Historical and Contemporary Romance Author

Why Backlist is a Gold Mine

I have been debating for the better part of the day whether I should type up this post or not. If it gets me into even more trouble than I already am, I’m blaming Cecilia Grant, Kinsey Holley, and Olivia Waite.

I’m not going to bother you with the background here. There’s a lot of it. Most of which it will irritate me to reiterate, so I’m not going to do it. What I am going to tell you is this: I sold a three-novella anthology (historical, erotic romance) to Kensington in 2008. It came out in trade paperback June of 2009. In words of one syllable, sales sucked. I was a debut author in a niche line (Aphrodisia) with a very small advance ($2,500) whose book had the bad fortune to come out at the absolute height of the recession. Under the circumstances, it’s a small miracle that the book had somewhere in the neighborhood of 4,000 print orders and sold enough copies (mostly in digital, even back then) to earn out within the first 18 months or so. The book is still available for sale in both print and digital online and sold enough copies between June of 2012 and 2013 to earn me $893 in royalties in 2013.

So, if I’m only getting $893 a year from that book, why am I saying reverted backlist is a goldmine? Because I think I could easily treble and possibly quadruple the amount I earn on an annual basis from digital sales if I owned the rights. Admittedly, the fact that this book is an anthology rather than a single title novel gives me more options than I’d have if it were a single title novel, but much of what I’m saying would work just as well for an author with three single titles in a series.

So, here’s what I’d do:

1) I’d break the anthology into its constituent novellas and sell them each separate in digital, probably for a price point of $2.99. The entire anthology now sells from between $8 and $11, depending on the retailer.

“But wait, Jackie,” I know someone is saying, “if you charge $2.99 per novella, you’re actually charging almost $9 for the whole book. That’s not much less than the publisher?”

This is true, but readers are more willing to part with $2.99 to see if they like the first book than to pay the entire $9 only to discover they hate all of them. This makes me completely confident that, at a $2.99 price point, I could sell more copies of the three separate parts than currently sell of the bundle. But, with that in mind…

2) I’d bundle and sell the whole anthology for $5.99. So it would basically be a buy two, get one free scenario. Of course, I’d also have a print version of the anthology and on Amazon, I’d use Matchbook to make the digital anthology a mere $0.99 with the purchase of the print.

3) I have a lead-in short story to the anthology that’s currently 99 cents. I’d make it permafree to promote the companion novellas. Foregoing the 35-40 cents I earn on each sale of the book is no issue when I know I’ll make about $2 a pop for each copy of the succeeding novellas I sell. I already know that lead-in short is selling copies of the anthology. I think I could sell a lot more if instead of having to spring for the whole anthology, readers only had to spring for the next novella. And then the next. And the next.

4) I’d explore having the novellas translated into other languages, especially German, where there’s a strong market for romance. Kensington never sold any of my subsidiary language rights, which given the book’s lousy US sales is no surprise, but I’m confident I could move enough copies to make it worth the translation costs.

5) Speaking of foreign languages makes me think of foreign territories. Despite the fact that my publisher has world English rights, I’ve heard from a number of readers that this anthology isn’t available for sale in their territories. That’s a crying shame. I’d publish it in English in all available territories.

6) Audio. I could do it for one novella at a time. Would that sell a lot of copies? Probably not, but if there’s no audio at all, there’s no revenue at all from the audio rights. (No, I haven’t done audio for any of my other novellas, mostly because I’d like to have all the books in those series completed in print before springing to audio. This anthology and the short story that precedes it represent my only truly “completed” series.)

And that’s just for starters.

Because I’m a self-publisher, I can be nimble. I can see what’s working and what’s not as I work through my steps, and adjust what I’m doing if it’s not working.

But large publishing houses can’t do the things I’m describing here. Or, put another way, the ROI on doing them for an author whose option wasn’t picked up because her sales were lousy doesn’t justify making the effort. They’re busy putting out NEW books. 450 a year. My book, published four years ago, is a distant memory. Once the print copies are out of stores, it’s just “backlist,” which isn’t worth much unless the author happens to be a top seller (in which case, they’d exploit every right they had). Sure, they’re happy to get the $2,700 or so in annual revenue from its sales that still come in, but they don’t have an incentive to truly exploit the rights they have. But *I* do.

This is just one of the reasons that self-publishing outperforms traditional print publishing in the digital arena. Oh sure, not always. Some publishers do a lot promotions with their big name authors, dropping prices on the first book or books in a series before the next one comes out. It’s a strategy many self-publishers have utilized to great effect. It’s just that we self-publishers get to treat all our books as lead titles, not just a few. Backlist sells front list. Front list sells backlist. It’s a wonderfully symbiotic relationship.

I can see that one of the things traditional publishers have a hard time believing is that self-publishers are able to sustain fairly consistent sales of their backlist titles over time. And that’s because, for the most part, traditional publishers don’t do much to sustain the sales of digital books after print sales have run their course. But it’s not a foregone conclusion that, after 4-6 months (the average shelf life of a mass market paperback), everyone who wants to read the book will have bought it. It’s not a foregone conclusion that a book which sold relatively poorly in print will also sell poorly in digital.

So, yeah, I’m waiting with bated breath for June 2016, when I can request reversion. It can’t come too soon!

1 Comment

  • Steven Zacharius January 26, 2014 at 11:21 pm

    BTW, backlist revenue for publishers varies widely but it is a very important part of total revenue. Depending on the nature of books you publish will influence the reorder rate, but it can be from 20-30% of a companies revenue. If a book didn’t sell well there is no demand for the book to continue to be reissued. This is why we would leave it available only as an ebook.


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