E-books wag the long backlist tail

On his blog the other day, Eoin Purcell brought up an interesting point about how electronic books are changing the nature of the book market. In the old print market, bookstores could only present a limited number of titles so they concentrated mainly on new releases plus a very small selection of publisher backlists.

Of course, providing full access to the “long tail” of all titles was the foundation of Amazon’s business model, but even then it was limited to titles that were available in print. But with e-books, there’s no reason any title should go out of availability (and Google’s scanning project means that even out-of-print and never-publisher-scanned titles could be available for sale if they ever get the lawsuits out of the way).

Purcell points out that most people don’t focus on whether a title is newly-published or backlist—what matters to them is whether or not they’ve already read it. Where a consumer might be reluctant to buy it (or, more likely, never even notice it) as a beat-up used paperback copy, there’s nothing about an e-version of it that’s any different from the e-version of the very latest thing to be published. (Save that the price of the backlist title is likely to be lower, of course.)

He believes that is making publishers—who depend on good sales from their latest blockbusters to keep going—very nervous. While they could, of course, rake in money from their own backlists just as easily, they’re not necessarily set up to take full advantage of that market yet. (Not to mention that authors whose contracts pre-date mention of e-book rights might have their own ideas about where to take their backlist books.) Meanwhile, publishers such as Open Road Integrated Media are setting up specifically to handle authors’ backlists and finding that the future looks very bright.

As Purcell notes, the jury is still out on whether or not this is entirely a good thing—but certainly it’s going to make the next few years more interesting.

7 Comments on E-books wag the long backlist tail

  1. ” . . the jury is still out on whether or not this is entirely a good thing”

    I’d like to hear what possible reason there is that it would not be a good thing … ?

  2. People have been so conditioned to seeing everything from a corporate centered financial point of view that they often dismiss the incredible value to humanity of easy access to knowledge and information.

    Corporations see everything in terms of profit. They don’t want people to have access to out of print books because all they can see are potential lost sales when somebody reads a book for free. They care nothing for knowledge, education, human achievement or any similar societal gain unless it impacts their profits.

    Astonishing numbers of books and articles have been written about every subject under the sun. 99.99% (or more!) of them are unavailable to the average person.

    Here’s a small example. I recently became interested in the North African campaign of WWII. Hundreds of books have been written on that subject, the vast majority of which are out of print. My local library has one. There are a few I could buy on Amazon if I had the money to spend. But I have no access at all to many hundreds of others.

    But every book ever written could ultimately be digitized and made universally accessible. All that prevents it is the web of copyright law that now exists solely to monetize intellectual property but not to expand access to knowledge.

  3. Chris Collins // May 7, 2011 at 4:03 pm //

    The thing that pulled the trigger on my making the leap from pBooks to eBooks was backlist availability. Specifically, Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries. I had read all of the titles that were out in paperback, yet there were still more in the bibliography that were not available. After performing searches on a few eBook store sites and found a number of the titles I had been waiting for in paperback were already available, I was sold, bought an ereader and I’ve been hooked ever since. The same goes for several other authors I read. Backlist and out-of-print books could be a lucrative revenue stream for publishers I would think.

  4. At last, the excellence of the vanishing backlist is now springing back to life, thanks to the advent of e-books. Just another nail in the coffin of the of the big six middlemen. All you traditionally published authors out there, make sure you retain (or get back) your electronic rights.

  5. I love the fact that the e-book seems fresh no matter how long it’s been on the shelf. I still get the occasional sale on my first book as I get ready to publish the next. If I published in print, the first book would be long gone from the shelves.

  6. In addition to new content, I’ve published several books by authors who had rights reverted to them after publishing with major publishers. Some of these have done well, others not so much. From an author perspective, it’s certainly unfair that your book is available in the stores for a month or two and then vanishes to make room for new content… possibly just as word of mouth could start to get around.

    That said, eBookStores seem to be set up to promote the current top 25 sellers. While the long tail is available, finding it can take a bit of work…and knowing what you’re looking for. I wonder how we can replicate that serendipitous discovery we’ve all made while wandering in a physical bookstore in a world where scrolling down 2 million times isn’t exactly practical.

    Rob Preece
    Publisher

  7. A lot of authors are using print on demand services like createspace and lightning source to keep their physical books available in perpetuity at the same time they create e-versions of their reverted-rights backlists. I’m an ebook guy, but the pbook fan is seeing a similar benefit.

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