Backlist or bust

Publishing is often not well served by the wider media. Book publishers are too frequently narrowly defined as hit-makers, and yet derided for the hits they make. They are seen as both elitist and too commercial. Digitally hesitant and then digitally wrong. Some of this is rightly greeted with wry amusement in the trade, but sometimes I wonder how damaging this lazy mis-typing could be.

A recent article in Wired is a good example. In a wide-ranging piece about how publishing was adapting (or not) to digital, it repeated the old canard that “publishing houses stay afloat only because the megahits pay for the flops”. Publishing houses do stay afloat by publishing bestsellers, but to suggest that only by publishing bestsellers can publishers stay alive is a gross misrepresentation.

There are many reasons why publishers are buoyant. Publishing minor hits can be a perfectly viable business proposition so long as the upfront investments are not huge; as can building a business that ameliorates the risk by selling either coedition, or foreign rights before publication; or by servicing small but robust niches. In the digital age, there will be new ways of reducing risk, spreading the costs of the investment, or shifting them.

But the big thing that is underplayed by reducing publishers to mere hit-makers is the value of the backlist. In times of yore the backlist might account for 50% of a typical trade publisher’s revenue, and though it might now be less than this, its importance has not diminished. It is highly profitable because most of the costs have been written off, cash generative, and predictable. Publishers create backlist titles not by chasing hits (though that helps) but by investing in books over the long term. Many titles that were never “megahits” will help underwrite a publisher for years to come. If bestsellers are the fuel-injector, the backlist is the fuel.

Proponents of copyright reform, or those who propose new shorter licence agreements, run the risk of syphoning off this supply, thus eroding a publisher’s ability to think long term. A hits-driven industry might indeed survive under a different copyright regime, but it would be very different to the one we have now. In fact, it would look much like “the industry” often portrayed in the media, and perhaps one as fragile as those articles suggest it already is.