Saturday, June 09, 2007

Backlistics

I was reorganizing my library (late Spring cleaning) and a few hours into it I was hit by a terrifying revelation.

I have about 5000 books, paperback and hardcover. More than 4500 of these books are no longer in print.

These books are dead. Completely dead. And some of them are damn good reads.

If that wasn't scary enough, a lot of my favorite authors from years past are no longer being published.

Maybe some of them have passed on. But I suspect that there's also another, more sinister reason:

They simply can't sell their latest book.

When a book is published, the writer and the publisher have big hopes for it. They want it to sell well. They want it to make money. And they probably want it to keep making money for a long time.

But the majority of books published don't get a second printing. Like comets, they have their moment, then burn out.

This is bad for the writer for several reasons. First, because an out of print book isn't likely to see print again, which means no royalties. And second, because an out of print book often indicates a lack of sales, and these numbers are tracked by publishers who won't want to buy new books from this author. It's a downward spiral.

Having your backlist in print is hugely important. Not only do your sales accrue, but so does your fan base. The longer you're on the bookshelf, the likelier you are to be discovered, and the more books you'll sell in the future.

I've heard that publishers make most of their money on backlist titles. The huge bestsellers usually cost them huge advances, and those books can take years to earn out. But a steady backlist title can be a money machine, bringing in dollars year after year without any advances paid or marketing/advertising funds required.

So why isn't more attention paid to selling the backlist?

A few bestselling authors get dump boxes or cameos or endcap shelf space, dedicated to their backlist titles. In my opinion, this is the very best use of coop dollars. Even better than being on the New Release tables and towers. This does more than push the backlist and keep it in print. This is a message to potential readers which subconsciously says "This author is obviously worth reading because he has a big expensive display, and if I like him I'll be able to read more of his books because they're all right here."

If you're a series author, keeping the first few titles in print is critical. People want to start at the beginning.

But, unfortunately, it's unlikely your publisher will push your backlist titles. Those cardboard displays are expensive to produce, and bookstore real estate doesn't come cheap either. The irony is that the writers who get these displays are probably the ones who really don't need them, because they're already selling gazillions of copies.

Of course, it's not entirely your publisher's fault. Demand drives supply. If your books aren't selling, the bookstores won't order any more. Then they go out of print, and barring a miracle they'll stay out of print forever. Thus begins the downward spiral.

So what can you, the author, do to ensure your books stay in print?

More than you think.

Meeting Booksellers. A bookseller who likes you won't listen when the home office tells them to return a book. Instead, they'll handsell you. Last year, I met more than 1700 booksellers. I thank most of them by name in the acknowledgements of DIRTY MARTINI, coming out July 3. My new book also has back jacket blurbs by booksellers rather than the usual authors and reviewers.

Signing Books. It's a myth that signed books can't be returned. They get returned all the time. But they're less likely to get returned, and they're more likely to sell. Plus, a signed book often gets prime bookstore real estate without costing coop dollars.

Speaking in Public. Every chance you have to pimp your books should be taken. The more you stay in the public eye, the more books you'll sell. Speak at all of the libraries, conferences, conventions, and book festivals you can.

The Media. I'm not a fan of advertising. But getting a review, or doing an interview (for zines, newspapers, websites, blogs, radio, etc) is a free and easy way to get your name out there.

Writing. The very best way to stay in the writing spotlight is to keep writing. A book a year is essential. Two books a year is better. And don't forget short stories and articles--these not only pay you, but give you a much wider exposure than your books alone.

The Internet. Be active on your website, blog, MySpace, newsletter, newsgroups, message boards, listservs, and email correspondence. The more people you can reach, the better off you are.

Will this guarantee you never go out of print? No. There are no guarantees. But the fact remains: the more you do, the more books you'll sell.