Skip to content

The Long Tail—the tail that is always new

Rudyard Kipling wrote several great poems about wanderlust and the itch to look over the next hill, including “The Long Trail.” We authors are more interested in the long tail, the sales of our earlier books. We want new readers to have access to our older work, to buy them, enjoy them, tell others about them. Long tail sales can yield a pretty penny over time, and can lure new readers in as well.

The first difficulty with long-tail sales for the traditionally-published writer is ensuring that the book is available. This is one of those places where the Internet revolution has made life easier for some, notably buyers. For buyers, being able to go to one place, enter an author’s name or the title of an out-of-print book and find out that it is available, used, from somewhere that will ship it to you on demand… Even if your library cannot get it via inter-library loan (happens rarely but does happen, especially for fiction)… wonderful! No more haunting used book stores in hopes of a chance find, no more wondering if So-and-so ever wrote anything else.

That’s the buyers’ side. The writers’ side is a little different. Used books don’t pay royalties or count towards sales for contracts. Traditional publishing remains tied to the tax model imposed by the US Supreme Court in the Thor Tools decision, meaning that keeping print copies of older books in stock is a burden. Bookstores do not want the inventory because to the inability to “write down” the value over time, publishers do not want the inventory for the same reason (they can no longer tell the IRS that the books have a lower value for projected income purposes), and we all know the results. [For a detailed take, with math, see: http://www.sfwa.org/2005/01/how-thor-power-hammered-publishing/ ] E-books and audio-books changed that, for those authors who have e-books and audio books. The IRS is not taxing file space on servers as inventory yet. [I probably should not give them ideas.] But most authors who have long series, or shorter series, published by the traditional means don’t see much, if any, money from those long-ago print books, because only newly printed and sold counts. That might be changing, but I’m not going to hold my breath.

Those of us who control all of our books all the time, and their sales, are very, very fortunate. The trick is capitalizing on that long-tail.

First, the books have to be available somehow, through our web-sites, through Amazon, D2D, Kobo, and other options. At the same time, readers need to know that they are out there. I have separate pages on my blog for each major series, and one for non-series odds and ends. On each page, the books are in series order, sometimes with a note about in-world chronology for readers who prefer that.

So far, so good, at least for me. Where I’m in trouble, sort of, or at least not helping myself is the covers. Amanda, Cedar, and others have talked about how fashions for covers change over time, and how genre signals have shifted. Certain color schemes no longer signal certain sub-genres (although having the bio-hazard or nuclear-radiation warning symbol still suggests post-apocalyptic or horror, possibly thriller.) Pastel backgrounds and drawn figures still inclined one toward sweet, humorous romance or chick-lit, but not as strongly as five years ago.

My covers have not all aged well. Have yours? Some are still OK, but could be better. The Cat books do not have anything like a “series” look until the last three or four, and even then the genre signalling is off. The various sub-series within the Colplatschki series are a little better, but not much, and are somewhat dated. I need to go through and re-cover a lot of things. The old covers are probably not helping my sales.

When you go back and look at your older books, it is also a good time to catch typos and any other glitches that you missed the first and second times around. Certain slang might have changed, and a reader today might miss a reference, or interpret something 180 degrees from what was intended at the time. This is probably not a big problem, but it does happen. I had a perfectly acceptable phrase that a certain Disney movie turned into a euphemism for something not intended at all in the book. Grrrr. The phrase got changed, because it would jar a reader out of the scene.

It is important to make sure that other readers know these are the same book with different covers. Especially if you change the title. Put it in the sales copy, possibly even on the cover, put it on your blog, put it on the title page or copyright page, just don’t accidentally rook long-time readers by accident. They don’t like that. (Ditto if you have a different edition for British vs. US markets.)

Are the links current? Can readers see all the books in a series? If you have changed or modified a pen-name, is that up to date for readers to see?

To sell long-tail also means reminding people every so often that the older books are out there. I’m going to reevaluate pricing over the summer. Some prices might drop, others stay the same, depending on sales and where the book is in the series.

And be patient. Every few months, I log into the Kindle author page and grin like the Cheshire cat. Someone will binge-buy (or rent) the first three, or four, or more, or an older series. That money is gravy. The books have earned out, and that is profit.

I like profit. Profit means I have the resources to buy good chocolate, pay the bills, and write more books, not necessarily in that order.

27 Comments
  1. Mike Hall #

    “It is important to make sure that other readers know these are the same book with different covers”

    The thing most likely to confuse me – as someone whose fiction purchase have all been in ebook form for some years – is if Amazon does not tell me that I’ve already purchased a book. I’ve had that happen once or twice recently where both title and author’s name have not changed. We also own a couple of old romances by J R Ward where both the title and the author’s name have changed and where there is nothing on the Amazon product page or in the current “look inside” mentioning the title change and Amazon doesn’t know it is essentially the same book.

    It would be nice to think that this could be avoided, possibly by ensuring that the ASIN number is unchanged, but certainly by big and clear warnings on the website. In the case of Ms Ward I guess her trad publishers don’t care as long as it is another sale.

    As for the long-tail, my readers takes on it are (a) its really good to come on a completed series by an author you’ve just discovered so you can binge read it but (b) if the series is too long (say 10+ books) it is intimidating to a new reader in a way that shorter but linked series are not (so much to read, so many books to buy).

    May 12, 2019
    • Mike Hall #

      And having proof read my comment after posting it I must point out that “my readers takes on it are” not only has a grammatical error but more importantly could be taken to be a claim about my readers (who don’t exist). It should have been: “my take as a reader is that”

      May 12, 2019
    • TRX #

      When I left SF for a while I wound up reading some horror. I encountered way too many Dean Koontz and Stephen King books renamed and re-released.

      “Wait, haven’t I read this before?” [checks web] Damn! They ripped me off *again*…

      Then there’s the other problem, of reprinting a book under the same title, but with substantial changes of the text. Frank Herbert’s “Destination Void” for one.

      May 12, 2019
    • Jamie #

      Are you sure Amazon doesn’t tell you — when you’re logged in to the store — whether or not you’ve read a book? I’ve avoided re-buying a couple of items because Amazon puts a banner spanning across the screen that says when I purchased the book the last time. I haven’t had any books change titles on me, so I don’t know if the banner disappears in that instance. But it’s definitely there when the Kindle edition is the same one.

      May 12, 2019
      • Randy Wilde #

        If the book has the same ASIN number, it should tell you if you have previously purchased it. If the new release has a new number, you’re on your own.

        May 12, 2019
      • Stanley Miller #

        Amazon only tells you you have bought the book if you bought it new directly from Amazon, used or KU books won’t show a warning. Also you don’t see the warning if you bought one format and are looking at another.

        May 12, 2019
      • Mike Hall #

        Amazon nearly always puts a banner across the window saying I’ve already bought the ebook – even if the purchase is a pre-order – but sometimes it does not which is when it becomes a problem. I guess that it is as Randy suggested and that when there is a new ASIN number, for whatever reason, a problem arises. From the author’s viewpoint I wonder what happens to old reviews though I know from experience that the same review can appear against more than one edition of a title.

        May 13, 2019
  2. One of the other early members of the self-help authors’ group I belonged to a few years ago, was a lady who had done about thirty books over a couple of decades. She was our resident marketing pioneer, having started indy-publishing years before the rest of us. One of her lessons, constantly reiterated, was that every book that you put out there was an advertisement for all your other books. Someone who read one of your books, and liked it very much would be apt to search out all the others.

    May 12, 2019
    • TRX #

      I was talking to a well-established tradpub author a few years ago, about one of his earlier books that hadn’t sold particularly well. He had recovered the rights to it, but didn’t intend to put it back on the market, even though he had put some other of his recovered books back out as indy.

      His idea was that it was an “old” book, and therefore nobody would be interested. I pointed out that some of his readership hadn’t even been born when it was first published, and that to anyone who hadn’t seen it before, it was a “new” book, no matter when he wrote it.

      He just couldn’t see it that way. which seemed odd for an SF author…

      May 12, 2019
      • Mary #

        Maybe he doesn’t like it for other reasons. He might even have convinced himself that it was these ones.

        May 12, 2019
  3. Roger Ritter #

    “Certain slang might have changed, and a reader today might miss a reference, or interpret something 180 degrees from what was intended at the time.”

    I pick up a lot of really old books through Project Gutenberg, and my current read is a perfect example of this. The book is “In Queer Street”, by Fergus Hume. The opening sentence is:
    “Here,” explained the landlady, “we are not wildly gay, as the serious aspect of life prevents our indulging in unrestrained mirth.”

    Between the title and being wildly gay (or not), the modern reader definitely tends to ask, “What?!?”

    May 12, 2019
    • That certainly would lead to some double-takes from the unprepared modern reader!

      May 12, 2019
    • Uncle Lar #

      In the 1950 classic movie Mr. 880 one of the main characters is caught out for using the archaic term a “boodle of queer” as reference to a bundle of counterfeit money.
      And then once upon a time the word faggot simply referred to a bundle of sticks burned by people too poor to afford real logs to heat and cook with.

      May 12, 2019
      • Yeah, for me, a fag is still a cigarette, and a faggot is a bundle of sticks for firewood. Especially when I was a young’un.

        Then I went and visited my relatives in the US and was told that those words were bad. The explanation that these were slurs for ‘gay people’ were met with the puzzled “…what’s wrong with happy people?”

        May 13, 2019
    • Michawl Dolbear #

      I am remind of an obituary in The(London) Times which said the guy had organised a performance of /Snow White and the Seven Dwarves/ in his WW2 PoW camp. I wrote to reprove them since all concerned thought they were performing in /Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs/.

      May 13, 2019
  4. TRX #

    > Someone will binge-buy (or rent) the first three, or four, or more, or an older series.

    As a reader, one of the things that always annoyed the HELL out of me was to pick up a book in the middle of a series [back then, selections were small and local, so I bought everything by default] and then find that the first volumes were out of print. There was no internet then, so if it wasn’t local or through Ingram, it didn’t exist.

    The web helped that some… until automatic pricing systems went crazy, and a dog-eared paperback of a series few people ever heard of was suddenly priced at $325.32. Do they actually sell any of those? One theory is that it’s some kind of money-laundering system, but you see it all over Amazon, Abebooks, Half.com, etc.

    So, once I had a wider choice of things to read, I would pass on series where the first volume(s) were not available. Could have been really great stuff, but who’s going to deliberately buy into *half* of a series?

    So, just having the earlier books available would be a big deal as far as me picking up a new series. Otherwise… nowadays, I can find more than I can read, instead of having to read *everything* because the selection was so small.

    May 12, 2019
    • Brett Baker #

      I know EXACTLY what you mean!

      May 12, 2019
  5. I had a perfectly acceptable phrase that a certain Disney movie turned into a euphemism for something not intended at all in the book.

    Now I am curious as to the phrase and the movie (which, since relatively recent release is implied, means I’ve not seen it – though by cultural… drowning?… I might get the reference. Might.)

    May 12, 2019
    • Evenstar #

      I, too, am curious as what Disney film this was.

      May 12, 2019
    • It was the Minions movie.

      May 12, 2019
  6. Stanley Miller #

    Something that sells me a lot of books is to have the series linked on Amazon, both on the Amazon store where you can click a series link on any book’s page and see all the books in the series at once and in the Kindle setup so when you finish one book the next in the series is offered to you as you finish the current volume.

    May 12, 2019
    • mrsizer #

      the Kindle setup so when you finish one book the next in the series is offered to you as you finish the current volume.

      This. I will keep buying (or borrowing) until the links run out. Be sure the later ones get linked correctly. It seems common to have a multi-book series go “next, next, next, no-next” when there actually is another one.

      Do you need to do something to the older book when a new one in the series comes out? If so, please do whatever it is.

      May 13, 2019
  7. Michawl Dolbear #

    The IRS does not tax inventory

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thor_Power_Tool_Co._v._Commissioner

    May 13, 2019
    • Thank you. I will correct the article’s terminology and add a link to a more detailed discussion of inventory value write-down and the decision.

      May 13, 2019
      • Draven #

        which is also why we dont see discount books as much

        May 15, 2019
        • There’s a cute little poem entitled “The Books of Mine Enemy have been Remaindered.” It’s harder to gloat now (although MomRed scored some deep-discount kiddie books yesterday.)

          May 15, 2019

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: