Bookstores vs. Backlist: A New Decision

by Jami Gold on August 23, 2012

in Writing Stuff

Drawing of ladder reaching a summit with a question mark, text: Bookstore vs. Backlist

Several weeks ago, we discussed why authors shouldn’t worry about the ebook versus print debate but should instead focus on their readers’ online versus offline buying habits. Shortly after that post, I visited my local Barnes & Noble bookstore, a beautiful two-story building complete with an escalator. I love that place.

But anyone who’s visited a Barnes & Noble recently has probably noticed the changes in their layout over the past couple of years. In mine, you almost have to go on a scavenger hunt to find where they keep the books.

The section of the store that used to be 150 feet of romance shelves is now filled with toys and Legos. Romance now takes up less than thirty feet. Same with Fantasy/Science Fiction, Mystery, and all the other sections.

The tables where they used to highlight the latest books, especially of the Dark Fantasy/Urban Fantasy/Paranormal Romance type of stories I write, are filled instead with desk supplies and backpacks. Books are now relegated to the corners of the store, seeming more an afterthought than anything else.

Walking through the bookshelves to look at the selection only made me feel worse. At least two-thirds of the romance section is taken up by the current and backlist titles of the major players in the genre, Nora Roberts and the like. Single copies of all but the mega-bestsellers are buried, spine-out, between the multiple shelves’ worth of this bestseller and that bestseller. Good for the bestsellers, not so good for the rest of us.

The New Reality Forces Us to Ask Questions

Yet many of us still dream of seeing our book on the shelf. Many of us go with a traditional publisher simply for the hope that their distribution will be the magic key to get our books into stores.

But with Borders gone and Barnes & Noble severely cutting back their selection, what does that mean for our dream? Is it still a possibility? Or are we deluding ourselves?

And more importantly, what does this new reality tell us about the kind of business decisions we should be making?

Placement in Bookstores Doesn’t Equal Sales

Personally, I haven’t given up my dream of seeing my books on a bookshelf someday. But there’s a difference between wanting to see our books on the shelf and thinking that having our books in physical stores will have a large impact on our sales.

We’re not going to start our career as a mega-bestseller, so our book would be buried somewhere on the shelves dominated by another author’s huge backlist. Not a recipe for big sales. The only real way to get attention in a bookstore is if our publisher made a substantial co-op push for our book.

What is co-op? Former agent Nathan Bransford explains how co-op works. In short, those cover-side-out shelves and tables at the front of the store or at the endcaps of aisles are real estate that publishers buy from the bookstore.

Backlist and Bookstores Don’t Mix

Over the long term, often called the “long tail,” our sales will come from online buying. Going back to the post about online versus offline, these long tail sales could come from print or ebook. However, we can’t get long tail sales from physical bookstores—because they don’t carry most books at all, much less any backlist books.

So the reality is that without co-op (and even that’s no guarantee of anything), bookstore shelving is more about a personal sense of validation or ego than sales numbers. There’s nothing wrong with that ego. *smile* But from a business perspective, that means we’re making long-term contract decisions on a very short-term situation.

In English, that means that we’re sacrificing the higher royalty numbers from other publishing options over the long term for a one to three month display of our book buried on a bookshelf with low sales expected. Yikes! It sounds kind of scary when we put it that way, doesn’t it?

What Choices Do We Have?

Should we be making different decisions? Is there anything we can do about this?

Yes and no. Some of us might look at this reality and decide the potential of one to three months on a shelf isn’t worth the lost royalties. Some of us might want to go with traditional publishing no matter what. And some of us might try to negotiate our contracts to find a middle ground.

Yes, we could potentially have our cake (a traditional publisher with possible bookstore placement) and eat it too (not give up the higher royalty rates for the long tail sales). But it would require us to negotiate contracts differently. Many publishers won’t want to change their contracts, but some might understand the need to adapt to industry changes. (Considering how many big publishers don’t do anything to support backlist titles, maybe they won’t care.)

Are Contract Changes the Answer?

Currently, most contracts with bigger publishers use an “out of print” clause for rights reversion. But with online print and ebook sales, a book might never go out of print under the “not available for sale” definition, and online sales—no matter how limited—can keep the book active under the “x number of sales per royalty period” definition. This is why the long tail backlist sales of a book are stuck under the royalty terms of the contract long after the book is no longer available in those bookstores we wanted access to.

However, some contracts with the smaller publishers are now time-limited, meaning that the publisher buys the rights for a set period (say, one to three years) and then the rights are automatically reverted to the author. A time-limited clause would let the publisher gain their profit from the biggest sales period of the book, right after the release, and yet let the author benefit from more favorable royalty rates off the long-tail sales if they re-release the book themselves after the rights reversion.

The New Reality Brings New Choices

Will publishers go for these contract changes? I don’t have a clue. But we won’t know unless we ask.

The point is that we—as authors—need to recognize the new reality:

Long tail sales for all but the mega-bestsellers come from online buyers because we can’t get offline sales from books that aren’t on the shelf.

Maybe that fact will change our mind about how we approach our goals and maybe it won’t, but at least we’ll have the knowledge for making our decisions.

Do you agree that long tail sales come almost exclusively from online buying? Does that fact change your goals? What’s more important to you, having your books in stores or making better money off your backlist? Have you seen contracts with the time limitation? Do you see that clause as a positive or a negative for authors?

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28 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Laura Pauling August 23, 2012 at 5:45 am

Great thoughts, Jami. What you pointed out in this post definitely played a role in my decision to go with a small press for my middle grade and self publish my YA. So much to think about. It just isn’t the way it is about ten years ago.

Maybe if contracts were to change, which honestly, I don’t see happening any time soon.


Jami Gold August 23, 2012 at 8:12 am

Hi Laura,

It was smart of you to think this through before making your decision. Like I said in the post, there’s no wrong answer here, but we want to make sure we’re making our decision–in any direction–eyes wide open. 🙂

As for the contracts, yes, it will be interesting to see how many of these trends from the smaller publishers will trickle up as the pressure increases. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!


Susan Sipal August 23, 2012 at 6:13 am

What an excellent post, Jami. You raise so many excellent issues and points and handle them fairly. There are so many new options open to writers today that it makes it that much more confusing, especially for those of us who were “brought up” in the days where the only sales that “mattered” were to traditional publishing. What Laura says is so true, it’s just not the same. And what every writer needs is so individualistic. The huge sickle that the Big 6 used to wield over authors and publishing is now just a butter knife.


Jami Gold August 23, 2012 at 8:19 am

Hi Susan,

LOL! Love the analogy of the sickle and the butter knife, and it’s true. 🙂

Yes, so many of us had the position of traditional publishing ingrained in us that it can be hard to adjust. That’s a big reason for why I do these posts. The ideas may be old hat to some of us, they may be sort of known but not really consciously paid attention to for others, and they may be completely new for still others.

I’m not trying to say here’s how anyone should decide because it’s all about their goals. But I do want everyone to have as much information as possible before making decisions that can follow them around for a lifetime. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!


Carradee August 23, 2012 at 6:37 am

Now that I have an e-reader, long-tail sales come from online buying, but I just got that this past Christmas. Before that, I still got backlist from bookstores. I’m leery of shipping and prefer being able to hold the book in my hands, verifying that it isn’t torn, etc., before I buy a hard copy.

And I only buy a hard copy if it’s an author or series I already know I enjoy enough that I want to loan it out to friends, which means I’ve probably already read it, either from the library or as an e-book. (Yes, I am one of those folks who will buy both an e-book and a print book—and sometimes I’ll buy an inexpensive e-book more than once to get it in different formats.)

I could count the number of authors I’ve done that for on one hand, but that’s more due to limited spending money and voracious reading habits, rather than any lack of willingness to do it.

As for which is more important to me—being in bookstores or making better money off my backlist—yes. 😉 Okay, so the latter matters more to me than the former, but with the right terms, I would consider treating a book as a loss leader to get something in bookstores. Assuming I wrote something that I thought marketable enough to suit a publisher.

I have seen time-limited contracts, and I think it’s a huge positive. The time limitation means the publisher only has so long to make back their investment, which forces the publisher to do their part (particularly if you can get a clause in there that says “Publication will be within X of signing, else rights revert to the author”).

After the time limitation runs out, the author can self-publish or turn around and sell time-limited rights again. (Anybody else notice that some of the new releases from Sourcebooks tend to be books that used to be with other publishers?)

So the fiction author can now actually make individual choices for each book rather than have to play crapshoot with every title and hope the publisher didn’t screw them over and, for example, sink her series and blame her for it. I love it!


Jami Gold August 23, 2012 at 8:24 am

Hi Carradee,

I understand your answer of “yes.” 🙂 That’s why I thought about–under what circumstances could we get both?

And you’re absolutely right about how we can choose to make a book a “loss leader” to build up our name in the bookstore. I’ve had that thought as well.

And good point about time-limited clauses and series. I have a series that I figure might have to be self-published just because I’m not sure a publisher would be interested in it. But a part of me also didn’t want to see the series dropped in the middle and then unavailable to readers. I was figuring that if any publisher did want the series, I’d make sure it had this automatic reversion clause to protect my investment in continuing the series. 🙂 Thanks for the thoughtful comment!


Carradee August 23, 2012 at 9:48 am

Yeah, well, I read a few authors whose publishers tanked their series (and it’s blatantly obvious that it tanked for publisher reasons, not author reasons). So I’ve been thinking in those terms for a while. 🙂


Jami Gold August 23, 2012 at 9:59 am

Hi Carradee,

Ditto. 🙂 Way back when I wrote my “Would you ever turn down a contract?” post, I had a time-limited clause in mind. Thanks for the comment!


Tami August 23, 2012 at 6:57 am

I think that, regardless of what publishers or readers might WANT … the fact that bookstores are stocking fewer and fewer books means that e-sales will be the long tail of the future. There simply isn’t another option.

Once pricing levels out (and it is still VERY much in flux) I think that it’ll become even more true. The paper books will become beloveds and the ebooks will become the one-night stands.

Right now, half the books I’m thinking of buying are MORE expensive as ebooks than they are paperbacks from Amazon.

I don’t even bother going into B&N these day. Half Price Bookstore is where I grew up, but even their stock is mostly the same stuff I saw when I was 15.


Jami Gold August 23, 2012 at 8:31 am

Hi Tami,

Agreed. I don’t think publishers have any preference to have fewer print books. Heck, many of them still think they’re in the print business to some extent. 🙂

Yes, there are other bookstore chains (Books A Million?) that might find a way to succeed with more selection, but I’ll be honest and admit I’m not familiar with them. 🙂

Also, the chances of offline print placement can depend on genre. In my local B&N, the children’s section (picture books, chapter books, middle grade, and YA) is still large–close to the size of all the adult fiction sections added together. There really is no “one right answer” for this. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!


Annie Neugebauer August 23, 2012 at 8:58 am

Wow, Jami! I’m glad I added you to my GoogleReader. This post is so smart, and truly, what I love most is how balanced it is. I really appreciate that you didn’t try to shove your opinions down our throats, but rather presented all sides of the situation and made us feel safe to answer either way. That’s rare these days!

That being said, I don’t have a definite answer. I, like you, am not ready to give up my dream of seeing a physical copy of my book in bookstores someday, but I certainly see the problems you’ve highlighted here. I do think contracts seem like the answer, although I’ve never tried to negotiate one, so who knows how difficult that would be in reality?

These are all good issues to bring up, and you’ve done so very well! Lots to think about. Thanks for this post.


Jami Gold August 23, 2012 at 9:02 am

Hi Annie,

Thank you! Yes, I certainly can’t shove my opinion down anyone’s throat when my thoughts change every week. 🙂 And some of my friends have different goals from me, and I wouldn’t be a good friend if I couldn’t admit that their choices make sense for them. So I’ve had lots of practice at seeing the different sides of issues and situations. LOL! Thanks for the comment!


Carradee August 23, 2012 at 10:16 am

Annie, negotiation isn’t all that big a deal. Kris Rush has a little book How to Negotiate Anything that’s quite handy, and it’s part of the also-fantastic The Freelancer’s Survival Guide.

Beyond that, do you play poker, liar, or any other bluffing games? Those can help in negotiation.

See, you don’t want to seem too eager. Interested, yes; eager, no. (So when you get that e-mail from someone who’s interested? Sit on it a day or three before answering. ;)) (And I’ve discovered on accident that this can work in person, too. I’ve gotten some very nice discounts on things just by lingering over an item I was interested in but couldn’t justify buying on my then-current budget.)

You only keep power in a negotiation as long as you’re willing to walk away. I probably walk from more contracts than I sign, but I’m a freelancer, so I’m counting my non-fiction writing in there, too. (I’ve seen some that made me gape—and then had the publisher try to tell me that the contract didn’t say what it explicitly said. Um, uh-huh.)

It’s also best if you can get the other person to name a number first. I’ve been offered nearly double for something because I got an offer, sat on it, then alerted them that my interest was piqued. I also asked if they could do better.

To negotiate something, you also have to know what you want. For example, here are the first three things I look for on a writing contract:

1. What rights it’s taking (and if it describes those rights in creative ways rather than using the specific industry terms, I get leery).

2. When rights revert to me after publication (counted from publication). (And if the publication wants to take non-exclusive rights, then I want to get notified when those are used.)

3. When rights revert to me if it doesn’t get published (counted from contract signing). (In case the publisher decides to cancel the project—which has happened a few times.)

If those 3 points look good or negotiable—and honestly, I’m more concerned about having those clauses in the document than about their duration—then I look at the money, the reporting, the terms for when payment is due. Because the specifics of each one will affect what I’ll accept on the others.

Example: If a contract has a kill fee—which is a fee that the author will get even if something isn’t used—or if payment is on acceptance, not publication, that’ll affect how long I’m willing to wait for rights to revert if the item isn’t published.

Now, all of this is my personal method and preference. I’m no lawyer; this is not legal advice. This is just an example of how one person looks at contracts. 🙂


Jami Gold August 23, 2012 at 10:29 pm

Hi Carradee,

Wow! Thanks for sharing that great information. You’re absolutely right that negotiation often comes down to whether we’re willing to walk away (or whether we can convince the other party of that 🙂 ). And while we might all have different priorities, your advice about how to negotiate is spot on. Thanks so much for the fantastic comment!


Amanda August 23, 2012 at 12:38 pm

For the longest time I thought getting to see my book in a store was the be-all, end-all. Now? Not so much. The three works I have ready at this moment are all too short by traditional publishing standards, so I’ve been doing research on digital first publishers, and I like what I’ve been seeing (with a few exceptions). Besides increased royalties, many of them outline their marketing plans in their FAQs, which is reassuring. With so much of our lives lived online these days, I get most of my book recommendations from Goodreads or from my local newspaper’s book review (which I read online because I don’t get a physical paper). I’m confident my intended audience would be getting most of their recommendations online as well, or through word of mouth (which is how I learn about the majority of the PNR/UF books I read).

One thing I’ve found interesting in this whole discussion about the future of publishing is the lack of information on what AGENTS are doing to adapt and change. If the Big 6 has to change their ways to keep up with the trends in publishing, shouldn’t the agents have to as well? And why isn’t anyone talking about this?


Jami Gold August 23, 2012 at 10:34 pm

Hi Amanda,

Yes, when most of us are first starting out, we’re all going to assume that the goal is to see our books on the shelf because that’s what non-writers think of when they hear “published a book.” That’s great that you’ve started researching digital first publishers though–you’re ahead of me. 🙂

As for the question about agents… Yes, it will be interesting to see how they adapt as well. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!


vanessa August 23, 2012 at 9:42 pm

Hi Jami

Wonderful article as usual.

I feel you have a point, why keep the titles from the branded names authors still on shelves. They should keep the current new releases in the shelves. For example Twilight, they keep 30 copies of the books on the shelves and no one buys them. Why keep those books on the shelves if no one is buying them. For example FSoG (yes that idiotic book) At the Barnes and Noble downtown there was a whole table filled with those books I have to resist temptation to not burn that table.

Before the advice to writers was to get published you have to get an agent, they will get your manuscript into the right hands. Now there are nice small presses, some who give small advances, and some who now take agented manuscripts and the ones that do accept agented work, most of them will give first priority to un-agented new authors. Those said indie are also getting the books into the bookstore, I have seen them there.

One of the reasons many authors choose the indie route is because they get higher royalties, depending on the publisher the author gets 20-50% of digital books sold. and 10% on their paperbooks sold. If you look at authors of the Big 6, for each book sold including digital, the author gets 8% of royalties, which is about $2.50 per books sold. depending on the publisher is how long the books lasts. MOst publisher do a 3 year contract Crescent Moon Press does a contract for 5 years. I t depends on the publisher. the problem is the big 6 don’t think about technology now and days. Back in the day authors would get these big advances when people would go to the bookstore and buy the books, now with e-piracy many have lost sales. and never sold out of their royalty. that’s also a big risk with Indie authors, the pirates said these are authors I don’t know so I’m not going to spend money on the books. It happens in this digital world. So an indie author should prepare for piracy.

It’s good to have an agent, and there are agents who work close with indies, higher royalities, and an agent reviews the contract to make sure the clients are not being ripped off

Thanks for letting me comment!


Carradee August 24, 2012 at 4:33 am

Vanessa, unless an agent is an attorney, it’s illegal for them to offer legal advice, practicing law without a license. There are other reasons someone might want an agent, but contract review is not a good one. An appropriately certified attorney is better (and cheaper).

FYI, It’s standard in business to have one official policy and another practical policy. For example, a company might have a policy of setting up interviews for a different day from when someone turns in their application, but if they’re in a bind, you’re what they need, and you turn in an application, you might get an interview on the spot.

So some publishers say “No unagented submissions” when they actually will take them. For such publishers, the statement acts as a filter, keeping them from getting so many submissions.

Also, opinions differ on how much of a problem piracy is. Most of the case studies I’ve seen have shown a correlation between piracy and increased sales. Some people are of the opinion that content should be free or cheap, so they pirate for the sake of that ideology and would never buy any book.

If you look at authors of the Big 6, for each book sold including digital, the author gets 8% of royalties, which is about $2.50 per books sold.

Your decimal’s in the wrong place, Vanessa. Royalty rates tend to be on receipts, rather than cover price. Here’s some numbers from from one bestseller, and more numbers from another bestseller with far worse royalties.

I hope this is helpful. 🙂


Jami Gold August 24, 2012 at 6:31 am

Hi Carradee,

Good point about how agents shouldn’t be practicing law, but I know many agents are able to give general advice about which contract clauses are trouble. 🙂 I think there’s a difference between knowing from experience that a contract clause is bad and saying “here’s how to fix it.” Also, I know some agents work with attorneys to get that in-depth advice when needed. So as I mentioned to Vanessa, I think agents can be helpful in negotiating contracts, and some people will be more comfortable with that assistance.

Yes, I haven’t slept well enough to even look at that math. so thanks for your input. 🙂 I know some contracts are worded for cover price, but you’re right that many are now worded for net, so it’s hard to determine what actual income would be simply from a number. Thanks for the links and the comment!


Carradee August 24, 2012 at 9:40 am

I think there’s a difference between knowing from experience that a contract clause is bad and saying “here’s how to fix it.” Also, I know some agents work with attorneys to get that in-depth advice when needed.

Agreed! I just too often see folks ignoring that difference. 🙂


Jami Gold August 24, 2012 at 9:20 pm

Hi Carradee,

Very true. 🙂


Jami Gold August 24, 2012 at 6:02 am

Hi Vanessa,

I would bet that in most cases, the bookstores are selling copies of those tables of bestsellers or the backlist titles of the big authors. Just because we don’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not happening. 🙂 Bookstores have no incentive to stock or take up limited shelf space for books that aren’t selling unless the publishers are paying them huge co-op fees because they can return books to the publisher for their money back.

Good point about how agents can help authors negotiate contracts with the smaller publishers. Yes, many of the smaller publishers take unagented submissions, but then we’re on our own as far as contract issues. Of course, they’d take their cut for that service, so there’s always a trade-off. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!


Vanessa August 24, 2012 at 7:15 am

Hi Jami,

Thank you again for letting me comment on your blog.

Because of small presses paying higher royalties, there are some big authors who are switching to self publishing because simple; they already have a huge fanbase who would buy anything they write. However if we do go at it alone without agents, it’s is advisable to have those contracts viewed over by a lawyer. A lawyer viewed Crescent Moon Presses contract, and basically it does not offer the author an IP protection. So if you write about vampires who sparkle in the sun, Meyer finds out and can sue you, so you better have an attorney ready to defend your book, it depends on the publisher.

Thanks for letting me comment!


Jami Gold August 24, 2012 at 9:18 pm

Hi Vanessa,

Exactly–once an author has a fan base, it’s easier to have their fans follow them no matter how they’re publishing. I think for most authors (category authors or those writing under a publisher’s series might be the exception), name recognition is more important than the publishing method (assuming equal availability). Thanks for the comment!


E.B.Pike August 27, 2012 at 7:53 am

Why, why, why are the book stores being filled up with Legos and journals and candy?! It’s so sad. Maybe I’m a dinosaur (read: I probably am), but I’m so saddened by the fact that book stores are going under and everything’s going digital.

Le sigh.


Jami Gold August 28, 2012 at 7:04 am

Hi E.B.,

And worse than sad, I doubt that strategy will work for them. When I think of buying Legos or toys, I don’t think of heading to Barnes & Noble. So the only sales they’d get from me on those products would be if I went to their store for books and picked up some Legos or toys in addition to the books I was looking for.

I don’t blame you for being sad–seeing my favorite store like that feels like a violation. 🙁 Thanks for the comment!


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