Okay, I realize that subject line is a little dramatic. I mean after all, I’m not going to stop publishing books. But every once in a while, I wonder to myself why I continue to put so much blood, sweat, tears, and money into acquiring, producing, and marketing new titles.
It’s a well known fact that healthy publishers have healthy backlists (titles that have been out for over a year). When I first got into this business, I was told that a successful publisher’s revenue breaks down into this: 50% backlist, 25% sub-licenses (like audio, film, and foreign rights), and 25% in front list. At the time, I couldn’t wait to get to that model because pretty much everything was in the front list and a thriving backlist is a little like a savings account that enables us to take on new books.
A few years ago, I got to that model; the backlist was quite strong due to a few books going viral and taking off in large booksellers like Target. Then the pandemic hit and it turned everything on its ear. When stores closed, the only place to buy books was online and publishers pushed back launch dates. Unless something was already in the process of taking off, it was pretty hard to get the discoverability that bricks and mortar store shelves gave us. Replacing those shelves and stores was TikTok and Instagram where people gathered to talk about the books they were reading. And in many cases, they were older titles.
Now don’t get me wrong, it’s pretty exciting to see authors of older titles get paid for books they wrote, and some of our books benefited from that too. But all this led me to where I am now: with 75% of sales in the backlist titles – which is similar to what many other publishers are experiencing. And it’s getting more difficult to get bookstores to take chances on new authors and smaller presses. The big frontlist lay downs from a few years ago aren’t a reality anymore. And navigating this new normal is difficult for everyone in the industry.
So that then leads to the question: Why don’t I just retire, and let that 75% tick along and do its thing? But the problem is that I just can’t seem to sit still (at least not yet). And inevitably, the backlist sales will taper off and if they’re not replaced by front list titles that then become backlist, then I’ll never get to some of the goals I’ve set for myself, like a NYT Bestseller or buying that tropical island where I sip on fruity drinks while lying in a hammock.
So, if I know I can’t sit still yet and I don’t have enough money to buy an island, what am I going to do to see if we can boost those front list sales? Well, first of all, I’m going to take more time to strategically plan out some marketing and sales initiatives. I do that for most of our titles, but there’s been a few instances where I’ve felt I’m sitting back and watching things go by. We did recently start some more active social media marketing, and I’ve acquired and scheduled out some different books than I’ve done before. One is a YA novel in verse which I’m really excited about and the other is our Poetry Prize which – as far as I’m concerned – is already a success.
I think I just need to keep talking to other smart people about what they do, and implement more of the back-burner ideas that I never seemed to find the time to do. Plus, I have some amazing people taking on more for me, so that frees up some time and brain space!
Anyway, running one’s own business isn’t easy and it’s attractive to think of the day when all I have to do is lounge between two trees, but if I’m honest, I can’t do that quite yet. So, I’ll do what I can to make sure the front list grows while maintaining the health of that backlist. And if you have any ideas to help me along the way – please share them. I promise to buy you a tropical beverage.