Backlist is a term self-publishing authors adopted from traditional publishers even though it’s less relevant in these days of digital publishing than when only the front list –the newest books—got most attention. Today, we can promote any book, any time but how do you make the most of your backlist, as well as your frontlist? That’s the question the Alliance of Independent Authors AskALLi team is answering today: how to make the most of every title.
Your latest book is often your highest earning book for a period but most authors find it’s their backlist that brings in the consistent cash, over time.
So what should you be doing to capitalize on your backlist? How do you maximize the benefits of every title you publish? What tactics work the best?
Boost Your Backlist: Foundational Principles
Discoverability—having your books widely available for readers to find—is key to building a long-term, sustainable career as an indie author. As a guiding principle, and recognizing that there are always particular circumstances, making your books available wherever people might find and enjoy them gives the strongest foundation for consistent, long-term income. For that reason, ALLi encourages its members to publish wide–as widely as time, money and other factors allow.
Wide publishing means publishing in as many formats as possible, in as many territories as possible, to as many distributors and retailers as possible. It also means engaging the principle of non-exclusivity and selective rights licensing and marketing accordingly.
Each of your titles represents several sets of potential formats which you can self-publish through several platforms and also trade by license: film, TV, international editions, translations, stage adaptations, merchandising and more. Licensing right selectively in this way directly contrasts with the all-rights, all-formats, all-territories contracts that are offered by too many publishers and other rights buyers today.
Boost Your Backlist: List Health
Before you throw money at marketing, promoting or pitching your backlist, your first task is to assess its health. For example, if you have books that are over four or five years old, review elements like:
Are the covers still on trend? Has the market moved on? Would you be better served by recovering your titles to meet the new cover trend? Maybe the colors have changed, maybe there used to be symbols on the front of the books in your fantasy niche and now there are people. Perhaps covers are now simple instead of intricate, maybe they’re illustrations instead of photos. Take the time to analyze what is working, and importantly, selling in your genre.
Book Metadata and Front and Back Matter
Your book’s metadata, elements like the categories and keywords you’re using and plugging into your distributor dashboards can go out of date. Digital stores are always adding categories, updating marketing systems and algorithms. So it’s worth double checking the book’s data to see if anything needs revising or updating. Perhaps there’s a category that is more popular, or closer to your actual genre. Or perhaps you’ve written a genre mash up and the category your book is currently in isn’t eliciting the sales you wanted. Time to mix it up and try something new.
Again, your front and back matter may need updating. If you’ve published lots of books and haven’t updated the back of your existing book’s, you’re missing an opportunity to cross promote your other titles. You need to update to make sure the readers who are warm to you—having just finished one of your books—are shown the most up to date information. This way you’ll capture the most readers.
Have you moved county or house? Does your bio need a tweak? Maybe your series is now complete and you’ve written a bonus epilogue or an additional reader magnet. Up date your call to action so that readers see your latest and most juicy offers.
If your sales are dwindling, then it might be time to try a new blurb. Blurbs are one of the most important sales aspects, second usually to covers and above reviews. If your cover is definitely “on current trend” then examine your blurb. Study some blurb writing guides and see if you can experiment with a new version. Don’t forget to track your sales to make sure the new blurb is actually working.
Boost Your Backlist: Making Your Current Readers Happy
One of the most important aspects of an indie author’s business, is their mailing list. If you don’t have one, the AskALLi team did a three part mailing list series here. You can find them here:
Many authors have an automation sequence set up to help welcome and “on board” new readers. Often joining their mailing list will include a freebie of some kind, usually a book or cheatsheet or poetry chapbook etc. Followed by a series of emails that lets the reader get to know the author and what to expect from them going forward. The issue is that many authors, once they’ve set this sequence up, never return to update or check it.
When was the last time you updated your autoresponder sequence?
If you have a new book, a completed series, or perhaps a new format, it’s time to update your autoresponder sequence. As well as letting existing readers know by sending an email update, you can ensure that new subscribers find out about all the options, series and books you have. Be sure to continue adding to your autoresponder sequence each time you launch a new book.
Let’s say you have a new audiobook. Why not add a snippet or chapter giveaway as part of a later email in your sequence? This is a sweetener to encourage warm leads to stay on your list, and promotes your new audio at the same time. There’s no limit to how long your sequence can be. If you have twenty series, why not keep the autoresponder going?
Old Material, New Material
If you’ve completed a series, or perhaps completed a second series, but have deleted scenes, mini stories or excerpts that never made it to the published material, why not make the most of them by polishing them up and using them as a doorway into your existing series?
And if you don’t have any deleted material, well… you’re a writer… write some!
Make sure you include a link at the end of the story to the first book in the series (or whichever backlist book you’re trying to promote). And speaking of writing. If you have a successful series, you should try to examine what worked and what elements your readers enjoyed the most and put them into a second series in the same genre. In her book Romance Your Brand, Zoe York calls this process “series 2.0.”
Likewise, if you have several series—all in the same genre—then you might want to consider bundling all of the book ones into a boxset. This way you get eyes on all your series at the same time and increase the chance of read through across all your work.
Discounts and Deals
Discounts and deals are by far and away the best method for attracting new readers and reinvigorating your backlist books.
If you want to reward your most loyal readers who are already on your lists, consider running a sale and only telling your mailing list or existing fan base. Then once the reader exclusive sale is over, try applying for promotions such as Bookbub or Written Word Media’s newsletter promotions.
Make One Asset Many
Once you’ve produced a book, it isn’t just “a book”. One book can produce many formats and iterations. Do you have your book in all possible formats? Ebook, audiobook, paperback, hardback, large print? Each of these formats appeals to a different type of reader. Some readers who love your content will want your book in multiple formats. By not having the book in multiple formats, all you do is miss out on potential sales.
If you’re writing in a series, have you bundled the books up? And again, in multiple formats. Here, it’s always a nice idea to add a bonus story or two, or even a novella. This way you’re likely to attract more than just “boxset/bundle” readers, but potentially some of your existing readers who already purchased the individual titles. Don’t limit yourself to just ebook boxsets either. While there is a page limit for some print on demand printers, you can play with formatting, font size and margins to squeeze as many books into the bundle as possible. Audio boxsets are even smarter. Why? Because one “credit” if that’s the model the users is on, will get them three times the amount of content.
Reinvigorating Your Backlist with Discounts and Sales
A Thought on Strategy
Before you drop straight to 99c/p or free, consider a “staircase-down” pricing method. If your book has always been 4.99 (or equivalent in local currency) then try halving it at first. That’s still a 50% discount. Then drop it a step lower, and finally down to .99 or free.
Also, remember to check the call to action in the back of the book. Is it directing readers where you want? Do you want them to sign up to your mailing list? Or read through to book two? The chances are, they’ll click once and navigate away from the back of your book and it’s unlikely they’ll go back. So make sure you’re directing them where you want them to go.
Bookbub is one of the most well-known newsletter promotions. With eye-watering numbers of readers on their email lists, they send daily emails out with discounted and free books. Readers then buy (or don’t) these books and you as the author pay for the privilege of being on that list.
The idea is that if you have a series, a reader will pick up book 1, read it, and then pick up books 2, 3, 4 etc., at full price. So while you may make a loss on book one, you’ll make the income up with book sales of sequels.
David Gaughran has a list that he updates annually of the best newsletter promotion sites—personally tested by him. You can see that article and list here.
Newsletter promotions don’t have to be paid either. If you have author friends who write in the same genre as you, who have also built a mailing list, you can collaborate and share your discounted book to their readers and equally, when they run a sale, their discounted book to your readers.
If your books are wide, you can take advantage of some of the distributors in-house promotions tabs. Both Kobo Writing Life and Barnes and Noble have promotion tabs. Apple often collaborates with Draft2Digital to run sales and promotions.
Boost Your Backlist: Free and Permafree
In order to boost your backlist, there’s one aspect of pricing we’ve not yet covered: free. It’s a painful topic for many authors who have toiled over their books for weeks, months and sometimes years in order to get it to completion. Giving it away for free stings. However, the concept of a loss leader is not new and it pervades many, many industries.
Think about your local food supermarket. How often do you go in and see little stands with “try this sample”. Food sellers aren’t silly. They give away a tasty morsel of food in the hopes of enticing you in to buy more. And it works.
It’s the same for books. If you’re yet to try free, now might be the time to give it a go. While you may find that you’ll see a few downloads of the book without doing much promotion, you’ll want to encourage as many downloads of your free book as possible to maximize the read through to the rest of your series.
Boost Your Backlist: License Your Rights
Once you’ve exploited all your self-publishing options, and you’re selling books in number, it’s time to explore the rights landscape of film, TV, and other languages, to name the three most popular arenas for rights sales.
- Explore each publishing right individually, making separate decisions based on market size, reach of the rights buyer, and potential value of the finished product.
- Work with an assistant to make a rights catalog for your backlist and to submit your pitches to rights buyers
- Work methodically, expecting rejection. Keep your ear to the ground for rights buyers who are currently spending money. Join in the ALLi member forum and other author groups that share such intelligence.
- If licensing to a 3rd party, aim to limit term, territory and format in all negotiations.
ALLi Members Backlist Tips: Make the Most of Every Title
We asked the Alliance of Independent Author members what they do to keep their backlists alive and kicking. Here are some of their responses.
I’ve recently made larger bundles of my backlist and sell them direct. I stole this idea from a couple people doing it well. I’ve just started but I’m seeing promise. Lots of work to do yet.
Bundles really do matter, at least within a series (I haven’t made cross-series bundles). My 1st two series were 4 entries each (and a small short story collection for one of them), and I made the following extra editions available:
- 1st 2 books bundle
- 2nd 2 books bundle (plus story collection where relevant)
- All 4 books bundle (plus story collection where relevant)
For each series, I’ve sold about 20-25% additional units of bundles (all kinds) as book 1 of the series. Counting only the bundles that included book 1, I’ve sold 14-18% additional units of bundles as book 1.
I believe that the audience is probably different. Some go straight to the bundle if one’s available. Read-through stats are pretty good for a 2-bundle purchase.
For my new series, which will be indefinitely long, I plan to produce a 2-book bundle for each pair but only after the next series book comes out (e.g., Bk 1 / Bk 2 / Bk 3 / Bundle1&2/ etc.)
I’m priced fairly high (long books, SFF) at Bk 1: $5.99 / Bk 2-N: $6.99 /2-bk bundle: $9.99 / 4-bk bundle: $15.99. The bundles are a good deal for the reader, if they’re willing to commit. I sell about the same number of books for each bundle, whether it’s a 2-book or a 4-book (whole series) bundle.
It’s only a little extra work (and the ISBN) to construct the bundles, and to maintain corrections there as well as in the constituent works (and in your showcases on your website, etc.)
It increases the number of products available and generates a not-insignificant additional revenue stream.
It does not seem to cannibalize the sales of the original (and higher revenue per unit) constituent books. The bundles generate less revenue per content, but seem to appeal to a separate and independent audience.
You can offer special deals in your marketing newsletters taking advantage of bundles as the prizes. The unit revenues are probably inadequate for running specific ads for the bundles, but the individual book ads which make people look at your work also bring the bundles to their attention…
Read-through for the next bundle is actually better than read-through from the relative constituent works (the percentage of people who buy book 3 vs book 1 is lower than the percentage of people who buy bundle 2 (which starts with book 3) vs bundle 1 (which ends with book 2)).
Bundles get fewer reviews and less customer engagement.
Choice of title is crucial. I couldn’t tell you the number of books I’ve seen that failed to find their readership by choosing a poor title – either one that can be confused with another book or one that sounds like it should be in the wrong genre. Take a look at the number of books called “Code Blue” or “Gathering Storm” for example.
Dave agrees and said:
I try to avoid titles that have been used before. Often just a little tweak to the obvious can make it different. And I tend to have themes for series titles. All my Archer and Baines titles are either alliterative or have words with rhyming vowels, while my DI Quarrel titles begin with ‘In’.
Make sure to list all your titles in the back matter but draw more attention by showcasing their covers as well and little blurbs. I have a well know era as a historical fiction series and a lesser known one and it’s important for the lesser known one to be showcased enticingly.
Each title has to be the best I can make it. Cover, title, content – and product page. If one aspect doesn’t convert then I change it. For example: Last year I released the first three books in a new cosy series and book 1 struggled. I consulted with more established cosy authors about the cover and they loved it. Title is good. Content is getting good reviews. But what I thought was a good blurb and who I was targeting weren’t doing the job so I changed both to make it clear that these fit in with the increasingly popular camping sub-genre and that has begun to improve sales.
Backlist is king (or queen) for me. I have a first series (now a few years old) which was losing momentum last year so I commissioned new covers which strengthened the branding and are visually beautiful. I looked hard at the ‘feel’ I wanted people to get when they looked at them, at my ads for them, at my copy for them and changed how I marketed the series by using the ‘universal fantasy’ theories.
Part of the strategy was moving the series out of KU and wide a bit under a year ago, pushing hard to get BookBub’s for the first in series, and they recently, making that first book permafree. It is doing its job of grabbing a reader and then I trust their enjoyment of the story to get the buy-through. As a result, I’m spending less on ads and making more.
I am a fan of rolling series into collections (bundles) and having a good reader magnet or two for introducing people to the series or thanking them for joining my newsletter. If I can get them started on one book and they enjoy it, my backmatter is there to direct them to the next read.