The Importance of Being Backlist

First, the links, in case you want to go read the source yourself.

The music industry is not the publishing industry, but both are going through digital disruption and one can offer insight into the other. In this, we see that current (published within the last 18 months) album sales have gone from 63% of total sales in 2005 to 49% of sales in 2015.

Also, the total album sales has dropped from 618.9 million to 241.3 million – slightly over a third of what they used to be. (39%)

At first glimpse, this looks like a total collapse in album sales, not just a massive collapse in current frontlist selling. But when you look closer, this is only a slice of the whole. “Total consumption, including sales, streams, and track downloads, was up, fueled by the continued surge of streaming, which nearly doubled last year.”

“Catalog continues to be the biggest share of on-demand streams, with songs over 18 months old accounting for nearly 70% of all streaming volume.”

Catalog is the music equivalent of backlist. So what you’re seeing here is more people accessing music backlist. Some of that is going to be people using streaming services to listen to bands they know and like (and may already possess in hardcopy, but this is more convenient.) Some of that are going to be bands who’ve been out for a while, but are just now being discovered by word of mouth. (Yesterday, an acquaintance on facebook was gushing about the artist they’d just discovered – Lindsey Stirling. She went big in 2012, and it took 4 years for her to reach this particular person, who in turn was enthusiastically recommending her to everyone they knew.)

This, then, is the rise of the long tail. It’s getting harder and harder to be discovered on release – but with unlimited shelf life, when people hear of you, they can find you and try as much as they want. We, personally, are seeing that now. It’s been almost a year since Peter’s last release, Stand Against The Storm. Any fans who bought it because they know Peter’s stuff and were waiting for it to come out have long since bought the book, and are unlikely to rebuy it. But every day, a few sales trickle in across his whole backlist, and every day, people are reading something of his in the Kindle Unlimited library.

I’m very grateful for those readers, who are just now discovering his books, and working their way through them. I’d love to find a way to reach them, but most appear from nowhere trackable – it’s not mentions on blogs, nor con appearances, nor promotion, just steady word of mouth combined with the passive promotional tools (Sidebar on his blog, mentions here and there, and Amazon’s also-boughts). To all of you who’ve helped keep the lights on and pay for medical bills over the last year, thank you! We’re working through assorted medical problem and moving, and the next book, Stoke the Flames Higher, is getting very close to done!

One other very interesting note from the report: not only is the ratio of frontlist to baclist sales falling, but the spread is narrowing on the frontlist: a very few stars are getting most of the release buys. Adele’s new album was only out for 6 weeks last year, and yet it accounted for 3% of the album sales for the year – roughly 6% of the frontlist for the year.

This is not unlike the world legacy pub is aiming for: they’ve been squeezing out the midlisters and hoping to make everything on a few blockbusters. Certainly, indie can’t compete with new release hardcover like Girl on a Train, which took most of the legacy pub sales last year in fiction. However, we’re not relying on legacy pub to get to readers anymore, and we’re not going out of print. This means that no matter the size of your new release boost, you still can sell a heck of a lot of copies over time, as readers find you.

In summary, if publishing continues to mirror music, then streaming will continue to increase, but frontlist sales may continue to fall, and it become harder and harder to get discovered in the initial release period. However, backlist volume is growing, and people are discovering their way through the things that have been out there a while. So, while you can and should do some promotion of your latest release – if it fails to take off, don’t despair. Instead, write the next book, the greatest book you’ve written yet. Sometimes you make your money on the initial release surge, and sometimes, it’ll come in having a lot of things out there all bringing in an unsteady trickle.

As long as you write a great story, and put it in a good cover and catchy blurb that hooks the reader just long enough to look inside – the story is what’ll entertain them, and keep them coming back for more, and telling their friends “You gotta try this!”

If you haven’t tried Peter Grant’s books yet, he has an awesome series of fun Space Opera, starting with Take The Star Road.

Steve Maxwell just wants to get his feet on the star road to find a better homeworld. By facing down Lotus Tong thugs, he earns an opportunity to become a spacer apprentice on a merchant spaceship, leaving the corruption and crime of Earth behind. Sure, he needs to prove himself to an older, tight-knit crew, but how bad can it be?

If you like grittier Military Science Fiction, based not on European wars but on combat in Africa, try War to the Knife.

When the Bactrians invaded their planet, Laredo’s army switched to guerrilla warfare and went underground. For three years they’ve fought like demons to resist the occupiers. They’ve bled the enemy, but at fearful cost. The survivors are running out of weapons, supplies, and places to hide.

Then a young officer, Dave Carson, uncovers news that may change everything. An opportunity is coming to smash the foe harder than they’ve ever done before, both on and off the planet. Success may bring the interplanetary community to their aid – but it’ll take everything they’ve got. Win or lose, many of them will die. Failure will mean that Bactria will at last rule unopposed. That risk won’t stop them.

When you’re fighting a war to the knife, in the end you bet on the blade!


  1. Almost all of my purchases are backlist. About the only new books I’ve purchased in the last 10 years are from Baen. Most of what I read is from decades past, well before the turn of the 21st century

  2. Well, the thing is, these sales for music are computed for the entire album, with no agglomeration of individual track sales to represent full albums, only full albums. Also, it was pushed by higher sales of physical albums from ‘catalog sales’. Digital sales of current stuff still had a slight lead.

    1. Looking at the list of albums, the three mentioned (Dark Side, Abbey Road, Kind of Blue) are of the “essentials” categories. They are the kind of timeless LP’s that people who buy LP’s would want to have (if they already don’t) or replace if they get worn out and scratched.

      1. Another thing to consider is how many of these album purchases were CDs, and it is people replacing discs that were victims of disk rot.

  3. “You gotta try/see/read/do this!”
    “No, I don’t.” is almost universally my reaction. Now, “Hey, you might like this.” is another matter, but the harder the sell, the greater the instant resistance I’ll have.

    As for backlist, well, almost everything I’ve ever read has been that. The precious few exceptions have been recent things recommended here or on ATH (though by the time I get to reading some of them, they might well be backlist. Ox slow.) And yes, same with music, I do not ever recall going out to by the latest album. Well, maybe once (by They Might Be Giants) and as I recall I was somewhat disappointed, so became even more willing to wait and see. Very ‘backlist’. How far? I am not above listening to stuff initially recorded on cylinder. Or piano roll, if you insist on digital. Is there good new music being made? Sure. But in a few years, it’ll still be there – and meanwhile I can ignore FM broadcasts of Latest Hit crappola.

    Heck, $HOUSMATE has the Harry Potter books and I’ve not read them yet. maybe when the furor settles a bit… more. Alright, I did eagerly seek out some 1632 and Discworld stuff. But… show me some Twain I’ve not yet read (other than Life on the Missipppi) and.. well now.

    1. > the harder the sell, the greater
      > the instant resistance I’ll have.

      Same here. Which is why I’ve still never seen “Jaws” or “The Exorcist” or the last few decades’ worth of “blockbuster” movies.

    2. Heck — Most of what I listen to was **centuries** old before it was even possible to record anything at all. πŸ˜‰

  4. Yep. That steady trickle of sales is nice. I’ll get a nice boost when I put a new book out, then it’ll drop back. But every new release has better sales, as I accumulate readers.

      1. Ditto +1 Even this January is seeing more sales than years past, all of them back-list. The newest book is not moving that fast, but sales and reads are staying low and steady. I suspect I’ll get a bump in Feb-Mar with the next book release, and again, the back list will keep chugging along.

  5. Quite some time ago now I stumbled upon Take The Star Road. Blurb sounded a bit like Heinlein so I picked it up. Glory be, it was to my mind very much in keeping with RAH so I finished the book and sought out the rest of the series. Filed the experience away as an excellent read, wished there were more in the series.
    Flash forward to last year’s LibertyCon where I had the opportunity to meet the Grants, and was most impressed. Started following Peter’s blog and thought perhaps I should check out one of his books. Clicked on the first of the Maxwell Saga books only to find to my surprise that it was that same book I’d read with relish years before.
    See, out of the tens of thousands of books I’ve read I always remember plot lines, often characters, but with some notable exceptions authors don’t tend to register all that well with me.
    Now that the association has been made, I will naturally investigate the rest of Peter’s works.

      1. SInce I was a kid, I’ve always remembered the authors. It was useful information because then I knew what to look for more of.

    1. Take the Star Road was one of those books I thought of as best-Heinlein-juvenile-not-by-Heinlein. His protagonist grows older in the subsequent book; so, they are not as reminiscent of Heinlein juveniles. I still buy/read/recommend the whole bunch, and the related Laredo series.

  6. My first Peter Grant book was the wrong Peter Grant. I accidentally picked up a soft-gay-porn Peter Grant book. By chapter three, I learned the difference when the first sex scene comes, err, arises, err, shows up. (But I read the next 15 chapters anyway…NOT!)
    My FAVORITE book is Walls, Wires, Bars & Souls. Yes, I love the others, and have reviewed them all. However, WWBS gets to me because Peter spells out MY conflict with evil, freedom, and consequences.
    I need to read it again.

    1. My best friend married a Federal Marshal who is a prison guard. She used to complain that he never talked about his work. I bought a physical copy of WWBS to give to her. After reading it, she realized that her husband needed to compartmentalize and separate his work from his life with her. I like to think that giving her that book helped her to know when to just let him be, and when to be with him.

  7. I don’t know how common it ism but I read titles, then if interested, look at covers, of “new” (to me) books. I also have a 1700+ book wishlist in Amazon. =8-0 Occasionally, I can afford to buy a few off of it.

  8. This. This to the seventeenth power. The whole notion of a frontlist will die with tradpub, and tradpub ain’t lookin’ too healthy these days.

    I characterize ebooks sales (from indies especially) as “a tail without a dog.” I’m too new in SF to be able to generalize based on my own sales, but I licensed and published a set of 119 stories for a specialty market ten years ago, and released them in five POD volumes. (They’re targeted at guys like me who were doing ham radio and electronics in the late 50s and early 60s.) I got an initial pulse of sales once the handful of ham radio mags got their mentions or reviews in, but over the subsequent ten years the books have sold steadily, netting me about $30,000 in sales. Every so often I get a mini-pulse, and have learned that that means somebody somewhere mentioned the set in their ham radio club newsletter. The cost of carrying the set on Lulu’s servers is nothing at all, so there’s no problem just letting them sit there and sell themselves. I have a Web site describing the set, and made sure it’s the top search result for people searching for the text “Carl and Jerry.” Beyond releasing several stories as free PDFs, that’s most of the promotion I’ve done for them. I set it up and went on to other projects.

    The key is this: **Make sure every one of your products helps readers find the rest of them.** Then just keep crankin’ ’em out.

  9. Unlike music publishers, book publishers no longer carry any backlist. I remember reading about the tax law changes that are behind it, but somehow I think TradPub is okay with this now, it allows them to churn and turnover anything that isn’t a mega-instant-hit.

  10. I couldn’t agree with this article more. Even on a month when I have a new release, my backlist sales are more than half my income – and with the Kindle lending program, that proportion has only increased. Writing an ongoing series certainly helps with that, of course; a new release in a series is the best possible advertisement for the previous books.

    As far as my own experience goes, an ongoing series with regular releases will keep the backlist active. I release a new book in the Alamo series every 56 days, and that seems about right; when I’ve left it longer than that, sales have dropped, and there is always a worrying couple of weeks in the run up to launch time!

    I think this is one of the key advantages with ebook publishing – no need to worry about a previous book in the series falling out of print. I lost count of the number of times I didn’t buy into a series because there were missing books, but now they can be perpetually available, and from the point of view of both author and reader, that’s a wonderful think.

    I’ll shout out for Peter Grant’s ‘Laredo War’ series as well; really enjoyed it, and I can’t wait for more!

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