Among the many positive aspects of backlist publishing, one thing's for certain—it brings out passion and creativity in booksellers. Though the definition of where frontlist ends and backlist starts is tough to pin down, the idea of books that have stood the test of time inspires rapturous enthusiasm among independent booksellers, several of whom recently shared their thoughts on this vital category. Selling older titles is profitable and basic to the entire book enterprise.
"We love our backlist," says buyer Cathy Langer at Tattered Cover in Denver, Colo. "It sounds dumb but it's so important to us and all independents." Veteran buyer Robert Segedy at McIntyre's Fine Books in Pittsboro, N.C., describes the field as a treasure trove. "You have a gold mine sitting there if you choose to represent it and do some work," he says. "Frontlist is always a risk. Backlist is tested."
With backlist, instead of being buffeted by the newest releases, bookstore staffs are afforded the chance to determine what authors will be brought to their customers' attention, which titles will be featured and what kind of treatment each book will get, often based on prior success. A classic such as Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire (Ballantine, 1991) has a sales potential that can be significantly boosted simply by the enthusiasm of one single staffer. That happened at Elliott Bay Books in Seattle, when a staffer decided it was time to put Abbey's environmental work on more prominent display. According to buyer Rick Simonson, the book went from selling 20 to 30 copies in a six-month period to suddenly having its sales multiply five-fold. The same thing happened with Jim Dodge's FUP from City Miner's Press, which went from sales of 10 or so in a six-month period to 350 in the same length of time because someone on staff gave it a featured treatment. (This potential for contagion, it seems, is often what drives people to take up bookselling to begin with.)
"For us, fiction like Harry Mulisch's The Assault [Pantheon, 1986] sells and sells and always has," says Ed Conklin, longtime manager at Dutton's Brentwood Bookstore in L.A. "Flaubert, Dickens, Trollope, Proust, T.C. Boyle—good quality literature. It's always selling. It's part of the reason I like working here. We have good customers who love books. We talk to them, turn them on to new things even if it's an old thing. A deep backlist is exciting and part of the reason we're still here. Customers can come in here and find books they didn't know existed. We're not a neat store. It's small, with teetering piles. It's more about having books here and having people find them. We just make sure we have the books."
Dutton's return policy on backlist titles is simple, says Conklin: "If it's good, we'll keep it. Eventually it will sell. We try to be as discriminating in our returns as we are in our buying, without putting ourselves out of business. Backlist-wise, when you're buying a paperback list and university press titles, you feel someone will buy it eventually or you wouldn't order it to begin with."
New books are generally returned after three months if they haven't sold, while backlist that has proved its worth keeps chugging along. "We take a lighter hand with backlist returns," says inventory manager Karen Pennington of Kepler's in Menlo Park,, Calif. "We have a return backlist rate of one to three percent throughout the store. These are stunning numbers. We can afford to keep them." By contrast, she says, "New books have to prove themselves."
What's It Mean? What's Selling?
There's no simple definition for backlist. With reformatting and repackaging an increasingly standard practice, the category perfectly qualifies for what Pennington characterizes as "the blind men trying to describe an elephant"—same beast, different perceptions. Some buyers hew to the notion that any reordered title automatically falls into the backlist category even if it's from the current selling season. Others say it's only books older than three months that qualify; others say six months. But what about reissues, such as Random House's Raymond Chandler titles, that gets frontlist treatment, or a book that changes houses and gets trumpeted as if new?
Stan Hynds, buyer at Northshire Books in Manchester Center, Vt., defines backlist in practical terms as "bread-and-butter titles that sell for months and months." Buyer Daniel Goldin at Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops in Milwaukee takes a similar stance. "Books that are bestsellers, or that we are advertising or promoting in some other way, we treat more like frontlist," he says. "However, if I buy one copy of an origami book from Kodansha, a scrollsaw book from Sterling or an obscure Penguin Classic, and it sells, and we restock it, there is no question in my mind that I was buying this book as a backlist title. I guess I officially consider frontlist as being not-yet-published, and backlist as those titles we sell year in year out and stock in ones and twos."
In order to learn if the ratio of frontlist to backlist had changed in recent years, PW asked booksellers to estimate the ratio in their stores. Very few could. The closest thing to an analytical answer came from Goldin. "If you consider backlist three months old, then my stores' sales are approximately 40% frontlist and 60% backlist," he says. "If you think backlist is six months old, then we sell 55% frontlist and 45% backlist. If it's classified as one year old, then it would be 65% frontlist and 35% backlist." Goldin notes that the dramatic increase in repackaging, reissuing and minimal updating—"this is definitely a trend with many publishers"—has had the effect of turning much backlist into frontlist.
In this somewhat murky pond, what sells and what doesn't? Fiction, biography and history, by all accounts, lead the categories that currently sell best in backlist. At R.J. Julia Bookshop in Madison, Conn., manager Meredith Warner says biography has picked up dramatically in the past year and the store has had to expand its section. Titles making strong showings include A Beautiful Mind, Elegy for Iris, John Adams, Theodore Rex, Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay and Personal History, Katharine Graham's autobiography. "There are so many big ones," Warner says. "They're popular with reading groups that have wanted to move into nonfiction." The store's military history section has just been enlarged, too—"After 9/11 people wanted more, especially titles such as [Thomas Friedman's] From Beirut to Jerusalem."
Backlist fiction moves well, and is particularly easy to sell, says Segedy at McIntyre's, who warns that you just have to know what you're doing. "You don't need every new P.G. Wodehouse, but it's good to have a selection. Empire Falls was a breakthrough for Richard Russo. Now people say, 'What else has he written?' You have to stay on top of things." Several stores note that mysteries, too, perform very well. At John Olsson's Dupont Circle store in Washington, D.C., manager and buyer Candler Hunt says, "With established authors such as Janet Evanovich, Alan Furst and Ian Rankin, I try never to be out of any of their titles; if I have them, I'll sell them." Ann Patchett's Bel Canto is flying off the shelves, he adds, and any of her earlier titles will sell "with no effort at all."
Segedy uses the kid-in-a-candy-store metaphor for mysteries: "People take home four or five books and come back for more," he says. And of course no one wants to be without a complete selection of Sue Grafton's "alphabet books," beginning with 1984's A Is for Alibi.
Poetry is resurgent in some quarters, along with such nonfiction science classics as Matt Ridley's The Red Queen and Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel. Says Hunt at Olsson's, "I'll keep five copies in stock of Diamond because otherwise I'll miss a sale." Several individual topsellers were frequently noted: Catcher in the Rye, any Stephen King mass-market title, Angela's Ashes, Who Moved My Cheese?
Children's books in both hardcover and paperback are a perennial source of activity. "The grandparent audience will want the hardcover edition of Goodnight Moon," says Segedy. "You should never be without this, or Winnie the Pooh. Your store just doesn't hold up if you don't have certain things." If, as he suggests, younger audiences no longer value the idea of building a library and passing books along, kids' titles might be the exception, Segedy says. "The books are so loved. We constantly get parents and grandparents wanting books for their children and grandchildren."
…and What's Not
What doesn't sell? Self-help books. Test-prep books. Computer books. Cookbooks. "There's no deader fish than a cookbook six years old," says Kepler's Pennington—she exempts, however, the Modern Library Food series edited by Ruth Reichl that "adds luster to any section." The books in this trade paperback series, all previously published, were treated strictly as backlist at Kepler's.
At Dutton's Brentwood, as elsewhere , news events and happenings in the entertainment world lead to sales spurts. But with its well-educated, Hollywood customer base, movie tie-ins at Dutton's buck the usual tide. "We've always sold Possession," says Ed Conklin. "We definitely sold more because of the movie. But," he says, explaining a backlash, "our customers prefer the cover without the tie-in to star Jeremy Northam."
Even without a movie to help it along, backlist titles finds many opportunities in which to announce themselves: table displays, shelf-talkers, staff picks, face-out treatments, hand-sells.
"Stores don't want to say it but it's true: people look for the cover, " says R.J. Julia's Warner "The more face-outs, the better your backlist sales will be. If you have four of Caleb Carr's The Alienist face-out with a shelf talker, someone will pick it up and then want his other two titles." Looking to see what's moving in other stores, Warner adds, can be a terrific learning tool. "We can have the same titles, but when they're not face-out no one knows we have them." Hunt at Olsson's makes a similar point: "However good a work is, people need to be reminded. Fiction will sell if you keep it on the table; otherwise, it won't."
If a book sits dormant for three or four months, Warner says, she gets rid of it or figures out what the problem is and fixes it. Merchandising is key. One trick for moving underperforming titles is to pair a modestly priced one with an expensive tome on the same subject—sales always surge for the less expensive of the two—or put a more obscurely jacketed volume next to related ones that are more clearly identified as what they are. "Manipulating displays is very important," she says. "If you have 15 copies and don't want to return them, that's what you have to do."
To Return, or Not to Return
Though few stores can afford to keep titles that don't sell, most buyers throw down the gauntlet at some point. At Olsson's, that point is books from Library of America. "I'll keep them on a shelf for years because I know someone will buy it eventually," says Hunt. "For really established classics you want to have certain works—Dickens, say—even if they haven't sold within a year. But you can't do this for every title. You have to guess. That's a huge part of what we do, guessing. Guessing, but you can influence customers."
At most stores, backlist titles will often find themselves sharing a table with brand new releases. "We often look for older titles that have become timely," says Goldin. "Our author events generally feature the author's previous works, and we promote old books as well as new titles to book clubs. In addition, Goldin encourages stores to periodically pull out a literature, travel or how-to series from their respective sections, and display them together for maximum impact. "Whether we're talking about Audubon nature guides, DK Eyewitness Travel Guides, Library of America titles or the McGraw Hill teach-yourself line, there is always the decision the bookseller has to make as to whether shelving the series together or not will be best for the customer and, as a result, for sales."
Given its good-as-gold status, it's not surprising how much attention booksellers and publishers now try to lavish on older titles. Computer systems have helped. Book People in Austin, Tex., is one of many stores that rely on daily computer-generated printouts to show what's sold and in what quantity. At Kepler's, each title gets a keyword, which is used to call up similar titles when looking for groupings around which to organize a theme display.
"We can ask Wordstock what did we sell 10 of in the last year and get the answer in seconds," says Warner at R.J. Julia. "You have to stay on top of reporting, and it changes. If we can see we sold three of one title in one month, it's a title we should have, unless it was bought by one customer. The strength of the story is staying on top of events."
Kepler's has adopted a grading system for its 10,000 essential backlist books, ranking them #1 (must never be out of stock), #2 (reorder when sold) and #3 (a seasonal favorite). Though a fluid system, titles given core status are protected against falling through the cracks: they can be moved out of their ranking, but until that happens their ranking confers an action that guarantees the title won't get lost. The British crime writer Alan Furst is currently a core #2, says Pennington, so his books will be reordered every time stock runs out, though not before. "But today we had a discussion about whether we should go to core #1 with him," Pennington says. "Then if interest in him dies down he would go back to #2 status." The core coding system, Pennington says, requires "a lot of maintenance," but she is enthusiastic about its benefits.
A similar core coding system was adopted at Tattered Cover, but was later abandoned. "It became fairly meaningless," says Langer. "The titles evolve and change too quickly."
High Marks for the Reps
In the logistics of stocking backlist titles, sales reps come in for a lot of praise. Langer made note of the efforts on the part of certain publishers whose sales reps visit stores to coach booksellers in backlist selling. "The Penguin Putnam rep did a few presentations to the staff, covering maybe 20 titles in the Penguin line that have been revitalized and freshened. Everyone was impressed with his knowledge, and the event was really effective." The edge offered by independents, Langer says, is the ability to surprise a customer with something they might not have known about. Sales reps, she says, "can help us achieve that goal."
Just as backlist is vital to independent booksellers, it's also critical to many sales reps, says Conklin at Dutton's—the more backlist sold, the greater their commission. "We always try to order through them. Good sales reps know the stores. They know how to get what they can and not appear pushy. The more we get from them the better it is for them. Bonuses are tied to what they sell, though this isn't much talked about."
"I have had sales reps go through printouts looking for opportunities, and I have used many a stocking offer that suggested specific titles to improve various categories," says Goldin at Harry Schwartz. He explains that he tries to avoid promotions that demand quantities of backlist titles in the store, unless it corresponds to books that they are already promoting through reading groups, events or the like. "I rarely see enough incentive in these programs, and because I do have an inventory level I have to keep, I think these 'bring in five of these 20 titles' programs bulk up my inventory and force other backlist titles out of my system." Aside from general restocking programs, too many publishers come up with backlist programs that are only concerned with getting books into the store, instead of out of the store and into the hands of customers, he says.
Changes to the minimums on backlist stock offers is one area booksellers would like to see publishers change. "Sometimes the minimum is too high and we can't take advantage of the offers," says Goldin. "I do hope that if this is true for many retailers that the publisher looks at the offer and adjusts it accordingly."
In the search for good backlist, publishers' catalogues are invaluable conveyors of information. "I used to think that publishers were wasting my time by reissuing older mass market titles and announcing them in their catalogue, " says Cathy Langer at Tattered Cover. "But now I see that they do that so we can make sure we have want we want for full representation of certain authors. I now appreciate there may be something I missed. It's a good tool."
Catalogues also reveal which publishers have been reclaiming what books. "The larger publishers are more aggressively acquiring ISBNs," notes Pennington at Dutton's. "The ISBNs have been reverting to their original publishers lately. It's as if the bigger publishers are storing nuts for winter. They are allowing their ISBNs to grow, for the technology to mature. They are digitizing copyrighted material, archiving and warehousing it."
The overall idea is that you can't own too many titles, whether it's to have them available for re-release the moment a subject is energized by a fad, cultural shift or world event or whether it's the promise of efficient print-on-demand delivery. "Publishers realize they need midlist and backlist books to support the frontlist," says head buyer Peggy Hailey at Book People in Austin, Tex.. "They are keeping books in print longer and bringing back a great number of titles."
McIntyre's Segedy terms backlist "a no brainer" for publishers and booksellers alike. When the Vintage Crime/Black Lizard line repackages authors such as Chester Himes, Patricia Highsmith or David Goodis to look more hip, the books appeal to new audiences coming along (see sidebar, p. 38). The result: "They are so much easier to hand sell. You can say, look, this guy was so far ahead of his time. It's a great opportunity." Three seasons, he believes, produces more books than a bookseller can deal with. "One season blurs into the next. You don't get time to have a good feeling about a book. With backlist you have more leeway. The hardcover may have had a poor jacket, in which case you can handsell the paper edition and give it new life."
And given today's economic climate, "new life" might well be a fortuitous expression for this particularly solid aspect of book retailing.