No doubt about it: today's bookstore buyers are having to devote more time than ever wading through stacks of new-title catalogues. Indeed, buying sessions with corporatized publishers' reps run longer than Gone with the Wind. Despite these herculean efforts to keep up with new titles, however, backlist remains the most important component of an independent bookstore's stock. Comprehensive knowledge of older titles and the output of backlist-heavy smaller presses -- as well as the unceasing effort to keep those titles in stock -- define the independent bookstore. As Diana Gilbert, owner of Books and Company in Oconomowoc, Wis., puts it, "This is where bookselling becomes more than just ringing up the merchandise."
"There is always great pleasure in introducing a great classic or an old favorite to a reader," she adds. "I can walk down any aisle in the store and can pull out 20 titles I could recommend." That many of those titles are displayed face-out and in special table-top displays underscores the importance she and other retailers place on older titles.
If backlist plays to the strengths of independents -- the professional knowledge of staff members and their ability to provide a high level of personalized customer service, it also translates into sales and margins. The mix of frontlist to backlist has shifted over the years, as chain stores have come to represent the discounted frontlist bestseller, say many independent retailers. Many of those interviewed by PW said as much as three-quarters of their revenue derives from backlist sales. (Backlist is generally understood by publishers as referring to titles at least a year old.) For these booksellers, there's a growing sense that new spring titles have already been relegated to the book boneyard by the following Christmas season, leaving those titles floundering without adequate marketing support. In some instances, those titles may even be out-of-stock or out-of-print, with booksellers complaining about the difficulties of trying to track down the "lost" titles.
Yet most booksellers report that backlist sales continue to flourish despite the occasional frustrations of keeping backlist in stock when dealing with large corporations in transition (Bookselling, Sept. 20). Powell's in Portland, Ore., for example, reports that its backlist sales with one publisher -- Random House -- were up 17% last year, while frontlist sales with RH were down 9%.
But backlist isn't only the domain of independent booksellers. As if to explode the myth that chain superstores are weighted heavily toward bestsellers, Barnes & Noble spokesperson Debra Williams tells PW that 70% of that chain's sales come from backlist, including in such categories as fiction, gardening, children's books and home reference. She mentions various market factors contributing to the success of backlist. The release of a book-based movie, such as the forthcoming Cider House Rules, always stimulates sales of the older title -- and possibly others by that same author. Baby boomers' nostalgic recollection of the classic literature of their youth has also been a factor in backlist children's and classic literature sales. Williams attributes B&N's success with backlist to a concerted effort on the part of the bookseller to create awareness of authors' backlist titles when a new title is published. A recent example: when new biographies of Ernest Hemingway by Jeffrey Meyers (Hemingway, a Biography) and Michael Reynolds (Hemingway: The Final Years) came out, Barnes & Noble promoted all of Hemingway's backlist. "A significant number of those titles made our bestseller list," Williams says.
Impact of Mergers
It's too soon to tell whether the recent mergers and acquisition frenzy at the big houses will affect the kinds of titles publishers choose to keep in print, because titles are always going out of print. One mitigating factor in the good health of backlist is the continual emergence of small presses on the lookout for promising out-of-print titles from the big houses and willing to commit to maintaining these titles over longer periods of time. As Carla Cohen, co-owner of Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C., puts it, "[The small presses] don't need to make so much money on a book."
One of the most vexing problems for booksellers is out-of-stock books. The often-noted "indefinite" status of many unavailable titles frustrates many booksellers, who wish publishers would be more informative about their plans for reprinting. Korje Guttormsen, who buys backlist for Kepler's in Menlo Park, Calif., tells PW, "We do a summer reading table, books the whole staff picks, and we all write up recommendations. One of our staff members picked The Book of Ebenezer Le Page [Moyer Bell, 1995], and we sold all 22 copies. Now we can't get it any more: it's out of stock, but not out of print. It's a shame, because this book could have developed a great following here. That kind of thing happens a lot."
Most independent booksellers agree that backlist continues to grow in importance both philosophically and economically, despite the consolidation of houses, shifting imprints and axed titles and authors. At Northshire Books in Manchester, Vt., owner Ed Morrow says that one of the biggest problems in dealing with consolidated publishers about backlist concerns ISBNs. Theoretically, when a publisher consolidates or sells off, all the prefixes should change uniformly -- but they don't. Some are changed, others aren't; the whole process, says Morrow, appears to be arbitrary. So certain titles appear to be "lost," i.e., either untraceable or lost in a confusion over ISBNs that have been reassigned but not given proper notice.
Despite these kinds of complications, there's no lack of good backlist books, say Morrow and others who devote the time and effort it sometimes takes to track them down. Whether imprints of large houses (e.g., Harper's Perennial and Flamingo; Little, Brown's Back Bay Books; or Houghton Mifflin's Mariner), independent presses such as Walker or Academy Chicago or university presses such as the University Press of New England's Hardscrabble Classics, there are more than enough publishers, booksellers say, who are making a strong backlist commitment.
The Net Factor
Korje Guttormsen believes that the Internet has significantly contributed to Kepler's success with older titles. Specifically, virtual bookstores with good search engines -- such as Amazon.com -- are creating demand for obscure books that cannot easily be found. "So many people have computers and surf around, and books in print is virtually right there," Guttormsen says. "Customers think when they see a book there, that it's available. But that's not always the case, so it gives us an opportunity to recommend titles that are available."
"We think the fact that our database is helping book lovers with the broadest possible selection of books is great," Amazon.com spokesperson Libby Johnson McKee tells PW. "We love to be a resource, whether people buy from us or their local independent. It's just good for everyone."
McKee says backlist constitutes a "strong majority of our sales." One indicator: of the Amazon.com Top 100, 31 titles are backlist. She agrees that the burgeoning of backlist is largely due to the revolution caused by the Net. One thing that the Web is doing, McKee says, is breathing new life into old titles. "One of the greatest benefits of Amazon.com is that we treat every title as a new book, no matter what year it's been published. That means that all 3.2 million books we list are displayed face-out, along with review quotes and author and reader comments."
Yet another major factor in the shifting emphasis toward backlist titles has been the renaissance of book reading groups across the country, which often pursue the leading backlist categories -- fiction, mystery, history, sociology and biography.
Book groups are key to the success of backlist at the Joseph Beth Book Group, says Jen Haller, director of purchasing. The Group's six stores -- in Cincinnati, Ohio; Lexington, Ky.; Nashville; Memphis; Jackson, Miss.; and Knoxville, Tenn. -- each service between 60 and 100 reading groups, all heavily into regional Southern literature. Book groups receive a 10% discount on all listed titles, and staff members frequently help facilitate group discussions. The stores have reading club tables with reading group guides that emphasize backlist titles, along with stacks of books.
The members of the nine book groups that meet for dinner at Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont, Pa., are among the "reading junkies" hooked on category fiction, a habit that some customers spend thousands of dollars a year on, says store co-owner Mary Alice Gorman. And more often than not, customers won't buy just one book in a series -- they'll buy all five or seven at a shot.
"Other bookstores may lament an out-of-print book, but I'm not in that camp," says Gorman's husband and co-owner, Richard Goldman. "With two or three hundred mysteries a month being published, where are they all going to go? I recognize the reality for publishers when a title d sn't sell. Where we find it disturbing is when it's hit or miss -- when there are five books in a series, two are in print and three are unavailable."
Since booksellers rely heavily on backlist titles from publishers both large and small, it follows that they have developed certain favorite houses. The following is a sampling of publishers singled out by bookstores.
Dutton's, Los Angeles:
Owner Doug Dutton recommends Dalkey Archives for books that are "timeless rather than timely"; New York Review of Books Publishing for books that deserve to be in print, "not because they're about the rich and famous but because they're addressing important subjects -- there's a with-it-ness about them"; and Da Capo Press, for "filling in with titles that are the primary statements of authors, composers and writers that complete our history of them."
Politics and Prose, Washington, D.C.:
Owner Carla Cohen commends Steerforth for its reissue of major Italian authors; Counterpoint for reissuing James Salter and Gina Berriault; Northwestern University Press for publishing the works of Eastern European authors; and the University of Chicago Press for keeping authors like Paul Scott and Margaret Lawrence in print.
Kepler's, Menlo Park, Calif.:
The buying staff recommends Timber Press for its technical yet accessible gardening books and books on classical music that you don't see anywhere else, e.g., a biography of Fritz Kreisler and books on flamenco; Algonquin for its selection of literature and books that are beautiful to look at and nice to hold; Workman for its overall high quality and especially for its cookbooks; Vintage for its broad selection of excellent authors; Bantam for a very good selection and good terms; Black Sparrow for keeping some of the greats, like William Burroughs and Charles Bukowski, in print; and for their overall high quality, kudos go to the University of Chicago Press; Farrar, Straus & Giroux; and Norton.
The Hue-Man Experience, Denver:
According to store owner Clara Villarosa, backlist publisher nods go to Black Classics Press, for the kinds of nonfiction, politically based titles mainstream presses don't do; Just Us Books, for a large selection of paperback children's books; African American Images, for material relating to the education of African-American children, rites of passage and coming of age, and black economics; Third World Press, for p try and issue-oriented books relevant to the black community; and Africa World Press, for issues relating to Africa and other Third World countries.
Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle:
Random House's Vintage, Modern Library and Everyman's Library imprints do an exceptional job of keeping backlist in print, as d s HarperCollins -- both offer good seasonal discounts and their turnaround time on shipping is great. Gray Wolf Press is recommended for its deep backlist in literature, and Sun and Moon Press brings an interesting backlist of titles, especially translations of classic European authors, back into focus.
Northshire Books, Manchester Ctr., Vt.:
The University Press of New England's Hardscrabble Classics imprint specializes in regional titles -- "they actually respond to suggestions from people," says store owner Ed Morrow. Also recommended for their "classy, elegant" handling of backlist are Steerforth; Vintage; Little, Brown's Back Bay imprint, which reissued James Wilcox and C.S. Forester; Houghton Mifflin's Mariner imprint, which reissued Penelope Fitzgerald; and Picador, an imprint of St. Martin's, which keeps alive the work of Fred Chappell.
The Joseph Beth Group:
Accolades go to the University of Kentucky Press for its excellent backlist of Southern authors, including James Still and George Ella Lyon. Other exceptional backlist publishers throughout Joseph Beth's six stores include Penguin Putnam for a recent Boys of Summer series reissue; HarperCollins (particularly its Perennial and Flamingo titles); and Academy Chicago Press for quality books done with great flair. -- M.J.
Goldman ech s the views of a number of general booksellers with strong sections in category fiction. He suggests that more publishers avail themselves of Ingram's on-demand printing system, Lightning Print, to solve the problem of keeping series fiction backlist titles in circulation, while addressing the problems publishers have with warehousing, returns and general wastefulness. It's a particularly attractive solution to retailers like Goldman, who plugs into Ingram's ordering and distribution system for all his ordering.
But most large houses have been slow to take advantage of on-demand printing. Since its inception in January 1998, Lightning Print Inc. has only 4750 titles listed, with approximately 90% of those backlist. Fiction, religion, history, biography and classic literature lead the list of categories of digitized stock. Yet only such small houses and university presses as Cambridge University Press, Artech House, Firebird Press, Free Press, Johns Hopkins University Press, Shambhala Publications and Westminster Press seem to have made a significant commitment to digital technology.
Larry Brewster, v-p and general manager of LPI, says the inertia at the big houses may be attributed to an increasingly conglomerated industry in transition. "To some extent they just don't know how to handle it," he says of the technology. "It takes work on the publisher's end just to find out if they still have the rights to the book. For example, it was very surprising to me that a lot of publishers don't even keep copies of these books. In many cases, they have to go to used-book dealers to get us a copy just to set them up."
Meanwhile, other players are recognizing the benefits of on-demand printing and are starting their own efforts. Last June, Borders announced a business alliance with Sprout Inc. (News, June 7), which has a database of 1300 titles. Company spokesperson Ann Binkley says the chain retailer is still testing the system at its distribution center in LaVergne, Tenn., for possible rollout to its stores. Meanwhile, Borders, for whom backlist is a significant revenue component, continually tracks and distributes backlist titles through its proprietary Expert System, a large database used by the buyers to select which titles create the highest interest and sales in which areas of the country.
Though many large publishers are slow to move to on-demand, hundreds of bookstores are ordering on-demand books -- sometimes whether they know it or not, says Larry Brewster. In a typical week, Ingram prints 5000 volumes, of which about 25% are going to chain and virtual stores, especially Barnes & Noble, Borders and Amazon.com. When an order comes in for a book that is out-of-print or out-of-stock, that order is passed on to LPI.
"I think the potential is exciting in terms of standing in an 8000 square-foot store that can really only carry 40,000 titles, but is able to offer a customer 80,000," says Haller of the Joseph Beth Group. "The question becomes one of, how do you market those titles to your customer?" Since the real enablers of the on-demand issue are the search engines that are available to anyone with Internet access, one possible solution would be for bookstores to make that resource available on the premises; if a customer wanted to research a certain topic and found titles that matched, the order could be placed and the book delivered, in most cases, in a matter of a few days.
Probably the single most successful way booksellers are marketing older titles is through the non-salesy, straight-from-the-horse's-mouth endorsements of staff members who read and want to pass their recommendations along to other readers. Calling attention to books with shelf-talkers -- short recommendations written up by staff members, usually posted on the shelf right below a book -- reap results. Williams at B&N says that device has proved to be one of the chain's most successful ways of marketing backlist titles. At Book People in Austin, the Texas authors section at the front of the store is replete with shelf-talkers, making it the store's biggest draw. Assistant general manager Rick Klaw says a shelf-talker will automatically increase sales anywhere from three to five times over what a book would do without the endorsement. At Elliott Bay Books in Seattle, ever since a staff member discovered a seven-year-old biography of Gary Gilmore, Shot in the Dark, and wrote up a shelf-talker, the book has been selling 10 to 15 copies a week. At Kepler's, one particularly inspired recommendation for a Harlan Ellison title caught the eye of a friend of the author. As a result, Ellison came for a store appearance -- and that event generated a lot of book sales.
"Every time I hire a new person I immediately ask him or her to give us their 'staff picks,' " says Nancy Olson, owner of Quail Ridge Bookstore in Raleigh, N.C. "I don't care if it's 100 years old -- if it's a good book and it's in print, put it up there. That seems to be all it takes to spur the sales. I also have book reports at our staff meetings. That way we can recommend the book to customers even when [staff are] not there."
Cross merchandising has become a significant factor in the success of backlist titles at virtual stores. Amazon.com lists a "detail page" on which all an author's backlist titles appear, with the corresponding links. Amazon's McKee says this has been a tremendous boost to backlist -- for example, a new title listing for Frank McCourt's 'Tis with links to the author's backlist has doubled sales of Angela's Ashes in the last four weeks. Another example she cites is that Julie Andrews's current title, Little Bo, linked to her 1989 The Last of the Really Great Wangdoodles, which has revived interest in the backlist title.
"Themed merchandising" is another aspect of the virtual bookstore's success with backlist. For example, books on carbohydrates or personal investing -- current hot categories -- link to similar titles, which has proved a tremendous spur to sales of backlist titles such as The Carbohydrate Addict's Lifespan Program and The Millionaire Next Door.
Many publishers are including book lists bound inside the books. At Denver's Tattered Cover, buyer Margaret Maupin commends Ballantine and Norton, in particular, for their efforts to make people aware of older titles with this practice. "It's a terrific way to sell backlist," she says. Other bookstores publish their own bibliographies and reading lists, and often post these on their Web site. Davis-Kidd in Nashville puts out school reading lists for those seasonal times when backlist fiction reading is emphasized -- the summer months and the back-to-school season. Quail Ridge Bookstore highlights its "Oldies But Goodies" in its newsletter and on its Web site, and will, like other independents, link on to the ABA's Book Sense site with those titles.
Retailers applaud those publishers who make an effort to dress up older titles in new clothes, with new cover art and formatting -- particularly when it's a series with one well-known author and other lesser names, a series of international authors or when a publisher brings out an author's backlist such as Broadway Books' treatment of the Tim O'Brien books, which, Jen Haller notes, have given those titles a second shelf life.
Whatever the technique, any effort made to spotlight an older title usually pays off, says Maupin. "A publisher can help by repackaging the book, updating the cover, creating special displays and so forth, but I still think these are books people just want. They just need to be reminded that they're out there, alive and well." Jones is a Southwestern freelance writer and backlist author.