The myth of backlist and a dramatic change in publishing
Posted by Bob Mayer
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?
Backlist is gold. Frontlist is even better!
About Bob MayerBob 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 author, Bob Mayer, E-book, eBooks, ePublishing, Future, Mark Coker, Publishing, Self-Publishing, Smashwords. Bookmark the permalink. 26 Comments.