Back to front?
03.10.07 | Hugh Salmon
At a family wedding last year, a cousin of mine from Washington DC told me that his favourite author is E F Benson. So last summer I read my first two Mapp and Lucia novels. They were first published in 1920 and 1922. But they were new to me.
More recently, a friend told me that his favourite books are by Brian Moore. So, as this friend has invested money in my company Lovereading, I thought I should read a Moore. It was called Colour of Blood and was written in 1987. But it was new to me (and, thanks John, I loved reading it). Then I read that Sebastian Faulks considers Loving by Henry Green the best novel ever written in the English language. So I definitely thought I should read that—even though it was written in 1945.
I bought all of these books very easily. As we all know, virtually every book that has ever been published is available on the internet. There are even book price comparison sites to find the cheapest place to buy the one you want. No problem.
This is how people buy books. Someone tells them about a good book and then they go and buy it. Sometimes these people have names like Richard or Judy. Sometimes the word, especially if it's Potter, gets round like wildfire and the book just takes off.
Yet the book trade doesn't work like this. The book trade has things called "frontlists" and "backlists". Unlike every other market I have worked in, the new books—the ones that are real news—are "promoted" as three-for-twos or even sold at half price. The old products, the ones that you might have thought had passed their sell-by date, the ones that may even be out of copyright, are mostly sold at full price on the high street. It's true—go to your nearest bookshop and see for yourself.
We all know about the effect of the major multiples on the book trade. But once you've been into your local bookshop, as requested above, pop into your nearest supermarket. Is the fresh, new crispy lettuce being sold at half price with the older stuff still at full price? Of course not—that would be daft.
So there is massive potential value in "backlist", and the best place for publishers to realise this value is on the internet. There are ways specialist bookshops could do it too. But that is another story.