Urban Publishing Myths: Bookstore closures hurt frontlist sales

From The New Publishing Standard:

Seriously? It’s taken a pandemic to make publishers realise that marketing can be done online? No wonder indie authors have been raking in a billion bucks in royalties from KU while mainstream publishers have been looking the other way.


Mixed headlines this past week as Publishers Weekly acknowledged backlist sales could be sustained even after high street bookstores re-opened, while The Bookseller focused on how lockdown supposedly hurt frontlist sales due to less discoverability of debut authors.

Of course there are elements of truth on both sides, but the key point that publishers chose to offer fewer new titles during the pandemic and therefore fewer books were available to be sold is barely acknowledged.

It’s the same kind of self-defeating argument we see about ebook and audiobook subscription, where frontlist titles and big name authors are kept off these sites and publishers then point to low engagement as a self-fulfilling prophecy that subscription cannot deliver.

But let’s stick with the issue of backlist, by which we mean books first published at least a year previously. Books that therefore no longer receive any publisher love and promo-cash and are left to wither on the vine.

At PW’s US Book Show in May representatives from four major houses discussed,

strategies on how to continue to build a publisher’s backlist revenue.

PW explained:

Panelists agreed that the pandemic was the major reason backlist sales have soared as more buying shifted online, an environment that tends to favor backlist titles over new releases.

Well, yes and no.

Here’s the problem with this argument. Bookstores are great for discovery, no question. I can (if I were in a country that had such an option) walk into a well-stocked bookstore and with a sweeping glance see literally thousands upon thousands of books, and I can move down an aisle and have books to the right of me, books to the left of me, all full size, tangible and within a hand’s reach.

Online I’m faced with at best a page of thumbnail images. I go to another page and the previous page is out of sight. I narrow down to a particular book and I have to search again to find my next promising title.

Recommendations will be flung at me that are either paid ads or algorithm driven.

But what does a bookstore offer in terms of discovering a new debut author, which seems to be the concern of The Bookseller?

The reality is, very little, unless the publisher is paying the bookstore to showcase the title. And if that’s the case, what exactly is stopping the publisher putting the same energy and money into showcasing the title online?

The answer is that the publisher generally is print focused and will not give equal promotional efforts to the bookstore and to the online retailer, perpetuating the myth that frontlist titles perform better in high street stores than online.

Publishers might, then, want to ask themselves how so many indie authors manage to sell books when they are almost totally digitally-focussed.

Per past TNPS posts, the volume of ebooks being sold that are not tracked by Nielsen or the AAP runs to tens of millions of dollars worth each month. Said books being by digital-first/POD online publisher and seller APub, and by digital-first indie authors.

Since Jan 2018 the Kindle Unlimited ebook subscription service has paid out over $1 billion in royalties to indie authors

Somehow said indie authors managed to bring in over one billion dollars in royalties over the past three years – just from Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited ebook subscription service, where absolutely no bricks and mortar stores are involved.

. . . .

The Bookseller, meanwhile offered some revealing statistics. For example, that,

As a proportion of the (UK) market as a whole, backlist accounted for 57% in volume (in spring 2020), compared to spring 2019’s 50%.

The Bookseller goes on to say, using Enders Analysis data, that sales initially crashed as lockdown first arrived,

With publication dates moving and events cancelled, before they more than recovered, with annual growth rates “much higher than would be expected in a good but ‘normal year’”.

One more unhelpful admission that bricks and mortar bookstores are not as indispensable as previously believed, and that in fact book sales rose, as more booklovers went online, which almost begs the heretical question, might bricks and mortar stores actually stifle sales to some extent?

The reality is both bricks and mortar and online sales are invaluable sales channels for publishers, but of course online tends to mean Amazon, and that presents a whole range of issues for publishers who have traditionally demonised the Everything Store while simultaneously milking it for all it’s worth to sell ebooks, audiobooks and of course print.

. . . .

Jeremy Trevathan at Pan Macmillan, talking about rising backlist sales, said:

It was more of a blip than a massive change in what we do. It did focus our minds on the increased possibility of backlist sales. There’s no diminution in the appetite of launching new authors or doing new things. What has changed is the possibility of online marketing and things like events, which I suspect will go hybrid as much as hybrid working [will].

Seriously? It’s taken a pandemic to make publishers realise that marketing can be done online? No wonder indie authors have been raking in a billion bucks in royalties from KU while mainstream publishers have been looking the other way.

Link to the rest at The New Publishing Standard

1 thought on “Urban Publishing Myths: Bookstore closures hurt frontlist sales”

  1. I always had trouble finding a book in a bookstore, unless I went in for something specific.

    Too many choices, and never the one in a series I already knew because no backlist.

    And all you can see of most of them isn’t even the cover: it’s the real estate of the spine – name, title, and both abbreviated OR both too small.

    So many books pulled out, a few pages read, dropped into a discard pile.

    So much easier online.

    Reply

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