The win-win of the backlist
Older titles republished as e-books sell at reduced prices to consumers and bolster sales of the author’s other works
I recently glanced at The New York Times bestseller lists, mainly to torture myself with the amazing success of my former colleague Mitch Zuckoff’s book, “Lost in Shangri-La.’’ On the Combined Print and E-Book fiction list, I spotted an anomaly: “The Lincoln Lawyer,’’ by Michael Connelly. I liked that novel a lot, but I remembered that it was published in 2005.
What’s going on? Some people assumed Little, Brown had re-released the book as part of a tie-in with the Matthew McConaughey movie of the same name, but the movie came and went this spring. What’s going on is the brave new world of the electronic backlist: Any book can be published any time, for any reason, and many publishers are coining money in the process.
What’s a backlist? It’s a publisher’s inventory of previously sold books. For example, Beacon Books here in Boston has a famous backlist, with works by Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, and James Baldwin. Before e-books, publishers had to stock warehouses with older titles that the public might want to read or university professors might think of assigning.
Now a digital book occupies about as much memory as fits on the head of a pin - less, actually - and can be downloaded from the Internet in a few seconds. So there are plenty of interesting ways to exploit that backlist - say, by selling earlier Michael Connelly novels for peanuts to bolster full-price sales of a book he has just published.
Here’s the way Connelly’s publisher plays it: They offered “The Lincoln Lawyer’’ as a Daily Deal on Amazon’s Kindle website. For one day, you could download “Lincoln’’ for $2.99. Normally, it costs $7.99 on
Plus, explains Maja Thomas, senior vice president for digital at Hachette/Little, Brown, the precipitous, one-day discount creates an “aura effect’’ for the book. “The next day it goes back on sale at the normal price, but it continues to sell at the higher rate,’’ she says. “Now we’re calculating the effect that has on the rest of his books, because the aura also spreads to other books in his series.’’
Little, Brown authors such as Connelly and James Patterson, who also has two books on current bestseller lists, hardly need the sales boost. But hyping the e-backlist can help lesser known writers. Books by Nantucket’s Elin Hilderbrand sell well, but she is hardly a household name. So Little, Brown offered her 2009 novel, “Barefoot,’’ on Kindle for $1.99, creating an instant e-bestseller and name recognition for her next novel. With a discounted e-book, Thomas says, “A reader may take a step toward a new author whom they don’t know because the barrier is low. Then they might buy the other books.’’
(I apologize for being Kindle-centric, especially since I was told that Barnes & Noble’s website, www.bn.com, pioneered super-deep discount cum e-book promotion with its Spotlight program. B&N’s Nook e-reader is taking some market share away from Amazon, as is Apple’s iPad and iTunes bookstore. The prices mentioned here are the same on all platforms - and liable to change in an instant, as publishers experiment with “dynamic’’ price models.)
You don’t have to be big to play this game. My friend Dennis Johnson, the publisher at Melville House, recently hyped a 2001 crime novel by Andrey Kurkov, “Death and the Penguin,’’ for half the regular Kindle e-price. “The promo and its immediate aftereffects allowed us to sell nearly 1,900 e-books,’’ Dennis e-commented. “That’s not enough to make The New York Times bestseller list, but it’s a lot of sales for a book first published in 2001. The sale also helped us build buzz about Kurkov - which will be important for our launch of ‘Penguin Lost,’ a sequel which releases later this month.’’
In fact, you don’t have to play this game at all. The aforementioned Beacon Press has a super-valuable title on its backlist, “All Souls: A Family Story From Southie,’’ by Michael Patrick MacDonald. High school and college teachers love to assign this book, and Beacon sees no reason to discount it. “What’s selling in e-books is what’s selling in airport stores,’’ says Beacon associate publisher Tom Hallock. “It’s bestsellers, a lot of genre fiction, a lot of business books.’’
Good reads, cheap. Slate magazine editor Michael Kinsley used to say that e-reading would take off when you could take your e-reader to the bathroom with you, like a paperback. Unsanitary as it sounds - that day has come.
Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is firstname.lastname@example.org.