August 23, 2012

Bookstores vs. Backlist: A New Decision

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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Comments — What do you think?

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Laura Pauling

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.

Susan Sipal

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.


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…  — Read More »


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.

Annie Neugebauer

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.


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…  — Read More »


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?


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…  — Read More »


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…  — Read More »


[…] Bookstores vs Backlist: A New Decision from Jamie Gold. […]


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.


[…] to figure out our goals. Do we want to be famous? How can we prioritize fast, cheap, and good? How important are bookstores to us? I touch on the subject a lot because we can’t figure out the right publishing path for us […]

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