On the Matter of Backlists

I love my backlist. It’s not a huge backlist, but after seven novels, it feels respectable. It didn’t really become a backlist to me until after books three or four. Before that, the books were just books I’d written.

Backlist means different things to different groups of people:

Publishers–An opportunity to make long-term money, especially when the author has a new book available.

Also Publishers–Let’s pretend those books never happened, okay?!

Readers–A treasure trove of a favorite author’s work to be discovered.

Other Readers–Old stuff the writer wrote before she got good at writing.

Still Other Readers–You wrote other books? Have I heard of them?

Booksellers (used books)–Stock

Booksellers (new books)–Old stock, or the discounted books on wheeled carts in the aisle or at the sidewalk sale. Or books that show up on the computer as “Unavailable,” aka “Out of Print.” (This does not apply to classic books.)

Booksellers (Online, new and/or used)–Stock

Authors– Well, this author, anyway. Pick one or more: 1) That stuff I wrote years ago. 2) Precious words I’ll love forever. 3) Those books I wrote that almost no one mentions. 4) Those books for which I got the rights back. 4.5) Those books the publisher won’t return the rights to because the contract was written poorly or signed long before anyone dreamed of print-on-demand or ebooks. 5) The books I republished after getting the rights back. 6) Proof of my existence. 7) Stock, whether it be ebook, print-on-demand, or all those copies I bought at the author discount before the rest were shredded. 8) That book that has an Amazon Rank of 2,154,982. (Who knew Amazon even had a 2.2 million rank?!)

Libraries–Stock, mostly. Often fodder for book sales.

Of course, all of these descriptions are my personal opinions/observations.

While I very occasionally find myself in the “Old stuff the writer wrote before she got good at writing” trap when it comes to looking at other authors’ backlists, I’m usually pleasantly surprised. I worry most often about quality of writing when I’m looking at the early installments of a series. I can think of a couple of really big series that got off to rocky starts, but then sorted themselves. Often I’ll start a series with the third and fourth book, then go back to the beginning

I feel a sense of true joy when I discover the author of a book I love has several other books already on the shelf. It’s like anticipating a feast.

Writers, how do you feel about your backlist? Do you actively market it, or just let people discover it on their own? Do you ever wish it had more of a life?

Readers, are you wary of backlist books? Or do you plunge right in?

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About Laura Benedict

Laura Benedict is the Edgar- and ITW Thriller Award- nominated author of eight novels of suspense, including the forthcoming The Stranger Inside (February 2019). Small Town Trouble, her latest book, is a cozy crime novel. Her Bliss House gothic trilogy includes The Abandoned Heart, Charlotte’s Story (Booklist starred review), and Bliss House. Her short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and in numerous anthologies like Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, and St. Louis Noir. A native of Cincinnati, she lives in Southern Illinois with her family. Visit her at www.laurabenedict.com.

11 thoughts on “On the Matter of Backlists

  1. Excellent questions, Laura. I’m curious to see how the TKZ community views backlists, too.

    Quick story. From May to October I do a ton of book signings in my state. No matter where I appear folks always ask which book was my debut, and that’s the one they buy. When this first started happening I could not figure out why. One day I asked, and the answer really surprised me. She said, “Because I love seeing how the writer grows over time.” By starting with the debut she ensured that each book would get better, and she’d never be disappointed. Makes sense. So, the next time someone asked which book was my debut, I asked again. Same answer. In total I asked about a dozen people over the course of the summer. They all gave similar answers. Now, since this is apparently “a thing” around here, I announce the order in which I wrote the books. So, do I market my earlier work? Absolutely. 🙂

    • How clever of you to ask, Sue. You’ve identified an important marketing strategy!
      “By starting with the debut she ensured that each book would get better, and she’d never be disappointed.” What a wonderful attitude of commitment.

  2. 5 and 7 for me. I have boxes and boxes in my guestroom.
    As a reader, if I discover an author via book 3, I don’t want to read it until I’ve read books 1 and 2 in the series. If I discover an author at book 37, I’m too intimidated to go back and start at book 1, so often I give that series a pass, at least for a while.
    Anal, I am.
    To promote my backlist, I keep the price of book 1 in the series either free or lower than the rest, depending on the books in the series.
    Right now, I’m contemplating bundling early books in one of my series.
    Do I think they’re inferior? I think (hope) that I get better with each book, but the early ones passed muster to be published, so they might not be “as good” but I refuse to let myself thing of them as “bad.”

    • I started Louise Penny’s Gamache series at books 4 and 5 when I was judging for an award, so I had to read them. I couldn’t wait to go back and start the series. A couple of years ago, I dove into the Agatha Raisin series in the middle and it turned into a muddle, so I went back.

      That’s smart to keep your introductory book easily accessible!

  3. As a reader, I’m not worried at all about reading backlist books or the first book of a well established series. I figure it could go either way. Maybe the author got, uh, WORSE as time went on.

    Last week I read one of your backlist books, Laura. It was at the library. Glad it wasn’t fodder for their spring fundraiser sale! (Isabella Moon, very satisfying ending to the story, BTW.)

    • Worse, maybe because they get a little lazy. Sad, but true. Publishers want the book sales, but so often the writer gets bored. Tough call. Bills must be paid.

      I’m glad you liked the ending of IM, Priscilla. The reviews were split 50/50, and I even changed it the slightest bit in my reprint version of the ebook. (Just to clarify that a certain character is dead. ; )

      I adore libraries. They’ve been very, very good to me.

  4. I just plunge right in. I’m always happy to read more by an author I like, and happy I don’t have to read a year. Sometimes the others are just as good, if at a smaller scale, sometimes I’m glad I read the other first, and continue on because I know the author has some part of the craft down pat.

    • Like you, I can’t stand to wait a year for a new book. But as a writer, I can’t imagine writing more than one or two a year. Talk about a conundrum.

      Here’s to plunging in!

  5. As a reader, I don’t think of previous books as “backlist” but rather as the author’s body of work to date. I will often start with the first in a series to better follow the protagonist’s growth or life changes. With several books out, though, I may just dive in with whichever one came to my attention first and then go back if I loved the characters and the story.

    • What a lovely perspective, Jagoda. It’s always a treat to follow a protagonist’s growth. When it’s done well, it shows that the writer has truly grown, too.

  6. Oh, how my children laughed when they happened upon one of my old books at a used bookstore that was a former library copy someone had rubber stamped: DELETED.

    You are not truly an author until you have been remaindered, deleted, discarded, or recycled.

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