When Bellevue Literary Press released Paul Harding’s debut novel, Tinkers, in 2009, the recently established publisher had little reason to anticipate a hit. But Tinkers is one of those books that turned independent booksellers into evangelists, selling, per Bellevue, 10,000 print copies in its first year. It went on to win the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and, according to NPD BookScan, the novel has sold some 452,000 print copies.

In January, Bellevue released a 10th-anniversary edition with an introduction by Marilynne Robinson and a section for reading groups. The title also landed on the summer 2019 Indie Next List for Reading Groups.

“Obviously there’s the Pulitzer bump, and it quieted down from there,” says Erika Goldman, Bellevue’s publisher and editorial director. “But it’s a modern classic. As new generations of readers discover it, they keep it going.” Harding teaches creative writing at Stony Brook Southampton and is a favorite, Goldman says, of the student writing and university communities; indie booksellers continue to handsell his work and introduce it to new colleagues.

Especially for an independent press, these kinds of advocates can make a crucial difference in extending the lifespan of a book.

Cultivating Community

Learning how a book resonates with a particular group of people can help a publisher target its efforts over the long haul.

At Coffee House Press in Minneapolis, 2008’s The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir by Kao Kalia Yang tapped into the local Hmong immigrant community’s hunger for stories of its own. The book has since sold more than 51,000 print copies, per BookScan.

“It was a special book for us,” says Coffee House publicist Daley Farr. “It was very successful in the Twin Cities, because we have such a large population of Hmong people and this was one of the first stories about Hmong immigrants. Across the country, it was many people’s first time seeing themselves represented on the page.”

In 2017, Coffee House reissued the title with a new cover designed by Christina Vang, a Hmong-American artist. Minnesota’s St. Olaf College is embracing it as a schoolwide read for first-year students this fall.

Another Coffee House reissue, the 2010 National Book Award finalist I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita, arrives in October, with a new introduction by Jessica Hagedorn and a new afterword by the author. Yamashita has a “devoted fan base” in the literary world, Farr says, and a long publishing relationship with Coffee House, beginning with 1990’s Through the Arc of the Rain Forest. The author’s Jane Austen–inspired story collection is due out from Coffee House in 2020.

Managing an author’s backlist can get complicated, especially when it spans more than four dozen books of poetry, essays, and fiction scattered across multiple publishers, as is the case with writer and activist Wendell Berry. Counterpoint founding editor and senior v-p Jack Shoemaker, Berry’s longtime editor, has made it his mission over the past dozen years to get the rights to every book in Berry’s catalogue under the Counterpoint umbrella and back into print. The final titles in this effort include the 1993 essay collection Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community and 1995’s book-length poem The Farm, both rereleased in late 2018, and his 1986 story collection The Wild Birds, which Counterpoint published in May.

“He’s the great American philosopher of the present moment,” Shoemaker says, adding that Berry is currently writing two new books. “We’ve been working to address the younger audience with Wendell’s work and to not be satisfied with the audience that he’s always spoken to.”

Christian readers, he notes, turned to Berry several years ago, after he wrote essays criticizing the church for not dealing with issues around the environment. “That’s had a broadening impact on his work,” Shoemaker says, “and I think his work has had a broadening impact on contemporary Christianity.”

At the New Press, addressing topical subjects is central to the mission, and that’s led to some major successes. For instance, the trade paper edition of 2010’s The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander’s examination of mass incarceration, has sold 681,000 copies, per BookScan, with 26,000 sold this year to date. January will see the release of a 10th-anniversary edition, with a new preface from Alexander about the current state of the criminal justice reform movement.

Ellen Adler, publisher at the New Press, credits activist networks and educators for the book’s sustained momentum, noting that it’s been selected for numerous community-wide reads and university course lists. Its influence extends beyond publishing circles: the book helped inspire the creation of the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that covers the criminal justice system, as well as the new $100 million Art for Justice Fund.

The New Press’s backlist also includes sociologist James W. Loewen’s 1995 Lies My Teacher Told Me. It licensed the paperback rights to Simon & Schuster for many years; BookScan reports 381,000 copies sold of the 2007 trade paper edition. In 2018, when the license expired, the New Press decided to bring the editions in-house, updating the book’s packaging and adding a new preface about alternative facts that was covered by Education Week, Vox, and the Washington Post, among others. In April, the publisher issued a young readers’ adaptation designed for classroom use.

“We live in a very political time,” Adler says of the relevance of the New Press’s backlist. “People are hungry for figuring out the world. Every bookstore knows The New Jim Crow. We see more books about these big issues doing well. I’m encouraged by how the bookstores are playing a part.”

New Markets, New Packages

Nontraditional retailers, too, can keep backlist sales healthy.

Mark Twain’s Guide to Diet, Exercise, Beauty, Fashion, Investment, Romance, Health, and Happiness, which Prospect Park Books published in 2015 and which is heading into its fifth printing, is carried at outlets including workwear retailer Duluth Trading Company and the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, Conn. Mark Dawidziak, who collected and edited the writings in the book, performs as Twain at the museum and elsewhere.

Prospect Park is distributed by Consortium and does gift and special sales through Ingram. The title is aimed at gift givers, says Prospect Park publisher Colleen Dunn Bates, with a hardcover price of $16.95. When a more expensive edition turned up, “I got an unhappy email from the author,” she says. “We all first thought it was bootlegged.”

Upon further investigation, the book was revealed to be a legitimate edition that Consortium had licensed to Graphic Image, a company that adds custom leather bindings to reference and entertaining titles, as well as children’s and sports books. “It turned out to be quite an honor, actually,” Bates says, noting that Graphic Image continues to reorder and is still selling the collection as Mark Twain’s Words of Wisdom for $78. The publisher earns its usual wholesale percentage on the sales.

Other backlist staples, Bates says, include regional favorites such as the first novel the publisher released, Lian Dolan’s Helen of Pasadena (2010), and titles that hit a niche like Hans Röckenwagner’s Das Cookbook (2015), billed as “German cooking, California style.”

“I learned the hard way that it’s really bad not to have a backlist,” Bates says. “I came from a guidebook past, where everything dates so quickly.” At Prospect Park, she adds, “We’ve made an effort to grow it. Smaller publishers have to be more creative to survive.”

Gwenda Bond is the author of many novels for young adults and children.

Below, more on the subject of backlist backbones.

Off Our Backs: Backlist Backbones 2019
While much of the country awaits a Harriet Tubman makeover for the $20 bill, publishers are stepping up with revamped reissues of works by major women authors.

Perennial Favorites: Backlist Backbones 2019
The Resistance Library, due out in August, showcases Harper Perennial’s commitment to older titles.

Fresh Takes: Backlist Backbones 2019
Years after publication, older children’s books speak to a new generation.

She Made a Thing: Backlist Backbones 2019
‘The Most Magnificent Thing,’ a 2014 picture book by Ashley Spires, has been adapted as an animated short narrated by Whoopi Goldberg.