Why are publishers’ backlists so important?

Why have backlists suddenly become such a staple in the publishers’ arsenal? It certainly hasn’t always been this way…

Historically, book selling cycles were seasonal, not the four seasons in our calendar, but the seasons of catalogues – spring and autumn. Originally determined by the physical shipping schedule of books, publishing seasons may not be relevant anymore. Disruptors like ebooks, for example, do not adhere to any strict scheduling.

However, some publishers still enjoy the traditional elements of bookselling and still use seasonal selling – this keeps to an advance schedule for book marketing purposes. But like all things in publishing, changes to the landscape mean that we now see backlists emerging as bestsellers.

When books were out-of-print

Several years ago, publishers would have been content to let older, less popular books go out of print. Print-runs were often limited to a certain number too, which helped prevent financial losses. Although, with larger print runs, ordered in bulk by booksellers, there were two potential outcomes:

  1. The print-run sells out and demand requires that extra runs are printed
  2. Unsold copies become pulp and that title becomes ‘out-of-print’.

Today print-on-demand has changed the risk factor of publishing because there is no inventory or stock costs. Therefore, the second option of a book becoming out-of-print is redundant.

Discover cost-effective print-on-demand solutions:


Is it better to have one blockbuster or many smaller backlist titles?

Summarising publishing trends and sales isn’t a prescriptive formula because there are many variables. Different platforms, subscriptions models and even book mediums; for example, eBooks trend in a different way to trade print. An interesting thing to note though is the increasing trend of backlist titles selling consistently better than a blockbuster new release.

Andrew Weinstein, vice president at Scribd (a digital library) shared Scribd statistics that indicate that 75 percent of reading activity on the site is from backlist titles. This leaning towards backlist activity has been seen for a while now, back in 2017 a backlist title topped the #1 print bestsellers spot according to BookScan data. So why are backlists suddenly popular?

The economics of the internet has changed the scope of how we can ‘sell’, a model called the “Long Tail” is a phenomenon of print-on-demand technologies and of course Amazon. Long Tail pitches the ability to sell lots of niche titles from backlist to self-publishing, which especially online – will sell more collectively in the long run for a publisher than one blockbuster title. A far cry from those days of pulp.

Driving innovation through technology

It has been theorised before, whether print-on-demand would change this landscape further. And it has, our business model at Printondemand-worldwide is to integrate our ‘book of one print capabilities with services like BookVAULT, where backlist titles can be managed, and therefore kept forever. Adhering to the Long Tail business model could help you achieve even more success with book publishing, and we’ve got all the tools right here, in one place, ready for you to utilise.