Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Fight for Backlists

Backlists (authors' prior works) have always supported the frontlist, but in the digital era, when backlist titles are ALWAYS on the shelf, the backlist can lead to frontlist sales in new ways. They can be much more than the "long tail".

The large publishers know this, and they've begun to actively leverage backlist titles. Recently we saw the publisher of Lisa Gardner's backlist title, Alone (2005), reset the Kindle price to 99 cents just before release of her new book. At 99 cents, Alone quickly rose to top Kindle bestseller status, and when Lisa's next release, Love you More, was launched it was pulled to the top by thousands of recent Alone sales.

In this case, a revived backlist title served to pull a frontlist offering, and the consumer psychology play was pure genius. After picking up the 99 cent Alone bargain, the reader was more likely to pay $12.99 for the new release. After all, that's an average of $7 per book. Not bad as a value proposition.

Publishers are fighting to keep backlist rights, and this strategic leveraging, made possible by the virtual digital bookshelf, is just one reason.

Yet, if authors were given rights to their older works (vs. fighting it out in court in most cases, because contracts were nebulous on this point), the publishers could gain on several fronts:

  • Savings. Author and subcontractors do all the formatting, new covers, promotion, etc. Author incurs all costs.

  • Author aggressively prices backlist (2.99 at 70%).

  • Author/entrepreneur is incentivized to be a promoter. Reversion gives author their own business, and reason to social network, blog, and otherwise self promote. The author has a skin in the game; they rely less on the publisher and more on their own efforts. Authors connect directly with readers, and they begin to build their own brands.

  • Publisher is freed to focus on front list. Dwindling resources can be tasked to the most profitable segment of the business.

  • Backlists go to digital much faster -- authors are all working concurrently to put up reverted backlists. Nobody has more incentive to get this job done quickly than the author, who stands to lose money every day the books aren't on Kindle store.

  • Ultimately, more backlist titles allow publishers to compete more effectively with indie published works. More quality books from their stable of authors are offered at low prices, again, providing backlist support for their new works.

    Look for the big 6 to offer contracts with auto rights reversion on midlist books (after say, 3 years), as a sweetener to contracts.

    This is a win-win for the author and big publisher. The author gets the advantage of trad pub validation, print distribution channel, and promotion effort on front list, albeit with lower royalty structure, but the author also gets the opportunity to make a larger royalty on backlist books by publshing those independently.

    Bottom Line: The publisher takes the head and the author takes the long tail.

    Heck, I'd consider this type of contract.

    I believe this is a viable business model in the digital book era. The old contract is obsolete; an author loses too much money in the long tail when a book is on sale forever at low royalty rates.

    Publishers that offer more creative contracts will be the winners, as authors will flock to those houses.

    Can you think of other contract models that would attract you as a writer? How about increasing the author's percentage two or three years after publication?
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