We were intrigued by the idea that the publishing industry is essentially squeezing itself out of the backlist market — at first thought, it seems almost impossible. After all, aren’t the publishers producing all those lovely books? Surely they are making oodles of money.
Of course they are. Such is the beauty of backlist. Advances are earned out (hopefully). Artwork and typesetting costs have been recouped. Sure, pesky little items like royalties and manufacturing costs remain, but those are manageable and predictable.
As Rachel Donadio of the New York Times notes, the problem with backlist distribution comes in the form of storage. Books take up a lot of space. For example, we have a fairly large desk. Our laptop and the thingy that holds random paper-ish items have small footprints. Add in the miscellaneous stuff (headphones, telephone, business cards, junk), and there’s still a lot of real estate. All of which is occupied by books — and they’re not really adding to the value of the desk, if you know what we mean. Everywhere we turn, there are more books. If we were to ever make a horror flick, it would be filmed entirely in the BS office. Possibly The Infinite Jest would make a good villain — it seems to grow in size every week or so.
Physical bookstores can only stock so much product. Something about shelves and the inability of walls to expand as needed. We live in a hit-driven society and the cool new book is likely to be perceived as more valuable than the dusty older book that only sells a copy here, a copy there. This Long Tail product adds up, sure, but still doesn’t make a good case when you’re trying to compete with other books in stores.
Effective backlist distribution requires Long Tail businesses — virtual storefronts, digital delivery, heck, even search engine desirability (something, alas, that publishers are woefully confused by). Secondhand booksellers have emerged as purveyors of publisher backlists, effectively removing profit potential from the publishing houses.
This is a problem without a simple solution. E-books, while an excellent source, simply don’t command that much of the market yet. This should not stop publishers from digitizing everything they can touch. Print-on-demand technology will certainly make a difference — consumers have shown, via their use of Amazon, that waiting a day or two for a book is no big deal. Even a week is okay. POD simply needs to be faster and more cost effective. It’s getting there, and perhaps publishers should be funding research into this technology.
As more and more people think online first, publishers will continue to lose backlist market share. Now is the time, time, we say!, for the publishing industry to take back its most reliable revenue stream.