The Sad State of the Traditional Publishing Backlist

From Kristine Kathryn Rusch:

A quietly astonishing moment happened on November 9, the first day of 20Booksto50K, in a panel titled “High-Powered Authors.” Multiple New York Times bestselling author Kat Martin said something that caught fire when the video of the panel went live.

At least three people sent me the video and pointed me to that moment, about 38 minutes into the panel. For those of you who don’t know, Kat Martin has written more than 65 novels, had them published traditionally, and has hit bestseller lists for three decades now.

. . . .

Her comments on this panel were all good, many of them about the importance of focus and of writing daily. She has published a few backlist titles through a specialty ebook press, but she’s not self-published. (I had no idea that 20Books had invited traditionally published authors this year, but they had for some reason. Or maybe the trad pubbed writers expressed an interest. Lord knows, they need to be interested in self- or indie-publishing.)

Anyway, at that 38-minute mark, Kat spoke up about her backlist. She was speaking after indie writers who were talking about the importance of the backlist, and how they kept the backlist fresh, how they actually made consistent money from their backlists.

When she received the mic, Kat said:

I think [the backlist is] a real negative for traditional publishing. Once you sell them your book, they have your book and they own it for years. And they do pay you a nice fat fee up front, so it’s kind of a trade off, but it’s not a long-term, it’s not a retirement thing, because they’re making money off the backlist. You don’t. They give you a percentage, but…the big money, I think, for long term is probably in self publishing.

Note that again: the big money, I think, for long term is probably in self publishing.

Traditionally published writers have said that privately for years now, with that same sense of sadness that Kat Martin had. They know their books are tied up, and not really usable. These days, traditional publishers are extremely unwilling to revert the rights to books, playing all kinds of games to keep the books “in print,” when in reality they’re very hard to find.

And that “nice fat fee up front”? It’s not so nice or so fat anymore.

An article on literary novels in the September Vanity Fair pointed out that Sally Rooney’s Normal People sold 325,000 copies in paperback, as if that was a good number.

Paperbacks, back when I met Kat Martin, weren’t successful unless they sold a million copies. If they were trade paperbacks, then half a million. Otherwise, they were midlist.

The Vanity Fair article did talk about the declining advances, though, and contained this bombshell:

Last summer, Jesmyn Ward revealed that the advance for her follow-up to the National Book Award-winning Salvage the Bones was a mere $100,000—for Sing, Unburied, Sing, which also won a National Book Award. It’s telling that you can win American publishing’s highest honor and still (after taxes and agent fees) make not quite enough up front on your next book to buy a late-model Lexus sedan.

That advance is tiny for an award-winning novel…or used to be tiny, back in the day. But as I’ve been saying here, advances for traditionally published writers have been declining for more than a decade.  And traditional publishers have been playing with the percentages so that when backlist books sell, they no longer earn what they used to.

What is traditional publishing doing wrong with their backlist? Pretty much everything. They’re throwing it out there, and hoping someone will buy it. They’re not repackaging it, they’re not really paying much attention to it at all.

Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Here’s a link to Kris Rusch’s books. If you like the thoughts Kris shares, you can show your appreciation by checking out her books.

4 thoughts on “The Sad State of the Traditional Publishing Backlist”

  1. “Last summer, Jesmyn Ward revealed that the advance for her follow-up to the National Book Award-winning Salvage the Bones was a mere $100,000—for Sing, Unburied, Sing, which also won a National Book Award.

    They aren’t buying an award.
    So, how many copies of Salvage the Bones were sold?
    How many copies of the previous award winner sold?
    Would Salvage have been eligible for the National Book Award nomination if it had simply been uploaded to KDP?

    I suspect many fail to realize how much work an independent author has to do other than typing the book. I don’t know anything about Jesmyn Ward, but I would ask if she has the full skill set necessary for success as an independent. Those skills go far beyond literary genius.

  2. “…not quite enough up front on your next book to buy a late-model Lexus sedan.”
    More outdated thinking.
    The real status symbol at that pricepoint is a Tesla S or X, preferably the latter. 😀

    Now, a truly rational being would invest it in Tesla or gold coins as a hedge against inflation but, hey, to each their own.

  3. Advances have been going down — in real money terms — since sometime in the late 1960s. (Thanks to nonverifiability and the culture of secrecy, it’s impossible to be more precise than that.) That’s the last time that the median known-and-verified true second advance — one not locked in by an option clause — would have put the author above the poverty level after paying agent commissions. Since then, the combination of actually lower numbers attached to the advances and inflationary pressures have really done a number on the purchasing power of an author’s advance.*

    Things really aren’t much better among bestsellers and/or award-winners, especially in comparison to other segments of the entertainment industry (sport being the most obvious example, but things are similarly distorted in recorded music and H’wood… and things are arguably worse in the newer segments like noncasino gaming). As case studies, consider J___ U____, I_____ W_____, R___ C____ (and his “coauthor”), J___ C___, and T___ M____.** With only one exception in that group, although they were all known to the public as “authors” that was not the source of their ability to “make a living.”

    And that’s the real monster hiding in here: Author pay except in extremely rare instances is only good enough to be “mad money,” and even those rare instances almost always require two or three decades of almost constant work unless they’re supplemented by something from outside of publishing. (The comparison to the M__ family dort drüben bears some consideration.) The dreams of quitting the “day job” to be an author are almost always the trading of one day job for another… with no guarantee that one can actually work for the new boss. Not to mention the pressures to increase productivity.

    * Although I should acknowledge that the advances for prospective bestsellers were more degraded by taxes in the 1960s than they are now. The lower tax rates now do not make up for the inflationary pressures, though.

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