sweet spot in publishing. Where my print sales had dropped so low, but my eBook sales had not taken off, that I was able to exercise my rights 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. Here’s a question—do publishers and agents even use google alert to see when they’re being mentioned on the Internet? I know Mark Coker from Smashwords does, because he’s always responding to mentions, which tells me he understands the future. Are you reading this now Random House? Doubtful. 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. This same editor loved a proposal for a new series, wasted two months of my time on it, then told me they couldn’t buy it because of sales figures from the last books in my Area 51 series. Huh? They sold over a million copies. Why even look at something if you’re not going to buy anything from me? Which leads me to:

The left hand isn’t talking to the right. I’m not even sure they’re hands. Like most big organizations, my sense is that most publishers don’t have a coherent plan to deal with backlist and with their authors. They haven’t ripped themselves away from the one in a hundred crapshoot to consignment distributors and realized the business has changed in a very fundamental way.

Also, Random House, through 16 editions of Area 51 I constantly asked my editor (whoever the latest one was) to fix a major error on the back cover copy where it said Nellis Air Force Base, New Mexico. Wrong state and I’ve gotten nasty emails about that and 1 star reviews on Amazon. Not once could someone be bothered to fix the mistake. They were too busy throwing new books against the wall and had no focus on what they already had. Most midlist authors know what I’m talking about: the lack of focus from editors on current authors.

Oh yes. The numbers. I have 11 of the top 100 science fiction sellers on Amazon (2 in top 10). From backlist. I have 11 of the top 50 titles in War on Amazon. 10 are backlist, one is a new title, Chasing The Ghost. I have twelve titles in the top 1,000 on Kindle. I have a title in the top 50 on Nook, Area 51. I have five series I’ll be moving into the future with new titles. I still have 6 backlist titles to upload, including my Psychic Warrior series and Shadow Warrior series.

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 (a blog post about this later). I sell more in one day in eBook than Random House managed to do in six months with the same books.

And here’s the even more amazing thing. Random House wouldn’t buy a new series from me because the infamous “sales force” felt my last mass market numbers were too low and they couldn’t sell another book from me to their accounts. But now that I have fantastic numbers in eBooks, not a single publisher has approached me about my frontlist. About the possibility of getting future titles with a proven sales record. So is it just me, or does this make no business sense at all?

Also, I’m proud to announce that The Jefferson Allegiance will be published on 31 August exclusive to our web site and Nook for one month with support from Barnes & Noble!

Backlist is gold.  Frontlist is even better!

About Bob Mayer

Bob Mayer is a NY Times Bestselling author, graduate of West Point, former Green Beret (including commanding an A-Team) and the feeder of two Yellow Labs, most famously Cool Gus. He's had over 60 books published including the #1 series Area 51, Atlantis and The Green Berets. Born in the Bronx, having traveled the world (usually not tourist spots), he now lives peacefully with his wife, and said labs, at Write on the River, TN.

Posted on August 13, 2011, in Publishing Options, WDWPUB and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 26 Comments.

  1. This is amazing information, Bob. And also well-written. Somehow you have turned information that is crucial to my own future, and made it as entertaining as anything I read. I take note of this interesting fact: that you are writing excellent non-fiction articles to sell fiction books. And in the process drawing up a whole bunch of aspiring writers with you. This is a beautiful multi-dimensional approach to becoming part of (and helping create) a global writing community. Thanks!

  2. Jenni Holbrook-Talty

    It is just amazing to me that NY publishing doesn’t seem to get it. What we have been able to accomplish in less than 2 years is amazing. We’ve embraced the changes in publishing and worked hard to move forward with readers. That’s the key. Readers. They Rule. It isn’t about distribution to places that will sell to readers–it’s about connecting directly with readers. The readers have spoken and they are saying they love eBooks and love rediscovering authors.

    If a reader likes a book, they will go find what else that author has written and with eBooks making it so easy to just click, buy and read without ever leaving the comfort of your own home, or wherever you are. Price the books properly, and readers buy more. Its a win-win situation for the reader and for the author–the two most important people in publishing.

    Write It Forward!

  3. Nancy J Nicholson

    As a business owner. I’ve always thought the publishing industry was wrong as it pertains to distribution. No risk for the retail outlets when they can return unsold books. The people who lose are always the authors. Without authors and readers, there would be no publishers. The electronic technology is focusing on those two elements and making it a success. I love the feel of a real book, but unless the big publishers wake up, we may not have any hard copies except print on demand.

    Thanks for the clear, concise look at old school publishing.

  4. I’m watching all of these changes very closely. When I first started writing again, I assumed that I would be going the traditional route. All of this new information has given me a lot to think about. Thank you so much for keeping us posted.

  5. Bob, you’ve done it again … pointed out the trends with the statistics to prove it. Thank you. Wishing you continued escalating success. I see your time commitments as huge. Please make sure you are taking good care of Bob, ’cause we need you!

  6. Bob, I suspect that the “numbers are too low” figures are from the original pub’d books and they either don’t trust your recent Esales figures or don’t care. Because as y’all well know, they can’t afford to price Ebooks the same as we can (or at least they say that). I’ve had the same issues with my backlist and proposed frontlist nonfiction titles. While the Ebook backlist sales in no way compare to the extraordinary numbers of yours they do make me purrrrr. And they keep my name/presence/brand out there which can only be a good thing with my readers. Thanks for yet another great analysis!

  7. While I know that many will defend the benefits of traditional publishing (and rightly so in some cases) the fact that they remain trapped in the old business model does make them appear to be less viable for the long term. Indie and self-publishing models are both more lucrative and fully in swing with the direction the industry is moving. As long as an author is willing to put in the effort to market their work and see to the things that the traditionals covered (copyediting, cover design, distribution, etc) the benefits far outweigh what the big six have to offer.

    Things, of course, will continue to change. They always do. When the Traditionals pass from the denial stage of their grief over the death of the old model and come to the point of acceptance, the ones that survive will become forces in the marketplace once more. As authors we should weigh all options with care and an eye to the future.

    Thanks for keeping us up to date on the ever-changing aspects of the industry Bob.

  8. This is interesting information. I seem to feel an aversion for the traditional publishing group. I’m being led to ebooks . Is that because the entire industry is leaning E? Then I’m ahead of the times?

  9. This post is gold. Money. I mean, I just don’t know what to say it’s so perfect. I have a publisher sitting on my backlist, allowing the dust to gather, refusing to give two books back to me regardless of a clause in my contract allowing me to ask for a return of my rights – I would reimburse them for the initial costs – the cover, the editing, the formatting, but no go. It’s lazy and passive aggressive on their part, penny-wise and pound-foolish

  10. I was thinking about this while on the treadmill this morning at the hotel– currently in Melbourne at the Australian Romance Writers. It all comes down to fear. We fear change. We fear taking chances. Fear keeps us doing the same thing again and again expecting it to work, even in the face cold, hard facts indicating it won’t.

  11. Quote: “So is it just me, or does this make no business sense at all?” – No, it doesn’t make any business sense. But it’s a common practice they have, it happens with many authors.

    The thing is that tradition, in this case traditional publishing, is a very hard thing to change, in general and in particular. They will change when they will be forced to adapt. For the moment, they still have the largest market share, so there is no reason to change. This will happen very slowly though, since the expenses for a radical change are too high for now and the profit is higher if they remain as they are.
    In the mean time, it’s better for the authors if the large publishing houses continue like this. Why? Because there is no competition from them, so it’s easier for the authors to enter the market of e-publishing. Greater flexibility and more opportunities to succeed. This market is still new, so as any new market, there are many opportunities. When the big companies will fully enter this market, then things will get tougher. So, I think it’s better they still put their efforts in the traditional publishing way.

    Thank you for the interesting post.

  12. I know– probably shouldn’t say anything about it and let them continue on, as you are quite correct. One of the reasons we’re enjoying a lot of success at Who Dares Wins Publishing is traditional publishing really isn’t competing with us on a level field.

  13. As publishers increasingly demand that authors take a heavier (unpaid) role in selling their own books, I’m wondering more and more why we need them. My writer’s guild is looking seriously at creating our own author-run publishing house. Since we’re being asked to write without advances, market our own books and presell them as well, a lot of us are wondering why we should share the profits with a publisher. Our biggest problem is growing our own editorial talent, but even that is doable. The rest – page design, art and promotion can all be done on our desktops. Local printers are offering increasingly reasonable rates for small print runs to support e-book sales. Setting up our own shops looks more and more like the way to go. As a small publisher we can move more quickly than the big boys and in these changing times, it may be the only way to go for many authors. – Tom King

  14. Thank you for your excellent insights into publishing at the RWAus conference.

    You made an extremely valid point: too many writers are afraid to take risks. Our time is NOW! With the wealth of opportunities available, it’s the time to capitalise, not run and hide.
    Look forward to seeing how traditional publishing evolves and digital publishing skyrockets.

  15. Hmm… I prefer to call that the spaghetti method. The publishing houses need to nurture the authors more.

  16. Bob, I’m so glad you got your backlist back. I’m zipping through the Area 51 books. They are amazing. I love Mike Turcott, he is such an awesome character.

  17. Bob…

    I’ve been re-reading your area 51 books. Just finished The Truth.

    Went to see “Cowboys and Aliens” recently. There some parts that remind me* of some of the Area 51 parts. Not the same but very similar.

    Thanks for writing.

  18. I haven’t seen Cowboys and Aliens. I’m actually going to post a blog shortly about the various scifi shows and movies and my various books as I saw the season finale of Falling Skies last night. Kind of funny actually.

  19. Bob – I just finished Write It Forward – thanks so much for writing such an inspirational book! And good luck on your upcoming release (although you won’t need it) – it’s on my birthday, so I think I’ll buy it as a present to myself. :)

  20. I just found your blog via your comments on Rachel Gardner’s post a few days ago. You are an inspiration! I sometimes second guess my decision to self-publish, but mostly out of self-doubt. Your story is still more evidence that the traditional publishing model is often too flawed to make sense anymore — a viewpoint I did NOT have a year ago. I’m just starting out with self-publishing, which is of course a bit different from having a backlist to work with, but I still feel in my gut it’s the right way to go. I will be checking out your books. Thanks again for posting!

  21. Bob, I just listened to your interview with Dan Blank – fantastic stuff! I always appreciate the reminder to put the book first, and that the best way to sell books is to write more good books. It’s so easy to get sucked into the social media world and focus on one book at a time, instead of looking at the entire arc.

  22. I’m small potatoes in comparison, Bob, but have had this same experience in my genre and with my books / ebooks. It’s great you speak out about this freely ( some are afraid to, why? Like you said, it’s not likely anyone’s paying attention ) thanks for the great post.

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