What is a Backlist Book?

backlist book

Definition of a Backlist Book

What is a backlist book? Good question. 

By definition, a backlist is a list of books from an author or publisher that is currently available, but has been on the market for over a year. In other words, a paperback, hardcover, or ebook that remains on sale and is over a year old.

The Backlist Catalog

Every book that wasn’t published during the current season qualifies for the backlist catalog. While this term is usually associated with publishing houses, it also applies to the individual author. For instance, well-known novels like “The Stand” and “Animal Farm” are both backlist titles, though they remain wildly popular.

The Backlist’s Impact on Publishing

Backlist sales have long been the backbone of the publishing industry, often serving as a steady and reliable source of revenue for both publishers and authors. Unlike frontlist titles, which are newly published works that garner the bulk of marketing efforts and media attention, backlist titles rely on their enduring appeal to readers over the years. 

Historical Perspective

Traditionally, the publishing industry has seen the majority of its profits not from the initial surge of sales that accompanies a book’s release, but from the steady accumulation of sales over time from its backlist. This is because backlist titles have already incurred and recovered their initial production and marketing costs, making their continued sales more profitable on a per-unit basis.

Revenue Stability

Backlist sales provide a form of financial stability to publishers and authors, offering a predictable and consistent revenue stream that complements the uncertain nature of new releases. For many publishers, especially smaller ones, this revenue is vital for sustaining operations and funding new projects. It acts as a financial cushion that can absorb the unpredictability of the book market.

Profit Margins

The profit margins on backlist titles are typically higher than those of new releases. This is because the costs associated with editing, designing, and initially marketing the book have already been covered. The ongoing costs for backlist titles are lower, mainly involving storage, distribution, and minimal marketing efforts. As a result, each additional sale of a backlist book contributes more significantly to the bottom line.

Brand and Loyalty Building

For authors, backlist titles play a crucial role in building and maintaining a fan base. Readers who discover a new author will often seek out their earlier works, leading to increased sales of backlist titles. This creates a virtuous cycle, where the success of a new release boosts the sales of older titles, and vice versa, strengthening the author’s brand and reader loyalty.

Catalog Depth

Publishers with extensive backlists can leverage these assets to fill niche markets and meet enduring reader interests. Backlist titles often include classic works, genre-defining pieces, and books that have contributed significantly to cultural conversations. Such works continue to attract readers over time, underscoring the importance of a diverse and robust backlist.

Digital Revolution Impact

The advent of digital publishing and e-books has further amplified the importance of backlist sales. Digital formats reduce the costs associated with storing and distributing physical books, making it easier and more cost-effective to keep older titles available. Additionally, online platforms have made discovering and purchasing backlist titles more accessible for readers, leading to a resurgence of interest in classic and older works.

How Do I Keep My Backlist Selling?

After its initial release and push, sales dwindle for most books. The good news is you can keep your backlist books selling. But making this work takes the right strategy.

Marketing is the best way to draw eyes to your backlist. My student Chuck Buda kept his backlist selling with Amazon advertising. Other authors prefer Facebook ads, Bookbub ads, and newsletter marketing.

Another great idea is to participate in book signings. Your author table represents your brand. Create a setup that is not just visually appealing but also reflects your author persona and the essence of your books. Utilize banners, themed decorations, and well-organized book displays to capture attention.

Price adjustments can spark sales of older books. A one-day or holiday sale often provides the push your book needs to move up the charts and find new readers.

In my experience, the best way to jumpstart stagnant sales is by knocking $5 off my paperback price or lowering my ebook to 99 cents. I don’t do this often, but it’s a reliable method for selling old books.

Last but not least, remember that your next release is the best advertisement for your backlist. Time and again, a new release has shone light on my other books and revitalized their sales.

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