Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Losing the backlist

Yesterday, for the umpteenth time in the last couple of weeks an editor rejected a very good proposal of ours saying sorry, it's just not big enough. And I thought, if editors and publishers keep trying to build front lists with "big" books at the expense of their backlists, then when this publishing economic downturn is over, there will be no backlist in the pipeline. And that will be disastrous for those publishers who seem to have forgotten that the backlist is the bread and butter of our business.

Over the past 20 plus years since I have been an agent, we at Dystel & Goderich have built a very strong backlist and it is in times like these that we depend upon those books to get us through.

It is so unfortunate that some of the smartest people in our business seem to have forgotten this valuable lesson.


  1. Ok, dumb question time - what's a backlist?

  2. Backlist, according to Webster online: a list of books kept in print as distinguished from books newly published.

  3. I'd also like to understand what Backlist refers to--- I'm getting the sense that you are referring to good books that would have sold six months ago-- but not now because it isn't a WOW significant deal book. (Something Bill Clegg would sell :) )
    And are you speaking of fiction or non-fic? I assume proposal means non-fic but is this happening with fiction, too?

    Thanks. Love your blog.

  4. Whine whine whine. Just get a quality book to show them and stop your whining. Crybaby!

  5. Everyone wants that one book that will stand out--but it seems no one wants the books that will provide a foundation for that one book to stand out against.

  6. They'll remember when their credit cards start rolling in at 27% interest, gasoline goes back up to $4.00/ gallon, the banks continue to refuse to make loans and they start running short of funds with which to pay their electrical bills.

  7. Ha! We like your spirit, Anonymous. But you missed the point of the post. The trouble is the publishers are being short-sighted as to what sorts of projects they’re signing on. For those unsure of what backlist is, it’s a term that refers to titles intended to sell consistently over several years rather than “frontlist” which consists of books that get that great big wave of initial publicity and are supposed to have their most productive lives up front. Something like WHAT TO EXPECT WHILE YOU’RE EXPECTING is the ultimate backlist book…a perennial, ever-renewing market that will always need the book so it will keep selling over time instead of having an initial burst and then trickling off.

    As for having books that publishers are buying, market be damned, we’re doing just fine!

  8. I'm surprised you didn't get the memo - from now on, only the bestsellers will be published.

    What started as a joke seems to become reality. I think the biggest mistake in this is that the bestsellers are books that are sold to a great degree to _people who do not read much_. They're people who buy books a couple of times a year - as presents, and to read during the holidays, and maybe when all their friends talk about them. They're not the people who will somehow acquire books whatever their bank balance, because they can't help it - and I would guess that while bestsellers make momentary profit (then again, big advances and large marketing campaigns take some out of that again), the market isn't growable. The target audience will buy about the same number of books each year, and it's not a big number.

    The rest of us are already looking towards other channels - word of mouth, online stores, and to a degree, e-books - to get our reading fix. The more restricted the offerings from big publishers - mainstream characters, mainstream plots, mainstream appeal - the more those books will blend in with the many others just like it, and I might as well pick up something similar at a used book store, if I want that kind of reading experience.