Frontlist and Backlist
Trade publishers (hardcovers and oversized paperbacks) and mass market publishers (pocket-sized paperbacks) organize their publishing lists differently, mainly because mass market houses publish a lot more titles. But in both cases, books start out as frontlist
titles, and if they are successful, go on to almost indefinite lives as backlist
titles. (Don't get too optimistic; the average shelf-life of a new book is about three months, even in the age of superstores.)
Frontlist titles are new books that a publisher is actively promoting, either the current month's books (for a mass market house) or the current season's books (for a trade publisher). Almost all the publicity that's being done is for the top few frontlist titles, which are ranked in a sort of class system, as I'll explain below. Anything you see a review of is a frontlist title; basically the term refers to new books. Most of a book's sales happen in the first few months after it comes out, and after the initial month, if it hasn't built up any traction and the author isn't a big name, it's likely to fade from readers' attention, much like a DKos diary that's scrolled off the "current diaries" list.
The Publishing Caste System
Backlist titles are older books that continue to sell reasonably well. They may not sell as well as a frontlist title is expected to, but they move enough copies to be worth keeping them stocked in the warehouse (or in some cases printed on demand), and occasionally reprinted. Backlist titles are the bread and butter of big publishers: They've long-since paid off all of their production costs, so except for the author's royalties (typically 6-10% of the cover price), these books are pure profit for a publisher. Think of all the Agatha Christie books that still sell, all of the Lord of the Rings books, all the copies of Catcher in the Rye bought by angsty teenagers. In cases where the book is in the public domain, there isn't even a royalty to worry about, which is how Dover is able to produce those $2 "instant backlist" books.
A typical mass market house may publish 20 or so new books a month. Like teachers talking about their students, or Republican politicians talking about their constituents, it's not unusual to hear publishers say that they love all of their books equally, and it's about as true. In fact, publishers organize books (and sell them to bookstores) in lists ranked (more-or-less) in order from the ones they love the most to the redheaded foster kids down at the bottom.
At the top of the list are the lead titles. Because of rampant title inflation, they may have titles like superleader instead of just lead. These are the books by the big-name authors, and other books that the publisher has very high hopes for. They're the books that the publisher spent a lot of money to acquire, and will lose a lot of money on if the books don't earn back what was spent on them. Heads will roll if these books don't make money - a lot of money. Nearly all of the publisher's publicity budget is likely to be spent on these books; they're the ones whose authors are on the Today show.
Farther down the list are the midlist titles. They may be grouped into clusters by genre, ranked within those clusters of, for instance, three romances that the publisher puts out that month. A few of these books may get a little bit of publicity help, and the publisher is likely to at least spring for decent cover art, but for the most part as an author you'll have to create your own publicity. (How you do that is going to get its own chapter, probably not until after my post-primary week of hiking in the White Mountains starting next week.) Most veteran authors fall into the midlist category: Publishers have spent enough on these books that they want them to succeed, but not so much that anyone's career - except yours as the author - is at stake if the book fails.
At the bottom of the list are the new authors, or the books that the publisher feels like it's not very good at selling, or the books that were bought for some reason and have to be published, but no one much cares about. Why would a company publish books when it doesn't care if they succeeed or fail? For instance, it might be the third book in a series bought by an editor who has since left the company, and taken the author with her. It might be a book in a genre the company doesn't care much about, but thinks it might want to invest heavily in someday. In the meantime they publish the cheapest books they can to keep the shelf space held open at bookstores. It might be a book in a genre the publisher used to care about, doesn't anymore, but bought out of habit. Or it might be a book at the bottom of an underfunded publisher's list that they just don't have enough money to support.
Sometimes a book at the bottom of the list succeeds, either by accident or because the author is a great promoter, or because the author has captured lightning in a bottle. But often the publisher's strategy makes it harder for the book to succeed; they publish books at the bottom of the list defensively, on the assumption that if they spend virtually no money on the book, it doesn't have to sell many copies to break even, and the publisher will make its money on the books at the top of the list.
Buying Books by List
Most publishers have a weekly editorial meeting in which all of the editors and other senior staff discuss the titles they would like to buy. As you can imagine, this is a somewhat political process, with editors competing for a limited number of slots, and editors work hard to shepherd the books that are important to them through the process, building support from other editors beforehand and doing a fair amount of horsetrading. In theory this system produces books that can survive a rigorous process. In practice, it gives an edge to books that are clearly commercial or have a "high concept" that can be explained in a way that is easy for people who don't read within that genre to understand. ("He's the drug-addicted ex-frat boy who was made president to settle his father's gambling debt. She's the brainy black professor who captured his heart but can never truly be his. Together, they fight crime!") That's why writing a strong proposal can be so important - if an editor likes your book, it gives her the tools to sell it to the rest of the folks in the editorial meeting.
If you're a new writer, a publisher is most likely to take a risk with one of the slots at the bottom of its list, the spots that don't come with much money or support from the publisher. It's sort of the baby alligator theory of publishing: lots of authors' careers will die along the way, but a few will survive and turn into powerhouses. If you happen to grow into one of the rare adult alligators of publishing, you'll get lots of money and support. Until then... writing is a great second income.
Sometimes, the system can work in favor of a new author. (And because of the way chain stores buy books, it's sometimes better to be a new author than an established author with a mediocre sales history, but that's a topic for another chapter.) For example, Warner Books found itself without a science fiction lead title one month, and decided to take a risk by putting brand-new author David Feintuch into the lead spot for that genre. They put an expensive foil cover on the book, spent a fair amount of publicity on the book, and turned him into a strong-selling author.
A hopeful end to the essay: John Grisham started out at the bottom of his first publisher's list. But he had a knack for self-promotion, combined with a stubborn streak (he bought 1,000 copies from the publisher and sold them out of the trunk of his car), and determinedly turned himself into a best-seller. Once his publisher saw the direction he was headed, they got a lot more helpful, of course.
The Rest of the "How Publishing Works" Series
The series so far:
Part 1 - Why bad things happen to good books.
Part 2 - Avoiding publishing scams.
Part 3 - Literary conventions (with an emphasis on SF Conventions).
Part 4 - Book packagers.
Part 5 - Submitting a manuscript.
Part 6 - Publishing lists.
Part 7 - Literary agents.
Part 8 - Copyediting.
Part 9 - MArketing and publicity.
Note: Tomorrow around 10:00 a.m. I'll be doing my part for CTKos week by posting about Connecticut "Fighting Dem" Sherri Vogt. The long-awaited "How to find an agent" episode will go up Monday around noon Eastern time. At least one agent has agreed to drop by and heckle/answer questions afterward. I still keep an eye on the other parts of the series and continue to answer questions on those topics, so feel free to leave comments in them.
Comments are closed on this story.