With the introduction of programs such as Indie Next’s Revisit & Rediscover that highlight backlist titles, as well as backlist book swaps at bookseller gatherings, the American Booksellers Association has tried to encourage independent booksellers to carry more backlist titles. Publishers, too, have been pushing for a change. At the start of the year, HarperCollins introduced one of the most innovative programs to date: offering a discount on Harper and Harlequin backlist books for indies.
No extra incentive was needed for some booksellers, such as John Evans, owner of Lemuria Bookstore in Jackson, Miss., to carry a strong backlist selection. “Backstock is how you create your store’s individual identity,” Evans said. “It’s no different than the national, regional, and local authors that come to your store. They’re creating that identity.” Sue Boucher, owner of Cottage Book Shop in Glen Arbor, Mich., agreed: “For us, backlist provides the spice and adds to the adventure of searching through a little bookstore.”
Though Evans also has a deep commitment to frontlist, particularly new books by authors with whom he has developed strong relationships over the course of the past 41 years, his store actively promotes backlist. Lemuria has two rooms dedicated to first editions, and it is one of the few bookstores to seek out hardcover editions of popular paperback titles. “What we found, predominately, is that people prefer hardback if it’s a good book,” said Evans.
Boucher and her staff handsell backlist titles alongside frontlist, and she added a spinner rack to display booksellers’ favorite older books. Despite the store’s location in a summer tourist destination, Cottage Book Shop sells a lot of backlist, and many store sections are primarily backlist. “We would have a hard time selling new hardcovers in sections like self-help/psychology, mystery, history, and bio,” said Boucher.
City Lights Books in San Francisco is even more committed to backlist: books that have sold out their initial orders compose more than 80% of inventory, said head buyer Paul Yamazaki. For him, a major consideration in buying a book is how well it will sell as a backlist title. “We know for a fact,” he said, “that people come [here] for the backlist, small press, and university press titles.” In a bookstore that’s only 2,100 sq. ft., Yamazaki has to be particularly selective regarding frontlist in order to maintain that 80/20 balance. That’s one reason why City Lights decided not to stock Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run, which, Yamazaki noted, is readily available throughout the Bay Area.
As part of its backlist focus, City Lights ensures that 20% of its backlist comes from university presses, including books such as Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings’s Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life (Belknap), which continues to do well in hardcover three years after publication. Booksellers are encouraged to recommend older titles for their staff recommendations, including trade university press books.
Indies located near Amazon’s physical bookstores use backlist to differentiate themselves. Adrian Newell, book buyer and operations manager for the book department at Warwick’s in La Jolla, Calif., said that, though “we are primarily a frontlist store, and 40% of our sales are generated from new hardcovers,” she feels “backlist titles help to make our selection stand out; they make the store more interesting.” She’s willing to try bringing back older books, such as May Sarton’s The Fur Person. “I remembered it from my early days of bookselling,” said Newell, who recently put it at the cash register and sold 39 copies.
Each season Newell meets with her “core” publishers to come up with four or five displays that highlight backlist titles. She’s also noticed a push from publishers to include core backlist in partnership agreements. But it can be hard to carry the number of titles that publishers would like her to in a 2,200-sq.-ft. store. She focuses more on authors: she tries to always keep a rotating selection of books by certain authors, such as Jim Harrison, Richard Russo, and Anne Tyler, in stock.
At Maria’s Bookshop in Durango, Colo., book buyer Jeanne Costello has a different set of must-have authors for her backlist, such as Terry Tempest Williams and Pema Chodron. “About 20% of our sales are [generated by] books that are five or more years old; 50% are over a year old,” she said.
When it comes to deciding which backlist titles to return, Costello looks at books that haven’t sold in the past six months. “Books on the return list are kept if they have a sales history indicating that they are likely to sell sometime soon, or [in] a series that is selling,” she said. Costello also tries to carry staff favorites. But, she added, “I really don’t have any sacred backlist to keep.”
Tom Nissley, who opened 1,200-sq.-ft. Phinney Books in Seattle in June 2014, is much more reluctant to part with backstock. On the store’s second anniversary he listed the books that haven’t sold since the bookstore opened in the store newsletter. “Not to shame people,” he said. “These are books I feel we have to have in the store.” He’s more ruthless when it comes to culling recent books, even thought frontlist is the store’s “bread and butter.” To encourage customers to read more backlist titles, Nissley includes them in his newsletter recommendations. He also ships backlist titles, or “lost classics,” in the store’s monthly subscription box, Phinney by Post.
Booksellers consider backstock crucial to selling children’s books. At Cottage Book Shop, Boucher said, in children’s “there are so many classic backlist books that need to be kept. In the past they were ousted due to low sales. But my contention is you can’t sell it if you don’t have it.”
Store manager Justin Colussy-Estes of Little Shop of Stories in Decatur, Ga., echoes Boucher’s sentiments. “You have classics you never want to be without, like Charlotte’s Web,” he said. “When parents and grandparents look for books, they start with what they know—from a generation ago.” Like Cottage Book Shop, Little Shop of Stories uses a spinner rack to promote backlist. But its rack is filled with kids’ classics such as Dr. Seuss and Golden Books. Colussy-Estes acknowledged that backlist from the last five to 10 years can be a weak spot for the store; conversely, in categories such as YA, deep backlist is not available. “In a weird way,” he said, “John Green is the big backlist of YA.”
The store mixes older titles in with new titles for its Book of the Month subscription box, which helps keep the price point down. And when it comes to culling backlist, the buyers rely on the passion of the booksellers to determine what to keep, including Colussy-Estes’s own handselling favorites, such as Alan Gratz’s The Brooklyn Nine, first published in 2009.