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The secret of every book publisher’s success is the backlist. To Kill a Mockingbird, Stretching, Dune… these are books that sell, day in and day out, long after they’ve earned out their advances.
The distinction between the backlist and the frontlist (the new books, the promoted books, the books that publishers focus on, ironically) is based on two forms of scarcity that publishers have long dealt with:
1. There was scarce shelf space. The local bookstore could only hold 10,000 or 20,000 titles, and most of those slots (and virtually all of the merchandising and promotional slots) went to the new books. Book of year! is a category reserved for the new.
2. There were scarce review slots. The highest-leverage way a publisher could promote a frontlist title was to get it on Oprah, or reviewed in the local paper.
Backlist titles are noteworthy because of their profitability, but they also don’t depend on shelf space (people happily order them) and they don’t depend on reviews (the word gets out horizontally, or in a teacher’s assignment, not from the core of the media machine).
You’re probably ahead of me here, but:
There is now infinite shelf space. Infinite because the online booksellers carry just about every single book. And infinite because independent local stores carry relatively few books so that all but the hottest titles end up being ordered anyway.
And there are no more review pages to fight over, instead, there’s only the long tail, the countless peer-to-peer recommendations that aren’t bounded by place or time.
Launching a frontlist title using the old method makes no sense at all, because you will not capture these two scarce resources. Instead, as we saw from the gradual launch of the original Harry Potter and (in a totally different way) in the launch today of my new book Your Turn, success comes from whispering to the tribe, not from yelling through media amplifiers. Your Turn has already sold 32,000 copies, which would, if it were in a channel that bestseller lists tracked, would make it one of the top-selling books in the country. We did this without any shelf space and without any media other than talking to people who had already signed up. This takes patience and a willingness to focus on the long run.
Some people launch with the backlist in mind because they have no choice. I think it’s worth doing it because it’s the most direct and effective way to create a backlist success story.
The future belongs to this approach: Write for your readers, don’t try to find readers for your writing…