How Much Is the Backlist Worth?

The following article is a response to an article in the October 27, 2016 issue of The New York Review of Books, “The New Hillary Library?” by Robert Darnton.

by Richard Russo

Photo by Elena Seibert

Back in November my daughter Emily and her business partner opened a bookstore called Print, in Portland, Maine, where we live. It was an enormous undertaking — finding the right location, getting a small business loan, hiring a store designer, doing a build-out, ordering fixtures, installing the custom-built shelves — all of which had to be done before we could address the business of the books themselves. But eventually they started arriving, the backlist, hundreds of boxes containing thousands of books. It was a daunting sight, inventory piled so high that we had trouble navigating the stacks. The books themselves came utterly disorganized, history mixed with science fiction mixed with children’s books mixed with cookbooks. Immediately put in charge of unskilled labor (that is, in charge of myself), I spent whole days breaking down cardboard boxes, bagging bubble wrap and carting it all off to the dump. It took six people nearly a week to get all these books shelved properly. Allow me to repeat: this was the backlist, that is, not this season’s books. Some of them were published a year or two ago, some a decade ago, some fifty years ago, and others much, much older. In other words the very books Google and some academic writers have argued are of so little economic value that they should be made available to the public for free. If they are right, what a bunch of damned fools we were for wasting our time on what we might as well give away, like bookmarks. But of course they aren’t right, and they know it.

The backlist is at the heart of any indie bookstore’s success.

So do indie booksellers. According to Oren Teicher, CEO of the American Booksellers’ Association, “the backlist is at the heart of any indie bookstore’s success.” Store owners I’ve spoken to say that backlist titles account for anywhere from twenty-five to a whopping fifty percent of their sales. Moreover, the segment is growing. According to Betsey Burton, of The King’s English in Salt Lake City, “independent bookstores all over the country are putting more and more effort (and dollars) into deep backlist because they know these books are economically viable.” Publishers understand too. Many offer incentives to promote the deep backlist because they know, as Burton says, that “often all it takes is the smallest nudge for older titles to return to the market in a big way.” Even without incentives many backlist titles unexpectedly surge in ways that can perhaps only be explained by chaos theory. “Without backlist,” says Annie Philbrick, of Bank Square Books and Savoy Bookshop & Cafe, “our shops would look more like brick and mortar Amazon stores displaying only frontlist titles, shelved face-out.” Yeah, okay, but what about Amazon the e-tailer, you ask? Do they think there’s money in the backlist? Well, Amazon rarely discusses numbers (or anything else) but Jeff Bezos is a numbers guy, and if there’s little economic value in a book after a year or two, as Mr. Darnton has suggested, then why did the Amazon CEO go to such lengths to corner that particular market? Could it be that he knows what Mitch Kaplan, owner of Books and Books, a chain of indie bookstores in Florida, knows — that “without backlist the entire publishing industry would collapse”?

Why? Well, that’s when books really begin to pay off for publishers whose costs — advances to authors, editing, copy-editing, marketing, and manufacture — are largely front-loaded. Depending on the size of the advance given to the author and the amount of money spent on promotion, many frontlist books are probably not yet profitable. Some, if the publisher has paid too much for the title, may never be. It’s money dependably generated by the backlist that allows publishers to take chances on new titles, some by writers of reputation, others by unknowns. Publishing is expensive and the better you do it, the more expensive it gets. What publisher would make an expensive wager (and all trade books are bets) if he knew that after a short time the book would lapse into public domain? Publishers — I’m using the term broadly here to include the Big Five, smaller presses, and even self-published authors — know all too well that some of their bets will be bad, just as gamblers understand that even the most educated wagers on thoroughbred horses won’t all pan out. But publishers also know that over time other books will be far more profitable than anyone imagined when the book was purchased, which cannot be said about pari-mutuel wagering. It’s that “over time” that makes publisher and author alike willing to gamble, the very time that Mr. Darnton and others would like to decrease significantly. Reduce the period under which a book is protected by copyright, though, and you change the entire calculus by undermining a publisher’s incentive to take risks.

Out of economic fear, I may not write the book I should.

The same is true for authors. The risk factor may be on a smaller scale for an individual writer, but the stakes — her livelihood — are higher. The career author invests an enormous amount in her writing — education, time, experience, research. Risks must be taken every step of the way, wagers made on projects that seem likely to pay dividends versus “slow burn” projects that have long term potential if you can manage not to starve in the interim. Most of my novels are long and on average they take me four or five years to write. That means that if I’m wrong about a book, I’ve wagered most of my income for four years. The only hedge I have, if hardcover sales are underwhelming, is that the paperback will catch fire or perhaps that at some later date the topic takes on unexpected urgency and the book is rediscovered. Should any or all of this become impossible thanks to weakened copyright protection, I may be forced to play things safer, choosing the more commercial project, or the one that can be completed more quickly, instead of the one my heart is really in. Out of economic fear, I may not write the book I should.

Mr. Darnton maintains that “the founding fathers designed a copyright system to balance the interests of authors with the public good.” That may be true, but it’s important to remember that publishers and booksellers are also important to the literary ecosystem. We at the Authors Guild understand that authors don’t do it alone. As every self-published author quickly learns, there’s more to publishing a book than writing it. The primary mission of the Guild is to defend the writing life by standing up for the rights of authors, but we also understand that the publishing ecosystem is fragile and that any serious threat to publishers and booksellers will have equally serious ramifications for us. That said, though, we are indeed the ecosystem’s primary stakeholders for the simple reason that without us there are no books, just as there are no movies without scripts. Mr. Darnton believes that current copyright law, parts of which are under review in Congress during the coming months, is out of whack because “after a few years…the main interest of authors is to reach readers rather than collect royalties.” This is, frankly, bullshit. I’m a successful author, at least by my own reckoning, in that for the last two decades I’ve been able to support myself and my family by my pen. I taught for many years, but quit as soon as I could afford to. Let me be clear: there are not a few writers who make more money than I do, some a lot more, but still it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that I’m in the top one or two percent in terms of earnings, earnings that have allowed me to pay for my kids’ education and can contribute to my grandchildren’s. My wife and I own a nice house. We occasionally travel. So yeah, I’m one of the blessed. But it’s also important to understand that in the writing business — unlike, say, law or medicine — you can be in the top one or two percent and not be rich. Moreover, if you’re in the bottom third, maybe even half, you’re courting poverty pretty seriously or already in bed.

Despite its “insignificance,” I can’t recall a single time when I didn’t know what to do with the money or wasn’t grateful to see it.

But the real story of a writer’s earnings has as much to do with process as sums. Mohawk, my first novel, was published in 1986, thirty years ago. Since then it’s never been out of print, and during that time the book has always earned royalties. Mr. Darnton argues that after a few years most books don’t produce “significant income,” and it’s true that some years Mohawk probably generated only a couple hundred bucks, but you know what? Despite its “insignificance,” I can’t recall a single time when I didn’t know what to do with the money or wasn’t grateful to see it. I was also glad to see the slightly larger (“less insignificant”) earnings generated by my second book. Actually, all of my books have remained in print, and small sums have a way of adding up, in my case, to a living. Am I unusual? Well, for a writer of literary fiction, I suspect so. Over the last decade author incomes are down across the board here in the US and Canada, as well as in the UK, by roughly thirty percent according to a recent Authors Guild study. There are lots of reasons. Cheap e-books and e-readers undermined print books’ platforms for a time, and other forms of digital storytelling that didn’t even exist two decades ago have provided additional stiff competition. Advances are down in part because publishers, many of whom are owned by larger entities, are increasingly pressured to be as profitable as the division of the parent company that sells refrigerators or cereal. I was lucky indeed to have made my reputation before all this happened; it gives me a tremendous advantage over today’s emerging authors. So, yes, I’m among the blessed. But in other respects I’m pretty typical. Every new book a writer publishes breathes new life into his backlist. (Winning awards has a similar effect, as does a film or television series based on something you’ve written.) This year I published a novel called Everybody’s Fool, a sequel to Nobody’s Fool, that came out twenty-three years earlier, and for many months during the spring and summer, Nobody’s sold almost as many copies as Everybody’s. If Mr. Darnton’s assertion that most books have little economic life after a couple of years were taken as true, it might suggest that twenty years or so would be a reasonable period of copyright protection, after which a book might, for the public good, enter public domain. But in my case it would mean that “in the public interest” my publisher, the stores that sell my books and I would be cheated out of, yes, significant sums. Okay, you say, but how often does that happen? Does literary fiction like mine usually have such a long tail? Not as often as we’d like, but it’s growing. The tools are now available for anyone to republish their long out-of-print books, and for an older writer with a significant backlist the earnings can be the difference between abject poverty and getting by. And regardless of its length, when the tail in question is attached to your own coccyx, you tend take a dim view when someone approaches with a knife, arguing that lopping off said tail won’t hurt (Easy for you to say) and will actually benefit others (More than it does me?).

Deep backlist titles remain the bedrock of the publishing industry.

Moreover, move out of the realm of literary fiction and nonfiction and the writerly tail gets longer. Indeed, from Harry Bosch to Harry Potter, a long appendage is more rule than exception. Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple continue to generate income more than a century after Agatha Christie imagined them, and the same is true for many science fiction, fantasy, thriller, and romance titles. Genre readers are famously voracious. And what about children’s books? Who wouldn’t love to have the income generated each year by A Child’s Garden of Verses? That’s not to say that Robert Louis Stevenson should still be under copyright with the money going to his distant heirs, only that deep backlist titles remain the bedrock of the publishing industry. Sure, the most successful frontlist titles generate loads of income in any season. But at our store in Portland, we didn’t start unpacking the frontlist until the backlist was shelved. The hottest new titles didn’t even arrive until mere days before we opened. They were placed in the front windows and on the center tables, the “New Fiction and Nonfiction” shelves at the front of the store, and the endcaps, like Coke products in the supermarket. But book lovers — as we already knew from experience — don’t judge a store by its windows and center tables. You assume every supermarket sells Coke. It’s the alternatives to Coke that you judge the store by.

Mr. Darnton has been writing about the publishing industry for a long time and he’s obviously a smart guy, so it’s fair to assume he knows all this. Why then do he and his friends continue to maintain, with Birther insistence, that there’s little value in the backlist? Well, for one thing, if you plan to take something that doesn’t belong to you “for the public good,” it’s not a bad strategy to suggest that what you’re purloining isn’t worth much to begin with. That was essentially Google’s argument when they digitized our books without asking our permission. But Mr. Darnton and his academic colleagues at the Authors Alliance (he sits on their board and urges us to support them), have a different agenda from the Borg-like tech sector. Academic authors make their money from the universities that employ them, which renders their financial relationship to the books they write tangential at best. Their purpose is to win the writer promotion and tenure and the cumulative pay raises that follow over an academic lifetime, either that or to elicit a better job offer from a competing institution. When academic authors argue that trade books written by people who write for a living have little commercial value after a relatively short period of time, it’s more than a little ironic, given that most of their own books have little economic value from the beginning. How could they? Most are aimed at tiny, targeted audiences of specialists and feature esoteric, jargon-riddled prose that has about as much in common with Esperanto as English. I have a PhD myself and I spent twenty years hitched to the academic sled, so I know these folks. Many fancy themselves writers and when our paths cross, they love to stress their kinship with us. “Writing is writing,” they say, not so much confident in the truth of the assertion, I suspect, as that we’ll be too kind to tell them they’re full of shit. I was finishing up my doctoral dissertation when I first started writing fiction, or trying to. I gave one of my first stories to the director of creative writing at the university where I was studying. Returning it, he tried to be encouraging, but it wasn’t easy. “Most writers have about a thousand pages of really crappy prose in them, and they have to expel these before than can begin to write seriously,” he told me, before adding, “But you have a PhD in English, so make that two thousand.”

Photo by Maggie Chen

Okay, I’m riffing, and I’ll stop. Like all sweeping generalizations, this one about scholarly writing is leaky. Not all academics are bad writers, and not all of their books are aimed at tiny, specialized audiences. For proof I need look no further than the council of the Authors Guild itself. Jim Shapiro’s books on Shakespeare read like novels and his intended audience is by no means a handful of Elizabethan scholars. The real issue here isn’t the quality of academic work or its intended audience but rather how academic writers get paid. They would like people to believe that in their vigorous defense of copyright working writers are motivated by greed, whereas their only interest is in the democracy and the common good. Let’s take the first point, because, historically speaking, it’s hard to imagine a more generous group than authors, most of whom have warm relationships with libraries that loan out our books for free. I doubt that Mr. Darnton, himself a librarian, would dispute this, though he’d probably stipulate that authors are not entirely selfless in the bargain. Someone who reads and enjoys a novel of mine borrowed from the library may purchase my next book. But the free flow of information and ideas is essential to a working democracy, as Mr. Darnton and his friends argue, and most working writers would agree, especially those like me, for whom the public library was once a lifeline. For us, being able to share the magic, the sheer joy of a good book with someone who can’t afford to purchase it is worth the loss of revenue. Mr. Darnton may be wrong about the long term economic value of the backlist, but he’s dead right that all writers do, within reason, want to share their work with as many readers as possible. But artists — painters, photographers, musicians, writers — far more than people in other professions, are expected to contribute to the common good as a matter of course, and it’s that expectation, so narrow in its bandwidth, that grates. Look. Some people have to work three different jobs in three different locations to make ends meet, and then have to rely on public transportation to get there. Wouldn’t it be nice if car dealerships provided loaner cars so that these hard-working folks could get from one job to the next? Wouldn’t that be in the public interest? But no one expects anything like that to happen, because the common good — Jacob Marley to the contrary notwithstanding — is not the business that automobile manufacturers and car dealerships are in. Grinning ear to ear, they may inform us that love is what makes a Subaru a Subaru, but any car company that proclaims with a straight face that “Mankind Is Our Business,” will be a new kind of car company indeed. No, it is artists who routinely shoulder the burden of working for free in a good cause, and for the most part we do so cheerfully. But there are limits, and when organizations like the Authors Alliance assume the moral high ground because they favor giving away that which, at least in their case, the market (academics publishing with university presses are seldom given advances, a dead giveaway) has deemed to be without economic value, well, I’ve reached mine. Okay, I admit, they paint (just as Google did) a lovely picture of a modern day, digital Library of Alexandria, its books accessible to all for free, but it rests on the fallacy that a writer’s backlist has little or no value. Moreover, the common good argument can be tricky. It’s assumed that readers benefit when books are cheap or free, but if they become so cheap that the writing life becomes untenable, then a book that needs to be read by everybody will instead be read by nobody because the author never wrote it. She couldn’t afford to. And isn’t it also in the public interest to ensure that books continue to be written by authors who are not beholden to institutions? How will we manage that if the writing life continues to be eroded? But what chafes our writerly behinds even more is the fact that people who like to fly the Common Good banner are in reality no more selfless than we are. They just feed at a different trough. Granted, no one snarfing at the academic trough this year will do nearly as well as J.K. Rowling, but it’s not a bad trough, and I doubt that Mr. Darnton, who’s been feeding at the Harvard one, would disagree. The income of working writers may be down significantly over the last decade, but professors’ salaries have continued to rise, and those who do the best have reputations that are inextricably tied not to teaching excellence but to research and publication. Mr. Darnton is himself a prolific author, having published books with both commercial and academic presses, and I don’t doubt for a second that he is sincere and well-intentioned in his desire to make as many books available to as many readers as quickly and efficiently as possible, but the largesse he proposes will be funded by writers like me, not writers like him. Of course Authors Alliance writers want their work to be more accessible sooner and for free. It has no monetary value to begin with, so why not? The currency that academics traffic in is not so different from Facebook “likes.” It’s not money, but it can, after a fashion, be monetized. Compare our lives to theirs. I know many writers, some household names, some my own age (67) or older who live book to book, who have little savings and no retirement account. We get paid twice a year, and we don’t know how much until the check from our publisher arrives. By contrast, academic authors get paid every two weeks, even during the summer when many needn’t even be on campus. They have health insurance. Their futures are predictable and secure. Why should they trouble themselves over the health of a literary ecosystem — about publishers and authors and booksellers — that they aren’t really a part of? What is any of that to them?

Authors, publishers and booksellers don’t just want to be paid for both new and old work, they need to be if they are to survive.

To us in the Authors Guild, it’s everything, in part because that ecosystem is so fragile, but also because copyright is one of the few protections we have. Authors, publishers and booksellers don’t just want to be paid for both new and old work, they need to be if they are to survive. Mr. Darnton says he’s never argued against copyright and only wants to correct what he sees as an imbalance, but his argument doesn’t give one the impression that he thinks we’re half a bubble off of plumb here. I’m happy he sees some common ground between our positions. We can agree that writers who want to opt out of copyright in order to better manage their rights through Creative Commons licenses should be permitted to do so, provided their publishers concur. And, despite the reservations of some librarians who would like to claim fair use for everything, both sides seem to agree that a European style management organization representing all writers and publishers that would collect fees in the interests of all stakeholders, is a good idea. But given the current political climate, that’s unlikely to happen quickly. In the meantime copyright continues to be assailed on all fronts, by companies like Google and Amazon that, given their monopolistic ambitions, have far too great a stake in the outcome, but also by groups like the Authors Alliance and the “Information Wants to Be Free” crowd that have no stake at all.

What would a real compromise look like? Well, in the end, we’re looking for a number: the life of the author plus X. Anything less than the life of the author is not a serious bargaining position, nor is any number for X that is based on the false claim that there’s little significant value to the backlist. That Mr. Darnton’s arguments to the contrary have been made in The New York Review of Books, whose publishing arm, Classics, has given new life to so many great out-of-print titles, is an irony that seems to have eluded him. John Williams’s Stoner (originally published in 1965 and for decades out of print) alone has sold over a hundred and fifty thousand print copies, and another fifty thousand e-Books, and the novel has had similar success with European publishers. Or what about 1977’s travel classic A Time of Gifts, by Patrick Leigh Fermor, which has sold fifty thousand copies since being reissued? Two different independent booksellers mentioned to me over the holidays how well Wallace Stegner’s first novel Remembering Laughter, first published in 1937, was doing for them. Every writer I know, as well as every bookstore employee, could furnish other examples. Who deserves the windfall from the many books that unexpectedly begin to sell again, if not the men and women who wrote them, the publishers who invested in them, the booksellers who made them “staff picks”? Most of us, regardless of the work we do, imagine our success benefitting our children and perhaps our grandchildren. People in most other professions are accorded the necessary legal means and protections to make that happen. Should writers and other artists be the exception?

No, we need to solve for X using real numbers but also moral imagination and compassion. I’m certain that the absolute baseline for X needs to be at least the life of the author plus ten years (and this assumes we could vacate dozens of international treaties). Why? Several years ago I had the honor to write an introduction to The Collected Short Stories of Richard Yates, one of my literary heroes. A year or so after the book came out, I met his daughter and literary executor, Monica Shapiro. It was a melancholy experience for both of us. We were delighted the book had sold so well, but it was heartbreaking to learn that it had sold more copies than all her father’s novels combined during his lifetime. In a just world Yates, who was deeply wounded by the fact that his books didn’t find a wider audience, would have lived to see this success, but he’d died a decade earlier. Had he lived longer, I might have had the opportunity to tell him how much his stories had meant to me, how helpful they were in expelling my two thousand pages of wretched prose, but who knows? Maybe our paths wouldn’t have crossed, even “over time.” But I do remember being pleased to tell his daughter, and very pleased indeed to know that his novels and stories had been “nudged into the market,” as Betsey Burton put it, “in a big way.” Every writer who’s fallen into neglect dreams that such a thing could happen to him. Or, if overdue success comes too late for him, as it too often does, then maybe for his kids. Significantly reduce the span of copyright and you not only steal a writer’s revenue but also the possibility that his words may be of “value” after his death. He’s earned both.

Richard Russo is the bestselling author of seven novels, including Straight Man, Bridge of Sighs, Nobody’s Fool, and Empire Falls, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize. Russo is also the author of The Whore’s Child and Other Stories, Elsewhere, and most recently, Everybody’s Fool. Russo currently serves as Vice President of the Authors Guild. He and his wife live in Portland, Maine.