Challenge,  publishing

Front List and Back List

Talked About This Before…

But yesterday I got this newsletter that comes out monthly focused about 95% on traditional publishing. And let me tell you, folks, from the sounds of things in traditional publishing, everything is just doing great. (Note I said from the sounds of things.) They are using all kinds of hinky percentage increases that are statistically bogus and mean nothing. And, of course, the real reasons the balance sheets are standing strong under observation of public traded corporations are the IP valuations and depreciation of those IP assets.

Book sales are not holding these companies up, let alone the companies vast expenses in New York property, or the warehouses needed to do the old fashioned publishing methods.

But monthly you hear all this about how adult trade is down this month by a few percent (over what and when?) and young adult is up some percent and so on and so on. No actual either shipping numbers of any book like they used to do just twenty years ago, or actual sales numbers. They do mention when a bestseller in nonfiction sells a million copies, but twenty years ago that would have been the low one of the year. Not kidding, sales have dropped that far.

But then as I was reading along, I started noticing how they were continually using the term “backlist” and “front list.” Especially in sentences like “Backlist sales were strong in the fourth quarter.” (Don’t ask over what and how many, heaven forbid.)

And it suddenly dawned on me that even now in 2022, traditional publishing still thinks books spoil. They still treat books like bananas to be put out on the shelves and then pulled in three weeks when they spoil.

All focus is on the launch and to them everything is over after the banana turns black. That is “front list” in traditional publishing terms. (And some indie writers till think that if a book doesn’t sell quickly when launched, it is a failure. Wow is that thinking so 1990.)

Repeat after me… BOOKS DON’T SPOIL.

This is why New York publishers did not understand in the slightest Brandon’s multi-million dollar Kickstarter. They thought those four books would be black bananas after that campaign.

But in reality, Brandon will more than likely double his money on those four books with the actual sales through channels and online and his web site, not counting licensing and other sales.

Backlist is the sales to traditional publishing that happen after the banana turns black. Brandon’s four books will never be black. Those four books will just keep on selling and never spoil.

So if you find yourself thinking in terms of “launch” or your book is a failure because it didn’t sell quickly or make you more than coffee money in a few years, splash some water on your face and just climb out of the 1990s and back into 2022 and repeat “Books don’t spoil.”

And thus your book might become a bestseller in a few years.

I had that happen, actually. With an entire series of books I had been writing, not promoting, just putting them out there and letting them make coffee money for me for years.

And then one day seven years after I wrote the first one in the series, it went to #1 on Amazon and dragged the entire series with it. And four years later it is still selling like crazy.

Lucky for me I understand that in 2022, in the new world of publishing, there is no front list or back list. Just books and books don’t spoil.


    • dwsmith

      Yup, I republished, word-for-word my first published novel from 1987 and we make a nice cash stream on it every year. Made far more since I republished it than I ever did in the original advance from Warner Books. That is one old banana. (grin)

  • Vincent Zandri

    Great to see one of these types of posts again, Dean! Reading it from Turkey where I’ve been driving cross country and back again gathering up research material and inspiration for a new Chase Baker action/adventure novel (think Indiana Jones meets Lash Larue)….a series that I own outright and that’s made a profit of mid six figures since the first one came out in 2015. If that were a tradtional advance (I never would have gotten that much money in the first place!), the series would not only be done, but I’d be out of money and trying to write a new series hoping one of the three publishers left might take it on.

    No chance!!!! I put out too much work which means I’m essentially blacklisted.

    But I’m out of country for three weeks not on traditonal publishing royalties (I could never afford being exclusively traditional and hope to make a living), but instead on my indie royalties which are deposited in my account every month automatically, which means I can write from anywhere and so many indie writers do just that!!!!

    I recently, saw a writer whom I like and respect shout out on FB how a publisher just bought his “back list” or took it on anyway, now that he has the rights back. What’s he thinking????? He’s even sold some movie rights but still has to work a day job. Not busting on him, just making an oberservation since he’s made it public. Or hell, maybe he just likes working a day job, who knows.

    In any case, once you’re handed back the deed to a big home that sits on a nice peice of land, you don’t just up and sell it again. You hang onto it and keep renting it out for years to come…

  • Ken Hughes

    “When your backlist… no, let me start again, using 21st-century terminology. When your *inventory*–”

    I’ve been quoting that line of Kris’s for years, and “books don’t spoil” goes right next to it.

    But then, publishers don’t see themselves as selling books. They sell buyer-lures to bookstores, the same way network TV sells audiences to advertisers.

    • dwsmith

      Trade publishers do not sell direct to readers, don’t even understand readers. They sell down the trade channel. Indie publishers sell direct to readers and we can also sell down the trade channel if we want, but often that makes no sense to us. We make a ton more going direct to readers. But publish through Ingram Sparks and you will be in part of the trade channel.

  • Harvey+Stanbrough

    Dean, I’m with you on almost everything, but I finally learned a strong lesson: At least some active and ongoing promotion and marketing is necessary.

    Of course, like most fiction writers, I don’t have a “team” of any kind to do any of that. It’s all just me. Unfortunately, I chose the joy of just writing and putting it out there (I’m an adherent of Heinlein’s Rules) over the slog of marketing and promotion.

    I’ve been prolific by almost any standard across several genres, and I publish widely through aggregators Smashwords and D2D. I also continue to learn new things about the craft. In other words, I’ve done everything right: except marketing and promotion. Yet with over 65 novels, 250 short stories and thirty-some collections published since April 2014 (and that’s with about 15 months off), I’m still only making coffee money.

    Finally, I recently missed an opportunity to be included in a bundle that potentially would have introduced my work to thousands of new readers: because I don’t already have thousands of readers.

    Sigh. I’m not complaining. Y’gotta have money (readers) to make money (readers). That’s fine. But how different things might be had I done a little marketing over the years.

    • dwsmith

      Never too late to join a few social media sites, send some books to Bookbub, have someone help you in some of this. I know your writing. It’s good and should be selling. Haven’t paid much attention to your covers so don’t know if your covers or blurbs are causing an issue. But keep in mind that with that much inventory, all it will take is just a few small things to get readers jumping on. You have a great store. Now you just got to do a little to tell people how to find it. Annoying that in these days we have to be completely rounded in business as well as writing, but I just had an experience the other day that I will talk about that reminds me that the small annoyances of doing it all is a billion times better than having gate keepers.

    • Fabien

      Harvey, I’ve been on your website and were looking for your short story collections to give one a try. I had a hard time finding them, because when I click on “for readers” I face a black page (kind of; I have to navigate through the hidden menus to find the “sort stories” link). Then, from your covers alone, I couldn’t tell the genre of most of them. Finally, when I clicked the “see our price list” link on any of them to buy them, I stumbled upon an “Oops, page not found” message. Not a great experience overall.

      Found them on Kobo, though. Who knows, you might become my next favorite author.

    • Linda+Maye+Adams

      Harvey, yeah, same boat. I started working my newsletter more, with a focus entirely on speculative fiction. With fiction writers, we get told to be an expert by all the non-fiction writers and social media experts. What does that even mean? So everyone runs off and markets to other writers, many of whom are only interested in someone telling them how to be successful. I’ve been starting to see some of those drop off now because it isn’t sustainable over the long term.

      L.K. Hill has an amazing tutorial on setting up a newsletter sequence for fiction writers. None of this junk where someone applies non-fiction techniques and says, “Here!” It’s actually made writing the newsletters for the sequence fun (I do a bunch at one time). I’ve been running newsletter promotions on BookFunnel using a short story from my superhero series, though I work at batching the time and find ways to reduce the effort as much as possible.

    • Allen Leedy

      We are of the same religion, except I help my wife. I keep pushing her. We do Bookbubs, Kickstarters, anything I can find to put her out there and it is hard. My own family is too lazy to even take the time to back her Kickstarters and Romance is tough on Kickstarter but we are gonna put ours out there for maybe that next reader that we might get. We listen to Dean nightly. I truly believe as you do that he and Kris are both sincere in their teachings. He used the analogy of the starting of a train, how it’s slow to start. Streaks are my wife’s life…4 years she has never missed a day writing. I believe Dean also when he says all these writers talking about making thousands per month are spending that much or more. Just know that you are not alone in your world, You can take comfort in the fact that following Dean has been the one thing that has been correct in our quest to be prolific writers, publishers, entertainers. We will continue to push forward with Dean and Kris. They shoot you straight and I never want to be as dumb as a post or to mindlessly walk into walls. My wife is a writer. She loves to tell her stories and I love her and try to do as much as I can to help her with covers and putting her books out anywhere I can. I have started to see that the wheels are looking like they are moving so we should just listen to Dean and Kris for the next 30 years and learn as much as we can from the only people I’ve found that are truly honest about how to be “real” writer. We are with you brother you are a true fighter or you would have quit long ago, so since you didn’t quit just keep putting your stories and books out there for your next reading fan.

  • Kristi N

    I see this alot in writing groups–the people who fret because their first book had a bad launch, and wondering if they should throw more money into advertising; the people who wonder if they should let a series die that they enjoy writing but isn’t selling very well; the people who go thousands of dollars they can’t afford into the red to push their five or six or seven books into the million pages read level. Or even worse, the people who make only $100 on their first book in the first month (with advertising) and wonder if they have failed as a writer.

    Sometimes I catch that anxiety and start wondering if I should advertise/market/publicize more, but then I look at my little six books published and realize the return on investment would be more than I could afford. Everything up right now is first books in series, so there is no chance for read through. It’s better to wait, and work, and build my backlist, so people can grab what they want when they discover a ‘new to them’ writer.

    (And a side note: I wrote free fiction ~12 years ago and just received a review on one short story by a new reader who then went on to read everything else I had posted on the site. Twelve years, and it was still new to them. And in this digital world, the readers come from all over the world–Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America, in addition to North America.)

    • dwsmith

      Kristi, what’s a backlist??? See, the thinking is there. All books are your inventory. One is not less than another. All are alive at the same level. Backlist is deadly thinking.

      And remember the 20 to 50 group? They are pretty right about that 20 books in inventory. No series is worth promoting until you have around 20 books in inventory. Nothing for readers to get otherwise. A big store with no inventory is a dead store.

      • Kristi N.

        (*Blink*) You’re right. I had to stop and think what ‘backlist’ meant to me. I guess I classify a book I’ve published as backlist because it has moved into the category of finished product. A widget, if you will, that may need a bit of freshening up in the future, but is no longer in an active writing phase. I should change that, though (because you’re right). Call it ‘finished product’ or something that stays away from the connotations of ‘backlist’.

        • dwsmith

          Yeah, all your books, the most recent or the first published, need to have a level place in your inventory. And in your mind, although we all love the most recent baby we are working on more at the moment. Nature of writing. (grin)

  • Leah Cutter

    Sing it, Dean.

    Blaze and I have a catalogue. An extensive one at that. There is no back list. We might not focus on a property for a while. Right now, we’re putting new covers and blurbs on two of my series. Doesn’t matter when I wrote them or originally published them. They haven’t gone bad but I have leaned a lot about covers over the years, and they’re due.

    • dwsmith

      Renewing covers and double checking your blurbs is always a good idea regularly, meaning every 3-5 years. Sometimes at 5 years you look at them, look at the sales and say, “Going to leave this alone for a few more years.” (grin)

  • Ed Teja

    In any other business in the world (other than fresh food, I suppose), once you’ve developed a product, you keep marketing it, work to sell off the inventory and hope it catches fire and, if it does, you make more of what sold. The dependence on something being new has always been a mystery. Remaindering is a cruel and wasteful practice.

  • Bridget McKenna

    It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve offered this particular bit of publishing wisdom, there are always going to be writers who haven’t heard it. Thanks for the reminder, Dean.

    • dwsmith

      Bridget, you telling me every indie writer on the planet doesn’t read this blog? (grin) I must go take a nap at that realization. (grin)

  • Emilia

    I’ve read stories older than me an enjoyed them. Witch World books by Andre Norton comes to mind. Also Patricia McKillip’s books, I read The Forgotten Beasts of Eld a decade ago and it was 38 years after first publification then.

  • Mihnea+Manduteanu

    Do you know Michael Anderle, the 20 to 50k guys? I like how they think about publishing.

  • Chris York

    Coincidentally enough, money fell out of the mail today.
    The series my NY publisher dumped is somehow still selling, despite their neglect. If it was mine instead of the publisher’s that check would be a whole helluva lot bigger because I’d bet a bigger slice and with a little attention the sales would be much higher.
    And the series they dumped? Just Kickstartered (is that a word? I am making it a word now.) book 5 in the series and it’s right at 300% funded with three days left, AND people are lining up to get an omnibus edition (yay for not giving up all rights!!) of the first four books.
    Yeah, that banana is still fresh for my readers, and I am loving it!