Leveraging the Backlist
Back in the days of traditional publishing, the backlist was a cherished asset. What is a “backlist” you ask? It’s everything except the author’s current release: namely, all the books an author has previously written.
The power of the backlist was this: any new readers, drawn by the prominent merchandising of the newest release, would then be potential customers of all the author’s previous titles. Think about it: you find a book you really enjoy and you generally start looking for the other books by the same author. That’s the backlist. And that stuff’s valuable. While it might not sell as well as the new release (so you hope), it will often be steady. It was in the backlist that authors would end up recouping their advances and starting to earn royalties, and it was this part of the author’s catalogue that a publisher would generally be investing, in signing them on in the first place.
See, in traditional publishing, the backlist is already typeset and sitting out there. In general, it has lower costs associated with it–though authors with strong, steadily selling backlists might also see their entire list with a publisher getting “refreshed” every few years to establish a uniform, distinctive look that will appeal to the ever-shifting aesthetic tastes of readers.
Readers also Bought
If there’s one thing that reading the publishing stories of John Locke and Amanda Hocking told me, it’s that the backlist is as powerful as ever it was–or so I suspected.
I put my books up with that in mind. You see, I’m kind of lucky, in that I have an instant backlist. Unfortunately, it is in two different sub-genres of romance (three contemporary, Harlequin Presents-type category romances, and two Regency Historicals), so I couldn’t expect there to be a lot of cross-sales between the two sets of books. I’m also lucky that these were all written a few years back, so I’m a little distanced from them. I’m thrilled if they sell, but if things are slow, while it’s a bit of a downer, it’s not deeply discouraging.
What did I find? The hypothesis has been borne out. I now believe, more firmly than ever, that the success of kindle self-pubs is in the backlist–or at least, in the multi-titles (which may be a more appropriate way to think of it, given that they’re all up online more or less simultaneously, and are equally merchandised).
I’ll begin by pointing out that I’ve had my stuff up for about three weeks. I haven’t really told friends and family about these ones (I’m saving that goodwill purchase from people who aren’t really all that into the genre in which I’m writing for when I release my fantasy novel in Octoberish–I figure you can only put out that kind of call occasionally, and I want to give the “new release” a good boost). So the sales are all to strangers (insofar as I know). The numbers aren’t spectacular, but they’re much better than I expected, for just putting some books out there, randomly, and seeing what happens while doing pretty much no promotion, beyond having a link to my author page on my twitter account. Disclaimers in place, I’ll say that, at 3.5 weeks, I’m coming up on 100 units, over all five of the books (and if you’re one of those purchasers, then thank you very much indeed!).
This is not an even distribution. An Immodest Proposal (AIP), one of my Regencies, is the strongest seller. It’s still at the vanguard. The Clarendon Rose (TCR), the other Regency, was the second, until about two days ago. The pattern here seems to be: a few sales of one, followed by a few sales of the other, several days later. AIP went up first, and about a week into that, I uploaded TCR. It took about another week for TCR to develop a “readers also bought” panel on the Amazon page, and when it did, AIP was prominently featured. This was exciting news, as it meant that I had repeat readers. People liked AIP enough to come back for more. I did the happy dance when I saw this.
It took longer for TCR to start showing up on AIP’s band. From this I inferred that AIP, as the strong seller, had a robust set of correleations to other book sales, which TCR had to overcome. But now, they’re both in the first panel of “readers also bought” for each other (yatta!). All the other books in AIP’s “also bought” listing are waaay higher in the Amazon sales lists, which leads me to infer that two of the factors used in coming up with the “readers also bought” are correlation (i.e. most number of cross sales) followed by popularity (i.e. the most to least popular books that readers also bought).
As of today, one of my contemporary Presents-style romances–an amnesia + marriage of convenience story–just passed TCR for sales. Within that sub-genre of titles, I’ve noticed that the category romance set in Rome is the one that is selling the least. This leads me to think I need to change something up, there. But the other two are doing okay–and there is now a correlation in sales in the “readers also bought” listings (huzzah!). People are buying one, then coming back and buying the other. Lookin’ good, Homestar.
The next variables that I will be tweaking have to do with merchandizing. I found a fantastic place that sells pre-made, professionally designed covers at low prices (http://www.razzdazzstock.com)! They aren’t customized, but I found several that suited the books that I’ve got online (to clarify: they do custom creations as well, but they also have this affordable, pre-made option that I haven’t seen elsewhere, with covers ranging from $30-60 US. The price listed includes changes to title and text as well–impressive! As an aside, I’m rather pleased with The Clarendon Rose cover because the pre-made coincidentally features a woman wearing a rose pendant. This adds a nice nuance, as the “rose” in the title most directly refers to a flower, but could indirectly refer to the heroine as well).
So far, I’ve made not quite enough to cover the cost of new covers, but I’m close. So, I bit the bullet and bought some that fit my needs in a general way, in the hopes that the sales over the next weeks will cover the cost. Once those are up, I will raise the prices from 99 cents to $1.99 for the category romances, and see what happens (will the sales go down, or up?). I will then focus on those variables for a couple of weeks to see what happens.
One thing to note: my pre-upgrade book covers weren’t fantastic (I did them myself, so I can say this), but they did all have a similar “look” that might have been in my favour, in allowing readers to pick out my books from the many. This was intentional, and will at least partly be lost with the upgrades to the newer, more professional-looking and appropriately genre-branded (but not cross-branded to each other) covers.
The bottom line: The power of the backlist is alive and well. Having one book up in the kindle store might lead to decent sales if you promote and do all the right things, BUT the real power is in “leveraging the synergies” by having multiple titles listed, of a similar style, quality and genre. Basically, that will mean that so long as readers enjoy your book and your writing, then whatever you put into marketing any one book will likely translate into further sales for all your other books in the same genre for some portion of your readers, with very little further effort on your part.
When readers read one of your books and like it, having a second (and a third, fourth, fifth) up there and available to read is really the key, and will lead to you as an author feeling warm fuzzies towards complete strangers, who have come back to buy more of your writings.