Maybe two months ago, at our weekly professional writers’ lunch, we discussed frontlist and backlist, and how old-fashioned those terms are now.
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[Carolyn] Reidy is the CEO of Simon and Schuster, which deals with so many books per year that most people can’t imagine it. So I’m going to help you. Get ready for your brain to explode:
Simon & Schuster has 12 active imprints for adult fiction. Imprints are book lines, standalone, with their own catalogues and their own voice (in theory). On its website, S&S defines the imprints this way:
The Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing Group includes a number of publishing units that offer books in several formats. Each unit has its own publisher, editorial group and publicity department. Common sales and business departments support all the units. The managing editorial, art, production, marketing, and subsidiary rights departments have staff members dedicated to the individual imprints.
S&S has 10 active imprints for children’s fiction of one form or another. S&S has two audio imprints.
S&S International lists three major companies (not imprints): S&S UK, S&S Australia, and S&S Canada. These companies publish different books (with some overlap) from the U.S. company. Those three companies have their own imprints. For kicks and giggles, I clicked on the U.S. link for S&S Australia and got this little note:
Simon & Schuster Australia is one of the region’s Top 10 book publishers. We publish and distribute fabulous books in Australia and New Zealand across a broad range of fiction, non-fiction and children’s categories under our local and international imprints, including Aladdin, Atheneum, Atria, Fireside, Free Press, Howard, Kangaroo Press, Little Simon, Pocket, Scribner, Simon & Schuster, Simon Spotlight Entertainment and Touchstone. Simon & Schuster Australia also acts as the local sales and distribution partners for Duncan Baird Publishing (mind, body & spirit, well-being, and cultural reference) and Kyle Cathie (illustrated cooking and lifestyle books).
Now, consider this: In 1939, Simon & Schuster started America’s first paperback publisher, Pocket Books, when S&S was still wet behind the ears. (The company was founded with crossword books in 1924.) It has had corporate ownership of one form or another since 1975.
According to Wikipedia, S&S has at least nine former or inactive imprints. This number is on the low side. I know of a few that aren’t on Wikipedia’s list.
So, think about this: S&S has been publishing fiction and nonfiction books continually since 1939. Some of those books have gone out of print. Some of them have had their rights reverted to the authors. Many of those books were licensed before all the changes in the U.S. copyright laws in the 1970s. Some of those books (very few) have slid into the public domain.
According to S&S’s corporate overview, S&S “publishes approximately 2000 titles annually.” The word “approximately” is theirs, not mine. In 2014, S&S placed 294 titles on the New York Times bestseller list. Individual titles—different books.
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Now, let’s pretend that S&S has consistently published 2000 titles per year in the 21st century. (Honestly, it was probably more pre-Recession, but we’re waving our magic wand—and guessing.) Since a few of those S&S books are mine, I can safely tell you that S&S still controls most of the rights to those 21st century books. (S&S is almost impossible to get rights back from and has been that way for almost a decade.)
This means that for the past 15 years, S&S has published 2000 titles per year. Which means it controls the license of roughly 30,000 titles.
Thirty thousand different book titles. And that doesn’t count the titles it still controls from the 1990s or the 1980s or the renewed licenses for books that have been continuously in print from the 1970s, 1960s, 1950s, and so on. Or the books it has under contract for 2016, 2017, 2018….
I have no idea what S&S’s book inventory is, how many rights and titles it still controls, but it’s at least 50,000 titles.
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Consider all of those 50,000 book titles. Then realize that the bulk of those titles are merely names on a spreadsheet. Long ago, the acquiring editor was fired, downsized, acquired by another imprint, moved to a different job, or, gosh-golly-gee, dead. Many of the earlier titles (those still in print from the 1950s upward) are controlled by estates. The authors are dead too.
What this means is that no one who controls the rights to these still-in-print book titles knows what’s in the books. Nor does anyone know what awards the books won, whether or not they hit a bestseller list back in the day, or if the author had done something that’s newsworthy to a 2015 audience.
You can post here about how stupid it is for a corporation whose livelihood is based on contentdoesn’t know the content of the properties it owns—and I will agree with that statement.
However, mentioning that will change nothing. It’s a fact. It is what it is.
No one in these big conglomerates (and the other Big 5 publishers are the same) knows what their backlist is composed of at all.
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Now, in that context, consider the following statements from Carolyn Reidy. She was speaking to atraditional publishing audience. In that context (the context of 50,000 titles or more), realize just howrevolutionary her comments are.
[Carolyn Reidy] said publishers must
“…exercise a deep knowledge of our entire catalogue and determine how our books relate to what’s happening in the world today,” whether that involves an entertainment or media hit or to tie in with a current event. And now it’s a part of S&S’s weekly marketing meeting, she said, to bring up those and a range of other opportunities, whether a book is listed for a prize or mentioned on a TV show or in a tweet by a celebrity.
Making these connections applies to the full backlist (which is “really frontlist to the consumer who hasn’t read it”), and needs to go from monthly and weekly planning to “looking at our lists through a lens of daily opportunities.”
These statements are revolutionary because they change the entire focus in the publishing part of the huge S&S conglomerate. For the past fifty years or more, all of traditional publishing had limitations. Bookstores were small, first in comparison to the chain stores that sprouted up later, and then in comparison to the unlimited virtual shelf space of online competitors.
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For the past fifty years or more, all of traditional publishing had limitations. Bookstores were small, first in comparison to the chain stores that sprouted up later, and then in comparison to the unlimited virtual shelf space of online competitors.
Shelf space really and truly was limited. Books that didn’t sell had to be pulled off shelves to make room for books that might sell. Books that sold well stayed on the shelves, and books that sold a little stayed on the shelves longer than books that didn’t sell at all.
This need to churn product turned into the velocity model. A big push to get the books onto the shelf and selling immediately so that they would stay on the shelf—for two weeks, a month, maybe three months, but rarely longer than that.
It was a necessary business model for its time that started to fade in the 1990s and has been slowly dying ever since. Well, not so slowly now. 2015 will probably be the year that traditional publishing realizes the velocity model is well and truly dead.
Hence, Carolyn Reidy’s comments. She once tried to prevent this decline in the velocity model, which is one of the reasons she participated in the ebook price fixing that got her corporation slapped by the courts and the U.S. Justice Department. The traditional publishing business has not improved since those fateful conversations with Apple five years ago. In fact, things for big publishers have gotten worse.
And, as those of us who understand big business were trying to say back then, wait. The big publishers will catch a clue that the business has irrevocably changed.
Carolyn Reidy’s statements show that. Now she, and the other Big 5 publishers (and the other traditional publishers—those with 500 books per year instead of 2000), have decided to change the way they do business.
They will have to hire people to examine the history of their inactive books—what we used to call the backlist. Those new employees will have to read the backlist, rebrand it, and figure out how to market it.
Then, those new employees will have to continually update the inventory on a daily basis. If an independent film company wins the Cannes Film Festival with a film made from a thirty-year-old novel that sold 5,000 copies in its lifetime, the new employees at the publishing house that still retains the rights to the novel can update the metadata to reflect that. If some Turkish writer who has had only one book published in translation in the U.S. wins the Nobel Prize for literature for her body of work, those employees at the U.S. house where the English language book is in print can change the metadata that day to reflect the win, while the company works on rebranding that book (and acquiring and translating the rest of her work).
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Reidy is right about one thing: In the early days of the ebook revolution, readers were picking up backlist at an astonishing rate. What Reidy misunderstands is that those backlist sales pointed to a huge problem in traditional publishing.
Readers were hungry for those backlist books, so the readers snatched them up, even in badly scanned editions with typos on every page. Readers generally don’t care if a book was published last week or five years ago. Readers only care about writers who are new to them.
Readers are the original binge consumers. Readers find a writer whose work they like and readeverything the writer has done.
Nowadays, everything by that writer can remain in print—if the writer is indie or hybrid.
But not if the writer is traditionally published.
Because there’s another whole set of employees that traditional publishers need to hire. The traditional publishers need to beef up their legal department, and have many employees finding and reading old contracts, to see if the publishing company still has the rights to the book, the rights to reprint, the rights to reprint in an ebook, the rights to reprint in paper…
It’s a mess.
Kris is very intelligent and immensely knowledgeable about the publishing business, traditional and indie. PG learns something from almost every column Kris publishes.
However, PG is a bit more cynical than Kris is about S&S gaining “deep knowledge” of its backlist.
Simon & Schuster is a subsidiary of CBS. It has been a subsidiary of various large conglomerates since 1975. CBS’s much larger television properties are facing big challenges relating to the declining efficacy of traditional television commercials, the increasing number of people who are cutting the cord and terminating cable subscriptions (a huge part of CBS income), video streaming, etc. CBS is a jumpy company that is rightly worried about its future.
Carolyn Reidy may bestride the publishing world, but inside CBS, she’s far from the top of the heap. She has a lot of people in a corporate hierarchy above her to please. Every quarter.
Reidy’s number one job is to keep generating good quarterly financial numbers to combine with the numbers of all the other CBS subsidiaries so CBS mothership stock prices increase. If she stops doing that for very long, CBS corporate will have no hesitation in replacing her. She can make a lot of other mistakes that don’t show up in financial numbers and keep her job. However, Kardashian books that generate good numbers are much better than Nobel Prize winning books that don’t as far as CBS is concerned.
PG provides this long preamble to his response to Reidy’s deep knowledge comment to explain that managers of subsidiaries of big media conglomerates can and do give speeches about dramatic ideas and innovations, but their ability to actually make real innovation come to pass is significantly constrained. Someone at CBS corporate finance who reads Reidy’s deep knowledge comments is going to respond, “That sounds great, Carolyn. Just don’t spend too much money on it.”
Large corporations in general are good at operating in a stable business environment, making incremental improvements, and not good at disruptive innovation. Subsidiaries of large corporations need to be similarly good in a stable business environment and very careful about taking a flyer on innovation. This is one reason why companies like Apple, Amazon, Google, etc. – all very young and often run by founders who own a huge amount of the stock – have been the place where revolutionary stuff has happened over the past couple of decades.
PG thinks that deep knowledge about backlist titles is a wonderful thing and potentially valuable. He doesn’t think it will go far beyond a speech because S&S won’t spend the money or hire the technical chops necessary to develop such deep knowledge.
Of course nobody has deeper knowledge about backlist or frontlist titles than the authors of those titles. If those authors are indie, they can use their knowledge in all sorts of innovative ways.