Monday, 14 May 2012

Front list to back list to the void?

In publishing terms, "front list" means the book that an author has recently produced, the one that publishers will actively (you hope) promote. "Back list" means all previous books, including the newest one once it's not new any more. Those books rarely find themselves promoted. One of the frustrating things for most authors is how quickly that new front list book becomes regarded as back list.

Thus, the back list often sinks into obscurity, a limbo where it is technically in print, but isn't actually moving. You, the author, might still be busting a gut to promote it, but you will probably not be able to influence sales sufficiently.

This leads to another frustrating aspect: the feeling that your hard work in writing the damn thing gorgeous book earned you diddly squat and there's still untapped potential for your work to earn more and have new life. "Frustrating" is an under-statement. Crikey, "under-statement" is an under-statement.

Sometimes, however, a publisher decides that new life is indeed what your work can have. And this, I'm pleased to say, is what is happening to me with Walker Books.

Until a few months ago, the situation was this:
  • My brain books (Blame My Brain and Know Your Brain) were ticking along with modest sales, but were well and truly back list, having been published in 2005 and 2007.
  • Despite fab reviews, sales of the two highwayman books (The Highwayman's Footsteps and the Highwayman's Curse) were less than modest, in the sense that there was absolutely no need to feign any modesty at all. I was waiting for them to go out of print.
  • Yes, OK: Wasted was doing rather well, but that was not going to have an effect on the above books, which are in different markets.
Now the situation is this:
  • Walker are planning an ebook of Blame My Brain, updated with new material by me, and lots of interesting links. (Be patient - there's lots to do first!) 
  • Possible TV interest has arisen in Blame My Brain, after a TV company heard me on the Simon Mayo show. (This might lead to nothing, but I'm hopeful.)
  • Both highwayman books have had a huge surge of interest from schools (more of that later) and have not only reprinted twice in the last few months, but are also being put into ebook format. I'll be doing school events in primary schools, as the books are pitched at 10+.
So, suddenly, my back list is being given a new life. This is very hoorayish.

Why has this happened? What can we learn from it?

  • I hope the fact that the books are good was helpful, so people wanted to buy them even without promotion.
  • Blame My Brain continues to be sui generis and I am always being asked to do events, not just in schools but in all sorts of situations: medical, social work, religious.... (Yikes!)  
  • I have deliberately built a reputation as someone who works hard and will always step up to the plate to help a publisher promote my work. 
  • Walker Books increasingly see my online activity. Other publishers are also noticing. Profile is important when it comes to selling books and the harder you work the easier that becomes. (Confession time: I couldn't give a toss about profile - I just like talking!)
  • Crucially, schools have suddenly bought the highwayman books, and bought, and bought them. The first I knew of this was when a school supplier in Scotland contacted me to say they had heard that the highwayman books were going out of print and could I please urge my publisher to reprint. They guaranteed to order 1000 copies if they did. That is extraordinary. Until then, I'd no idea schools had even noticed them. (I'm going to blog about this separately as I'm going to talk about the importance of school visits and links soon.)
What is the lesson for writers?
That back-list books can have a new life; that a lot of this is luck; but that you have to keep doing the right stuff to make luck happen. You have to keep working and working hard. So, writers, keep behaving professionally; keep active online and off; keep smiling and seem positive even when you don't feel it; keep being good to work with and keep writing the best books you can. 

Soon, to celebrate the sudden success of the highwayman books, I'm organising a major competition, with a category for schools and adults and lots of books to be won. Details later, here and on my website. But I have to warn you: you'll need to read one of the books, otherwise you won't be able to do the simple task I'm going to set. :) So, people, do try the Highwayman's Footsteps and The Highwayman's Curse. Ebook or print, I don't mind! Well, actually, the ebooks aren't live yet...


Derek said...

Congratulations, Nicola. IT's good to hear a good news story, for a change!.

jtwebster books said...

Awesome news, Nicola.
I bought your two Highwayman books on a whim several years ago without realising they were yours, and I loved them. It's good to know that many more readers are enjoying them.

Rosemary said...

So frustrating for the readers as well as the writers when book shops only stock the latest novel. If I like something I always want to read the 'back list' - libraries can sometimes help but not always. I suppose that's where Amazon scores, but you've got to know about the books in the first place.

Congratulations on your success! You're very encouraging to the rest of us.

Vee said...

Great to see your hard work paying off. Well done you on much deserved success!

catdownunder said...

This topic has come up in Australia recently - most of the books which have won the Miles Franklin Award are out of print. I suspect the same would be true of our Children's Book of the Year Award Winners too - something I want to check.

Nicola Morgan said...

Cat, I'm sure that's true. I remember being really surprised when I was fairly newly published, to learn how quickly award-winning books go out of print. "Award-winning" and "commercial" and frustratingly often not the same.

jtwebsterbooks - so glad you liked my highwayman tales! I blame myself somewhat that they didn't take off more quickly but the problem was that I don't normally write for that age group (under 12s) so I wasn't doing enough to promote them. I now AM writing for that age group!

Thanks for all your kind comments, everyone. I did write the post in order to teach people about front list/back list and the precariousness of our lives, rather than to big myself up, but it's lovely of you to take the other part of the message!

Rosemary Gemmell said...

Thanks for that great post and the timely reminder about the importance of contacting schools. The Highway Man books sound wonderful - will look out for them in ebook.

Claire Dawn said...

Lots of writer's seem to be scared of e-books and technology in general, but I think that they've got their perks. One big one being that there's no such thing as out-of-print, and as there's virtually no overhead once an e-book has been created, there's no reason to ever go off the market.

Congrats on the new lease on life.

Melinda Szymanik said...

Congratulations - what terrific news! "Profile is important when it comes to selling books and the harder you work the easier that becomes." This is so true - the more you do, the more it doubles back on itself and seems to snowball. And I like to think there is an element of karma as well, especially with work in schools.

Ebony McKenna. said...

Congratulations, this is sensational news. Which bit? All of it.

Carol Christie said...

I have been so heartened recently by various (published and successful!) writers like yourself sharing some of the more difficult aspects of the reality of a writer's life. It's so generous of you to let us peek at some of the ups and downs and let us lesser mortals know that you share some of our disappointments...

womagwriter said...

Fab news, Nicola!

I bought one of the Highwayman books for my younger son last Christmas. He loved it. I haven;t read it yet but you have just given me a great incentive to do so soon.

Diane Fordham said...

Congrats Nicola - you truly are an inspiration and someone to aspire to. Great post :-)