Frontlist titles get all the love—the reviews, the author profiles, the prominent placement in bookstores. So even though the backlist can generate a substantial portion of a publisher’s business, promoting these older titles presents a challenge. Since relying on a movie adaptation or a Nobel Prize in Literature isn’t a business plan, publishers need to get creative.
Some have seized on the current political climate. For instance, Europa Editions, where 80%–85% of revenue comes from the backlist, has chosen to highlight the international nature of its catalogue. The Passport to Understanding campaign promotes 50 backlist titles by authors from 16 countries, including 2008’s Clash of Civilizations over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio by Algerian-Italian author Amara Lakhous, and 2016’s The Man Who Snapped His Fingers by Iranian-French author Fariba Hachtroudi.
Through the end of May, any mixed orders of 20 books or more placed through Penguin Random House, the publisher’s distributor, receive a discount. A downloadable poster encourages bookstore patrons to “reach out and read the world” and “read globally, act locally.”
“The idea is to create bridges at this moment when walls are going up and people are turning inward,” says Christian Westermann, sales and marketing manager at Europa Editions. “Many independent bookstores wanted to position themselves as open and accepting places where people can meet, and these books help foster that conversation.”
Open Road, a digital publisher almost entirely dedicated to backlist titles, has also found relevance in the current political climate. The publisher began releasing the works of Octavia E. Butler as e-books in 2012, but, says Mary McAveney, executive v-p of marketing, “There was a lot of activity that we were really not taking advantage of around her work.”
In February 2016, as the presidential election season revved up, acclaimed YA author John Green praised Parable of the Sower, Butler’s 1993 sci-fi novel, on his vlog, which has nearly three million subscribers. He called it “frighteningly contemporary” in its examinations of race, gender, class, and wealth. But despite the shout-out, people weren’t buying.
“We saw we had a huge increase in page views, but these weren’t converting to sales,” McAveney says. “We didn’t know where it was coming from, but then we saw the book was endorsed by John Green, and determined that maybe the lack of conversion came from the fact that Octavia Butler didn’t attract the same readers as John Green’s YA [novels]. So we dug into the data to find the crossover readers, which really turned it around.” The publisher analyzed its site demographics to identify who might be likely to read both Green and Butler, and then did a targeted Facebook ad campaign to encourage them to take a chance on Butler’s works.
The timing of Green’s endorsement was fortuitous: Gloria Steinem, who since 2015 had been writing an online essay series for Open Road entitled Reading Our Way to the Revolution, published a piece on Butler just 10 days after Green posted the vlog entry. The essay ran in the publisher’s Early Bird Books email newsletter, one of three newsletters that together count 650,000 subscribers. Steinem, too, discussed Sower’s “immediacy, intimacy, and odd resonance with what we are already experiencing”; the piece was widely shared online, and the publisher quoted from it in online ads and promoted posts. Sales for Parable of the Sower, McAveney says, increased 266% in 2016.
Backlist to the Future
At HarperCollins Christian Publishing, backlist accounts for about 60%–70% of revenue, says Stephanie Newton, who in 2015 became the publisher’s first director of backlist marketing. She’d pitched the idea for her position, and for a dedicated backlist department, when she was a publicist there, because she found the short shelf life of publicity campaigns frustrating. “The author might grow or a book might be relevant again,” she says, “but you didn’t have the bandwidth to promote it.”
In her new role, Newton promotes evergreen titles by arming the sales team with one-sheets tied into annual events, or organized by subject. For instance, October, Blindness Awareness Month, brings a yearly opportunity to promote Adventures in Darkness, Tom Sullivan’s 2007 memoir.
The one-sheet on books that help readers through grief includes 2002’s Where Is God When It Hurts? by Philip Yancy and 2015’s You’ll Get Through This by Max Lucado, among others. Reminding retailers of these older books, Newton says, doesn’t just benefit the publisher but also can be good for the customer. “The best book to cope with losing a parent,” she says, “isn’t necessarily the newest book on the subject.”
Soho Crime, with a deep backlist of crime series set in international locales, introduced its Passport to Crime initiative in 2011, with the re-release of Cara Black’s Murder in the Marais.
The sales team suggested that there was enough potential interest in the book, which in 1999 launched Black’s long-running series about Parisian PI Aimée Leduc, to support a mass market edition. Instead, the publisher released a new trade paperback in its standard 5 x 7.5 in. format, but at the mass market price of $9.99.
“It was like a gateway drug,” says Juliet Grames, associate publisher at Soho Press. The publisher added more series to the program and, in 2015, debuted the Passport to Crime book club guide, with discussion questions and food and drink recipes for 26 series starters. Although Passport to Crime is a paperback initiative, and very “bookstore- and library-centric,” Grames says, “if people pick up the book club guide they might end up buying or reading an e-book instead.” Either way, the efforts have paid off: Grames says that Murder in the Marais, for instance, has sold 100,000 copies in paperback and e-book since the program was introduced.
Peter Lovesey, whose The Last Detective was first published in 1991 and released in a Passport to Crime edition five months after Murder in the Marais, has seen a boost in sales for all 15 titles in the Peter Diamond series, set in contemporary Bath, England. That in turn led to renewed interest in Lovesey’s Sergeant Cribb series, which takes place in Victorian London and was first published in the 1970s. The 2015 Passport to Crime edition of Wobble to Death is in its third printing, and the publisher has reissued the entire eight-book series.
Good Things Come from New Packages
J.I. Rodale, the founder of the publishing company that carries his name, was a pioneer in the organic movement in the United States. He started Organic Farming and Gardening magazine in 1942 and began publishing books on the subject in 1945 with Pay Dirt: Farming & Gardening with Composts, which he also wrote.
Rodale, the company, is highlighting its long history with the forthcoming Rodale Classics line, which updates several titles from past decades and gives them a standardized look. It launches in winter 2018 with The New Seed-Starter’s Handbook by Nancy Bubel (originally published in 1988) and Rodale’s Ultimate Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening (the 50th anniversary edition pubbed in 2009); two more titles will follow each season.
Gail Gonzales, v-p and publisher at Rodale, says that the line aims to be to organic gardening books what Penguin Classics is to literature: a showcase of the publisher’s most important titles. “We’ve seen a resurgence in things like homesteading and gardening, which is the heritage of Rodale,” Gonzales says. “We wanted to bring these titles to new audiences, especially millenials,” whom the publisher hopes to draw in with the throwback appeal of the new earth-tone illustrated covers.
Picador introduced its line of repackaged Modern Classics in 2015. Stefan von Holtzbrinck, whose Holtzbrinck Publishing Group owns Picador parent company Macmillan, came up with the idea after seeing the popularity of the format in Europe.
The four books, each with a sales history strong enough to sustain another format, were Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse, Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson, and The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides. Henry Sene Yee, Picador’s creative director, designed the new editions with a 3.9 x 5.7 in. trim size.
“We needed an unusual, eye-catching package that lent itself to a very small, unconventional trim size,” says Darin Kessler, marketing director at Picador. “We wanted a package with Instagram-worthy appeal that would inspire readers to buy all of them, even if they already owned the standard editions, and that might even get coverage on design blogs and in lifestyle, design, and home decor magazines.”
Mission accomplished: T, the New York Times style magazine, covered the new editions, as did In Style and others; Buzzfeed and Bustle wrote about the line; and Goop shared the books on Instagram. The revamp, Keesler says, accounts for 30,000 in print units sales for the four books together. In November, Picador is releasing another pocket-size quartet: Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion, Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich, Giving Up the Ghost by Hilary Mantel, and Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag.
For the 20th anniversary of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, publisher Little, Brown ran a contest soliciting cover artwork from fans. The winning design, by Joe Walsh, went onto the 2016 trade paperback edition, which features French flaps and a deckle edge and is currently in its seventh printing, with almost 40,000 print copies sold, according to the publisher.
“What’s remarkable is that these sales are additive,” accruing to all editions rather than only the redesigned one, says Terry Adams, v-p and digital and paperback publisher at Little, Brown. “The regular paperback edition—which has no flaps, boasts 10-year-old cover art, and has the same $20 price tag—remains in print, and its sales continue unabated.”
Niche and Easy
Some backlist titles stay prominent because their subjects have a natural home with particular gift shops or lifestyle stores.
Death in a Prairie House by William R. Drennan (Univ. of Wisconsin, 2008), a true-crime story, delves into a mass murder that took place at Taliesin, a Frank Lloyd Wright residence in Iowa County, Wis. The dead included Mamah Borthwick Cheney (Wright’s mistress) and her children.
Bookshops at several Wright sites sell the title, as do various trusts and architecture foundations, though some opt not to carry it due to the subject matter. It’s been featured several times on Wisconsin Public Radio’s long-running Chapter a Day show, and University of Wisconsin Press released show host Jim Fleming’s reading as an audiobook. Andrea Christofferson, sales and marketing manager at the press, says the various formats account for more than 31,000 copies sold.
One Man’s Wilderness has shown singular longevity for Alaska Northwest Books. It’s sold more than 450,000 print copies since it debuted in 1973, says Angie Zbornik, marketing manager at parent company Graphic Arts Books. Author Sam Keith based the book on Richard Proenneke’s journals documenting his years of living off of the land, alone, in Alaska. Frequent airings of a supporting PBS documentary help goose sales, Zbornik says. The book’s outdoorsy theme has earned it placement at gift shops across Alaska and in the Adriondacks; it can also be found among the Pendleton flannels at hip Los Angeles menswear store General Quarters.
Another title that’s found success outside of bookstores, Tim Federle’s Tequila Mockingbird, has sold more than 250,000 print copies since it published in 2013, according to Running Press. The punny title gives a clue to the contents: recipes for literature-inspired cocktails such as the Last of the Mojitos and Love in the Time of Kahlúa. It’s a popular add-on for shoppers browsing the vintage-inspired party dresses and barware at at online retailer Modcloth.
“This book was embraced by our specialty and gift accounts teams, which offers another revenue stream outside of the traditional book landscape,” says Jessica Schmidt, director of marketing at Running Press. “You get the book in front of new eyeballs, and people who might not go to Barnes & Noble.” At the beginning of April, the publisher released the Tequila Mockingbird Kit, packaging an abridged version of the book with a metal jigger and a pair of cocktail stirring sticks. The portable, gifty format could potentially open up yet more markets—one of the best ways to ensure ongoing sales.
Dianna Dilworth, former editor at GalleyCat, is author of the forthcoming Mellodrama: The Mellotron Book (Bazillion Points).
Below, more on the subject of backlist backbones.
A children’s book can have a long shelf life for any number of reasons. Here are some ways publishers keep interest going.