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!