Backlist titles have been a key driver of sales for trade book publishers over the last 12 months and, at a May 25 U.S. Book Show panel sponsored by BookBub, representatives from four major houses discussed strategies on how to continue to build a publisher’s backlist revenue.

Panelists agreed that the pandemic was the major reason backlist sales have soared as more buying shifted online, an environment that tends to favor backlist titles over new releases. This appeared to be the case for categories that have typically been strong areas for online backlist sales as well as for outliers. “New trends in horror, dystopian fiction, and other genre titles have dominated the backlists,” said Kavita Wright, director of online marketing at Sourcebooks. Mary Urban, associate director of digital sales at Hachette Book Group, added: “We’ve seen growth in unconventional categories like cooking for bread baking and domestic travel.”

The pandemic “brought the long tail in a big way,” Penguin Random House Publisher Services v-p of marketing Matthew Shatz said, referring to a concept analyzed at length in Chris Anderson’s 2006 book The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More. The long tail theory asserts that products in low demand can collectively build a larger market share than a few high sellers over a given amount of time. “For 20 years, we didn’t really see it that way,” Shatz said. “But with Covid-19, the concept just might be a concrete example of the long tail at work.”

But how does a publisher identify those low-volume titles, picking them out of the backlist to boost sales and discoverability? “The two real pillars are data and metadata,” Urban said. “You want a healthy knowledge of your backlist so that everyone can come up with new ideas for opportunities.” This could mean anything from being quick to update titles' metadata and BISAC codes to changing the front- or backmatter of e-books and designing new covers. “Don’t assume that your top backlist sellers are perfect and doing fine on their own,” Urban added.

Publishers are also employing backlist in adventurous ways. “A lot of times, we use our backlist as a Trojan horse for frontlist titles,” said Suzanne Donahue, v-p and director of backlist at Atria Books. “We run a deal on a brand name author’s previous book about six weeks before the publication date of the new book, making sure to have a preorder link in the backmatter to entice readers.”

The panelist agreed that it remains unclear whether online shopping will continue to grow as the pandemic winds down and physical retail starts opening up. Still, Wright foresees lots of interest in outdoor activity, with a projected 72% increase in travel; she argued that “the next nine months will be among the most interesting in retail history.”

The panelists also agreed that the data shows that readers have rediscovered the joy of books and reading. “A book might be 50 years old for us, but for a new reader, it’s brand new,” Donahue said. As such, the backlist, she noted, has become a bastion of possible sales growth—now more than ever.