Rock legend Patti Smith’s memoir of her friendship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, Just Kids (Ecco, 2010), resonated with critics and book buyers. It nabbed the National Book Award in nonfiction and has sold more than 517,000 copies in hardcover and trade paperback.
Sales have begun to taper in recent years, and in response, Ecco is doing something most publishers do: it’s creating a new opportunity for an older title.
“We wanted to give the book a new life and make it more personal,” says Ecco publisher Daniel Halpern. Smith’s agent, Betsy Lerner, floated the idea of doing a new, more heavily illustrated edition to Ecco.
“Patti keeps a lot of stuff—napkins, photos, all sorts of memorabilia,” Halpern says. “She sent in boxes and boxes of photographs of her and Robert and other material that no one has seen. She’s literally designing every page.”
Just Kids: Illustrated Edition—with a larger trim size and a new cover photo, plus about 60 pages of newly published photos and memorabilia and a new introduction written by Smith—will be released in October.
It’s just one of the many examples of how publishers invigorate their backlists. Whether it’s by refreshing covers, releasing new material, trying new formats, tuning into current trends, or various combinations of those and other methods, publishers use a number of strategies to keep backlist titles at the front of readers’ minds.
Forecasting New Readerships
At Grand Central, James Redfield’s The Celestine Prophecy, a novel that chronicles a man’s spiritual awakening in Peru, is a backlist staple. Beth Guzman, v-p, digital and paperback publisher, says the publisher noticed that sales of the 1995 trade paper edition had been climbing steadily—from 10,000 print copies in 2014 to 21,000 in 2017—and reached out to the author.
“He’s been hearing from a younger generation,” Guzman says. “We realized there are new readers we can target.”
A new edition of The Celestine Prophecy is planned for September and will include a new afterword by Redfield about how readers can undertake spiritual journeys mirroring the narrator’s. Marketing, Guzman says, will target millennials and “focus on platforms that weren’t around when the book was first published,” including Facebook Live events, hashtag campaigns, giveaways on social reading networks, and Instagram stories.
A starburst on the book’s cover will tout the new edition, but otherwise, the publisher opted against changing its look. “There was a lot of back-and-forth with sales and marketing, but the cover is so recognizable,” she says, that they decided to leave it alone.
By contrast, Lori Wilde’s western romance Addicted to Love, which Grand Central’s Forever imprint released in 2008, is getting a major face-lift. Wilde now publishes elsewhere and has been seeing strong sales at Avon for her cowboy romances, a subgenre Guzman says “is really hot right now.” Addicted to Love seemed ripe for a repackaging and rebranding, and in June, Forever will release the book—retitled Valentine, Texas—with an updated cover that emphasizes the cowboy lead and makes clear that it’s a previously published book. Guzman says the effort is about “tapping into new readers of the author and [current] trends, not about fooling anyone.”
One of Soho Press’s top sellers is 2004’s The Darkest Child by Delores Phillips, which has sold 51,000 copies in hardcover and trade paper and, like most older titles, had seen declining sales in recent years. In January, the publisher released a repackaged edition featuring a new introduction by Tayari Jones—whose An American Marriage was selected the following month for Oprah’s Book Club—plus a cover blurb from Academy Award–winner Octavia Spencer, a previously unpublished excerpt from the late author’s unfinished sequel, and an updated discussion guide. In 2017, The Darkest Child sold 662 print copies; the new edition has moved 11,000 print copies in three months.
Building on a Brand
Start with Why, by motivational speaker Simon Sinek, was originally published by Portfolio in 2009. The publisher’s internal sales figures show an 85% jump in print and e-book sales in 2017 compared with 2016; BookScan shows an improvement in print sales from 131,000 to 200,000 units.
Tara Delaney Gilbride, v-p, publicity director, and associate director of marketing at Portfolio/Sentinel, attributes the spike mainly to a video posted early in 2017 featuring Sinek’s thoughts on “Millennials in the Workforce,” which was widely shared on Facebook and went viral. He’s done more than 400 speaking engagements since 2012, and sales of Start with Why increased each time Sinek published subsequent titles. His next book, The Infinite Game, is due out in October.
Strong branding is also the key to the Bragg health food and publishing business. Its most popular title, 2008’s Apple Cider Vinegar by Paul C. Bragg and Patricia Bragg, has sold 274,000 print copies since 2008, with 27,000 sold so far in 2018.
The company’s publishing director, Michael Bowker, looked at the flagship title with an eye toward increasing sales about six years ago. “I decided to focus first on expanding points of sale,” he says, which led to placement at Kroger, Sam’s Club, Walmart, and other major chains. The next phase of expansion involved overseas sales. The emphasis has since shifted to publicity, and the brand may be benefitting from the support of a seemingly unlikely source. Patricia Bragg has known Katy Perry’s parents for years and bought the future pop star her first guitar when she was 13. Perry has talked up apple cider vinegar in the media and shared a visit with Bragg with her 69 million Instagram followers.
But the publisher knows that most of its customers are older than the average Perry fan, which influences marketing efforts, too. “While we keep up a steady social media presence, we also focus on print media advertising,” Bowker says. “Our audience still reads newspapers and magazines.”
Marking the Calendar
Publishing loves an anniversary, and milestone years present renewed opportunities to celebrate backlist mainstays.
One example is the Overlook Press’s new treatment for one of its bestselling books. Overlook brought all five novels by the famously publicity-shy Charles Portis into paperback in the late 1990s, including 1968’s True Grit. The author hasn’t published a new book since 1991, but the second movie adaptation of True Grit, in 2010, sparked renewed interest in his work.
In May, Overlook is releasing a flapped paperback 50th-anniversary edition that includes new essays by Jacquelyn Mitchard and Jay Jennings, a new introduction by Roy Blount Jr., and an afterword by Donna Tartt that was published in an earlier edition. The trade paperback movie tie-in issued in conjunction with the Coen brothers’ film in 2010, which has sold 223,000 print copies to date, will also remain in print. Overlook added a young readers edition of the novel in 2016, with an afterword from children’s fiction scholar Leonard S. Marcus.
“We like to have a classic novel like this available for different readers in different formats,” says Tracy Carns, editor and associate publisher at Overlook. “This anniversary edition is less about sales and more that we wanted to tip our hat to Charles Portis. It’s a more gift-appropriate edition.”
Also celebrating a 50th anniversary this year is Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night, which won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. Plume released an anniversary edition with a new cover and new introduction by Adam Gopnik in April.
“Mailer’s Vietnam-era writings are having a moment,” says Ben Lee, v-p and associate publisher of paperbacks and backlist overseeing several Penguin imprints. He points to the Library of America’s release of several Mailer books, including The Armies of the Night, in the Norman Mailer: The Sixties boxed set in March. “This is a complete refresh for new generations of readers who need to understand why this book is important.”
At Da Capo Lifelong, Veganomicon by Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero, originally published in 2007, had grown into “a vegan Joy of Cooking,” says the book’s editor, Renee Sedliar, with hardcover sales topping 236,000 copies by the end of 2016. For its 10th anniversary, the publisher decided it was time for a makeover.
“We looked at the sales track, all the things the authors are doing, and at the zeitgeist,” Sedliar says. The authors have since collaborated on other vegan cookbooks and published solo titles, and Moskowitz opened popular restaurants in Omaha and Brooklyn. Veganism in general grew increasingly mainstream in the ensuing years. “Knowing where veganism has gone, we asked how we can change the package up and bring it up to date so it can sell even more,” Sedliar notes.
The anniversary hardcover features a new cover, color photos throughout, 25 new recipes, and updates to previously published recipes. It’s sold 11,000 print copies since its September release.
The University of Michigan Press is also marking a 10th anniversary for a key title. Mardi Link’s true crime books have been steady sellers for the publisher and a favorite of booksellers in the region, and June sees the release of a new edition of Link’s first for the press: When Evil Came to Good Hart.
The book, which investigates the unsolved 1968 murders of a wealthy Detroit-area family, is among the press’s top five trade titles, and its second bestselling e-book (behind Link’s Wicked Takes the Witness Stand, 2014). The paperback anniversary edition will feature a new foreword and afterword by the author and will be promoted with a podcast series starting in April, in the hope of capitalizing on the moment true crime and podcasts are having.
And in publishing, timing is everything. “Backlist is more important than ever,” Grand Central’s Guzman says, echoing the thoughts of many publishers that PW spoke with. “If there’s a media moment, we want to do as much as we can to tie in to that.”
Gwenda Bond is the author of many books for young adults and children.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated 2014 print unit sales for The Celestine Prophecy. We've corrected the error.
Below, more on the subject of backlist books.
Ready for Their Close-ups: Backlist Backbones 2018
A successful repackaging can do wonders toward making a book look newly relevant.
Forever Young: Backlist Backbones 2018
In a category dominated by evergreen bestsellers—Seuss and Sendak, L’Engle and Rowling—it can be easy to forget how rich and varied the children’s backlist is.