In explaining the steep drop in Penguin Group USA’s profits for the first six months of 2012, CEO David Shanks said one important factor was the decline in backlist sales. Borders was an important customer for Penguin’s backlist, especially its classics line, so the collapse of the chain hurt Penguin more than some other publishers’ backlist offerings.

But the decline in print adult backlist sales is occurring at more than just Penguin. According to Nielsen BookScan data, print units of fiction backlist titles fell 30% in the period ended July 22 compared to the same time period in 2011, while nonfiction backlist was off 13%. Print unit sales of nonfiction frontlist were off 10% in the period, while sales of frontlist were up 2% (thanks primarily to Fifty Shades).

In addition to the closure of Borders, the loss of shelf space at other outlets has dragged down print backlist sales, and that hasn’t been offset by gains of print backlist sales through online retailers, Shanks said. “With literally millions of titles available online, the chances that someone will find your book are decreased immeasur­ably,” Shanks explained. “There is just too much to choose from. How many screens do you browse before you get tired and just pick something that you have seen.” At Simon & Schuster, CEO Carolyn Reidy said print backlist is down across the board, but said that sales of backlist e-books have grown. While other major houses wouldn’t comment on their backlist results for the record, there was general agreement with Reidy and Shanks on the subject, with sources noting that print sales of backlist e-books are up.

Several executives agreed that e-books, in addition to eating into sales of frontlist print books, are also taking a larger percentage of backlist sales as well. According to Bowker Market Research, in the fourth quarter of 2011 (after Borders closed) e-books accounted for 35% of unit sales in the literary classic segment, long a backlist mainstay. Out of Amazon’s top 100 bestselling Kindle titles of the year through August 1, 29 were backlist, including such former frontlist blockbusters as The Help, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt trade president Gary Gentel said there is “no doubt” that the move to e-books is affecting the sale of backlist titles, and he provided some HMH math. At the publisher, the print book sales ratio of titles is 40% frontlist/60% backlist while for e-books it is 20/80. “What this says to me is that with the decline of physical space, which cuts into the display of mid and deep backlist, consumers are moving to e-books because of availability,” Gentel said. One reason e-book backlist is growing is that readers who finish an e-book and want to read more titles by that author can immediately download the title, publishers said.

Publishers and booksellers agreed that it is not that the remaining bookstores aren’t selling backlist, it’s that there are fewer existing stores. David Didriksen, owner of Willow Books & Cafe in Acton, Mass., said he still sells lots of backlist and would sell more if publishers’ terms were better. (Penguin has the best terms, Didriksen noted.) “The credit terms are so strict. We had to return $20,000 worth of backlist in December,” Didriksen said. Chris Morrow of Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, Vt., has had much the same experience. For publishers that offer dating and other experimental terms, backlist sales are up, but houses that have traditional terms are losing sales as Northshire is forced to return inventory, he said. Books & Books owner Mitchell Kaplan, in Coral Gables, Fla., observed that many publishers could be missing out on backlist sales by not putting their backlist books into Edelweiss.

For Shanks, the loss of physical shelf space, the proliferation of titles online, and growth of e-books sales means the promise of the long tail for print books has been permanently altered. “There is a long tail, but it is so long the units are small.”

Adult Print Backlist Sales 2011–2012*

Genre 2011 2012 % Change
Fiction 39,264.0 27,447.0 -30%
Nonfiction 86,748.0 75,710.0 -13

Adult Print Frontlist Sales 2011–2012

Genre 2011 2012 % Change
Fiction 51,025.0 51,856.0 2%
Nonfiction 54,962.0 45,979.0 -16