According to a recent informal survey of publishers, backlist is to publishing as gold is to Fort Knox. Backlist is a publisher's reason for being; it keeps them going, and it is the standard against which all other publishing currency is measured. Backlist is what every publisher hopes frontlist will become when it grows up.
After the publisher has taken the initial hit on plant costs and launch marketing, in other words, the nonrecurring costs generally associated with the first year of publication, subsequent reprints and the continuing sale of a book are immensely profitable. "Pure gold," as one insider put it.
Buzz Teacher, president of Running Press (and son of bookstore owners), tells a tale that drives the message home. "My brother and I grew up in a general bookstore in Washington, D.C.," he says. "We saw that people came in and bought certain titles regularly. When we started this company, we based it on backlist. We publish for backlist. You create a selection of titles, know who you are publishing for and then you have an ongoing audience for that book."
Other publishers testify to the value of backlist in reverential terms. In an era of big hits, instant books and shelf life approximating the life cycle of mayflies, backlist represents redemption from all that is crass, superficial and pointless in commercial publishing today. Backlist is the "good and lasting" that pardons the fleeting and faddish nature of many titles from which publishers are pleased to profit but somewhat embarrassed to publish. "We don't jump on a trend just for the sake of it," explains Michael Kerber, president of Tuttle, which has long published timeless books on Eastern wisdom and philosophy. "We're not going to publish something like 'Zen and the Art of Investing' -- although someone probably will. We stick with what we know and what will backlist."
At Abrams, president and publisher Paul Gottlieb tells PW, "Backlist is the backbone of our company. We launch books for the long term, and backlist represents 60% of our annual sales volume." Katie Monaghan, publicist at DK, concurs, "Backlist is the biggest part of our business. Unlike many publishing houses, DK is essentially a backlist company. Backlist sales account for an astonishing 66% of our yearly profits, and this number increases yearly." Pat Johnson, associate publisher at Knopf, says, "Backlist is a real focus here -- sales are up in double digits as of the end of August."
Lizanne Hart, director of marketing at Plume, ech s many of her colleagues: "Backlist is simply the engine that drives us. It is a huge percentage of what we do." She reports that Plume has an active backlist of around 1000 titles. "Backlist is very important to us," says Trace Murphy, senior editor at Doubleday Religious Publishing. "It accounts for at least half of our turnover."
Unlike blockbuster publishing, backlist is a steady reorder business. "Our advance orders from retail customers," says Amy Rhodes, sales and marketing v-p at Abrams, "represent less than 50% of what our total sale is for a book." According to Norman Lidofsky, president of sales for Penguin Putnam paperback imprints, "Forty percent of our sales come from backlist -- the classic backlist authors are constantly reordered and thriving." Observes Tuttle sales director Steve Fischer, "One reason backlist is more profitable than frontlist is that it is a reorder business. There are minimal returns on backlist."
One of the publishers appearing to derive the greatest percentage of its sales from backlist is Avery, a publisher of trade paperback titles specializing in health, alternative healing, nutrition and healthy cooking: 85% of its income flows from books already published -- an asset that no doubt made them an attractive target to Penguin Putnam, which acquired the company in September. Avery publishes an average of 50 new titles a year, says marketing director Evan Schwartz, and at any time has 600-700 backlist titles. He tells PW, "We try not to put a book out of print, though some only sell a few hundred copies a year."
In a twist on the backlist theme that seems to prove its importance, iBooks Inc., created by Byron Preiss, is being launched this fall with a primary emphasis on previously published titles. According to Preiss, the motto of the new enterprise is "The Best of the Past, the Best of the Future." The books will be published simultaneously in trade paper (distributed by Simon & Schuster) and on the Web (iBooks.com). Categories covered, Preiss says, will be mystery, science, history, science fiction and "classic American popular fiction" -- the latter under the American Visions imprint with titles by Irving Wallace, James Earl Jones and Howard Fast. "We will publish three to four titles a month," he notes, "none of which are in the public domain." Howard Fast's The Crossing is being published to coincide with an A&E special on George Washington set to air in January.
Promotion -- The Art & Science
Publishers' cunning and creativity work overtime in promoting backlist titles. While frontlist is usually ballyho d in tandem with current events and trends, riding the wave of contemporary culture, backlist titles require more invention and long-term planning, as well as speed and flexibility in responding to opportunities as they come up.
With the constant flood of new titles coming off the presses backed by big marketing dollars and publicity buzz, booksellers often have to be reminded and nudged to restock backlist and to provide ongoing shelf space for it. It is a constant juggling act in which both publishers and retailers must engage, meting out limited dollars and display space as the times and circumstances seem to warrant. Publishers want to load in a pyramid of their latest blockbuster to the front of the store, while maintaining a lock for their previously published titles on the category shelves throughout the rest of the store. Give and take on both sides is involved. The situation is often similar within publishing houses: marketers with divergent frontlist or backlist responsibilities have to compete for limited resources.
Most publishers include backlist titles in their seasonal catalogues and use the trusty "stock offer" with added discount and extended dating once or twice a year to lure booksellers into committing space and inventory dollars to titles that do not fly off the shelves but saunter steadily out the door one by one. The publisher's reasoning would appear to be "Better in your store than in my warehouse -- I've already paid the printer's bill."
But the stock offer is only ground zero when it comes to backlist promotion, for publishers tirelessly cook up all kinds of additional angles and campaigns to extend a title's life. Sometimes it's a movie or a political campaign that creates renewed enthusiasm in-house for a backlist book, sometimes it's declining sales figures for a tried and true title, but whatever the impetus, the underlying motive is to sell more of an underperforming asset.
First, the physical product is evaluated for current appeal and, if its look is tired or dated, it gets jazzed up for today's consumer. The type might be reset, the book redesigned, illustrations added, the cover changed -- in order to turn out a package the reader would want to take home. Then the marketing and merchandising campaigns have to be formulated, costed out and scheduled, a process involving many departments within the company working in unison.
At Simon & Schuster, senior v-p Christine Lloreda says, "Customers today have higher expectations. It is so important to keep books fresh. Many of our backlist titles are rewrites, from updates all the way to new editions. We repackage on a regular basis and so have books selling 10-15 years after they were first published." Lloreda, whose responsibilities include the trade paperback imprints Fireside, Touchstone and Scribner paperback fiction, adds, "We have 1500-2000 very active backlist titles and hold weekly reprint meetings."
Terry Adams, marketing director at Little Brown, has become, as he puts it, "a man obsessed with the promotion of backlist." One of his responsibilities in recent years has been to dust off and burnish the literary gems in Little, Brown's attic, works by the likes of Edith Hamilton, Lillian Hellman, Evelyn Waugh and C.S. Forester. "A classic instance of keeping an important book alive and selling is Edith Hamilton's Mythology," says Adams. "It was first published in 1942 in hardcover and has been in print continuously since then. But we long ago licensed the paperback rights; NAL has had it in mass market for decades. Only recently did we take back the rights and create a whole new package for this new generation of readers."
Other instances of reclaiming rights and/or rejuvenating valuable titles at Little, Brown include recent reissues of Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon and The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder. Major series reissues Adams is working on are Hellman's autobiographical trilogy, Forester's Hornblower series (eight of which are now out, with the remaining three due next year) and the resurrection of Waugh's corpus simultaneous with the Little, Brown hardcover publication of The Complete Stories of Evelyn Waugh. "We have repackaged six of his bestselling novels," Adams says, "giving them a fresher family look." Adams says further that the process, executed under the Back Bay trade paper imprint, was essentially "an exercise in branding, and we have received a tremendous response from the market. This kind of thing is exactly what stores are looking for."
Philip Patrick, associate director of marketing for Vintage and Anchor, tells PW that backlist promotion is an ongoing activity for its rich vein of literary oldsters. Vintage has no less than five movie tie-ins it's promoting this fall: Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson; Anywhere but Here by Mona Simpson; Bringing Out the Dead by J Connelly; Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen; and The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith. This past summer, Vintage's Black Lizard mystery line, which boasts Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Highsmith, among other luminaries, received a "30%“40% increase in sales," notes Patrick, as a result of a promotion with USA Today involving a writing contest in which readers emulated their favorite PI or sleuth. "We devote a lot of time to backlist, says Patrick. "We hold reprint meetings every week in which 30-40 titles are always sent back to press."
The launch of the Perennial Classics imprint at HarperCollins last year is yet another example of keeping a good thing going over time. Perennial Classics, the brainchild of HarperPerennial editorial director Susan Weinberg -- nurtured along by HC CEO Jane Friedman and Perennial marketing director Jennifer Hart -- will have a total of 35 titles by January 2000. Weinberg, unable to find a presentable Perennial edition of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn for a child's birthday, found herself reviewing the entire line with a critical eye. She felt that more should be done to promote the titles and that they would benefit from a series look and an updated package. The format was changed from rack size to trade paper because the price differential was insignificant and the appearance vastly improved. The program continues to publish two and sometimes three titles a month with ongoing marketing support.
Sister company Harper San Francisco, which, according to senior editor Stephen Hanselman, specializes in "books that illuminate diverse religious traditions," has a current category promotion going that segments backlist titles according to the themes of quest, faith, wisdom, rituals and the divine.
Still another instance of backlist longevity can be found at Modern Library, which was founded in 1917 with the publication of The Picture of Dorian Gray. According to publishing director David Ebershoff, "Bennett Cerf produced another edition when he acquired the Library in 1925, and when we relaunched the Modern Library in the early 1990s, our first book was The Picture of Dorian Gray -- hich was also the first of our paperbacks introduced in the summer of 1998." He adds that Modern Library's current list comprises about 300 books, with 65-75 new books and editions released annually.
Of Penguins, Pelicans and More
Penguin Putnam has major repackaging and promotions underway for the Pelican Shakespeare series and the Sharpe series by Bernard Cornwell (men's historical fiction). Meanwhile, the company continues to promote and publish the Penguin Classics Cornerstone Program, which promotes the company's Classic and Twentieth Century Classic titles. The Pelican Shakespeare series, just relaunched, was originally published from 1956 through 1967. The new editions have been completely revamped with new scholarship, new introductions, essays, notes and covers, reports publicity director Maureen Donnelly. "All 42 volumes of plays and p ms will be published in new editions by the end of the year 2000, with a hardcover edition of The Complete Pelican Shakespeare due January 2001," she says. The Penguin Classics Cornerstone Program, launched in the mid-'90s, has two levels, tied to minimum stock orders, at which retailers may participate. To date, Penguin has more than 275 Cornerstone accounts, plus Borders and Barnes & Noble superstores.
Anniversaries and the millennium are other occasions these days offering backlist promotional opportunities. Abrams, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, has initiated a year-long campaign to get booksellers to stock up on key backlist titles, stressing its rich diversity in backlist. Abrams has attached special offers to two series, Discoveries and Masters of Art, including added discount, dating and freight-free complimentary spinners.
Alaska Northwest, an imprint of Graphic Arts Center Publishing, is having its 40th birthday party this month. In order to promote its 100-plus backlist titles, Alaska Northwest offered the first 40 bookstores to sign up a $40 credit, co-op, balloons, posters and bookmarks and sponsored in-store birthday parties.
DK is publishing 15 of its most celebrated titles in "special limited Millennium Classic editions," says Monaghan, "all dressed up in new silver jackets." Titles include Sister Wendy's Story of Painting, Illustrated Oxford Dictionary and Smithsonian Timelines of the Ancient World.
A Healthy Marketplace
All in all, these are good times for backlist, saypublishers. As a result of the advent of superstores and online retailers, which have increased the overall availability of books, sales are soaring. Charles Nurnberg, executive v-p at Sterling Publishers, which has a huge backlist of 3500-4000 crafts titles, notes, "Superstores are wonderful for us, and online is a growing market and a great market for backlist." He adds that the electronic age in general has been a boost to the backlist business: "Thank God for computers. By replacing gut instinct in reordering they have helped the business immeasurably."
Susan McDonnell, director of trade sales for Checkmark Books, the trade imprint of Facts on File, agrees with Nurnberg: "Online sales have been incremental for us. We have been able to make our books available to more readers; even our Facts on File library editions, which are short discount, are doing surprisingly well. Online retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble have such great search engines that the visibility of even esoteric titles has been increased tremendously." Checkmark has a core backlist of 300 titles, says McDonnell, which contributes 75% of its sales.
"Backlist is getting new play," observes Evan Schwartz at Avery. "People are buying even the arcane, unusual titles, such as our Coping with Lymphoma, online. The simple fact that people can research and find the titles they need, aside from any promotion or marketing, has been a huge factor." Schwartz says Avery sales have also benefited from numerous health-based Internet sites.
"Everyone has experienced online bookselling as a boon to backlist, even deep backlist," HC's Weinberg tells PW, adding that "the shelf space superstores afford backlist is just great." Pat Johnson at Knopf agrees: "Across the board it is a good time for backlist. You can get a lot of information on the Web. And independents can take a couple of areas to specialize in and enlarge, making them experts in a certain field."
"Superstores have been a tremendous boost to backlist," says Marcia Burch, v-p of marketing at Penguin. "We saw a huge bump in sales when they took off, and it has continued for us. And online booksellers have been amazing. Amazon is very responsive to the marketplace. We can see an instant reaction to topical events in our sales there. Things happen out of the blue, and because they stock backlist broadly and deeply, they can respond quickly to spikes in orders."
"Backlist is doing better than ever before," Plume's Lizanne Hart confirms. "To the extent that we can keep books fresh and relevant, it's just amazing the sales that can come in from online sources." Among the authors that Plume is currently freshening up to benefit from this new wave are Toni Morrison, Diane Johnson and Ayn Rand.
"We have so many more outlets today," says Lloreda at Simon & Schuster. "It is the best time ever for backlist. We have to be very vigilant about keeping a book in stock. Books can be sold just about anywhere. Every time you open another channel, it's another opportunity. The Internet is another new mode." She adds that in today's market, "One size d sn't fit all. Society is segmented, and we have to work harder to target markets."
Everything Old Is New Again
In a striking turnaround from the 1970s and '80s, the future looks rosy for books published to last. TV, video and the computer revolution signaled to many cultural critics the demise of serious publishing for the long term. A craven dependence on talk-show hosts and the latest fashion or fad produced such books as The Beverly Hills Diet and the many Rubik's Cube titles -- blockbusters for a moment, but eclipsed and ultimately outsold by titles of lasting value. Could it be, that after the turmoil of adjusting to a new age, along with mergers and acquisitions dislocating many publishing professionals, the industry is entering a renaissance in which books will no longer be tied to such transitory phenomenon as the Hula Hoop but to the perennial concerns of humankind? What a concept.