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>Frontlist becoming backlist

>Hearing Norma Jean Sawicki talk (see Tuesday’s entry) about the massive debt behind the publishing industry’s mergers and acquisitions made me feel much better about my Visa bill. It also made me think about how much more company is on top of what I personally see at most houses–I might know the editor in chief, the children’s publisher, occasionally that publisher’s boss, but most often a company goes up up and away into corporate dimensions we just don’t see on the ground. Norma Jean and I had a good time talking about what that can mean for which books get published how.

The question that only came to me today is about how much frontlist becomes backlist, and how long it stays there. For example, what percentage of, say, juvenile hardcover fiction published five years ago is still in print? Ten years ago? What percentage of first-novelists get a second crack, and has this figure changed? When I look at the piles of new novels rolling in, I wonder how long an attention span any one of them can command. I worry about those forlorn first-in-a-projected-but-abandoned-trilogy books, their characters left at the breath of the Fire Dragon or in the mouth of the Imponderable Cave. How many books disappear, and how quickly? This is not to say that many of them shouldn’t, and not soon enough, but have our expectations of a “normal” literary lifespan changed?

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. >Scott O’Dell and Hans Rey are still making big bucks for the Irish company that now owns Houghton-Harcourt

  2. >I’d really like to see more on this. It’s a subject that has gripped my mind of late (because at some point it’s going to be my books facing down that uncertain fate).

    Fawn-like naivete? More like Bambi’s mama.

  3. >O’Dell/Rey: just an example. I assume this is what you mean?

  4. >…have our expectations of a “normal” literary lifespan changed?

    I fear they have, yes. I am currently working on British publishing of the 1960s and 1970s, and I’m very struck by the insistence of Kaye Webb (of Puffin Books) on the notion of children’s books as a long-term investment. She talks about nursing a book for five years in order to get 15 years of sales. Many of the books produced under her editorship are still in print, but I do doubt whether publishing houses today would be prepared to wait that five years!

  5. >Sell and Drop:

    In a recent conversation, an editor commented that seldom are books remaindered any more. Instead, print runs are much more modest. And when a book doesn’t sell quickly enough, then it falls prey to the Sell-and-Drop. When the current printing is sold out, the company drops the title–no reprints.

    Oddly, I’m seeing some of my picturebooks doing well overseas and that income keeps it going. For example, 19 GIRLS AND ME (Philomel) does well here, but sales in Egypt have been very strong. The German version just came out and is doing well, too.

    Darcy Pattison

  6. >As a reader, I know I have more trouble reading a book that doesn’t feel relavent. Which seems to be any book printed more than 15 years ago.

    Looking at YA fantasy books, which is my main area of interest, I think we see a little bit better backlist, becuase the books aren’t so quickly dated by slang and popculture. Reading modern YA though, those books will be dated in a few years. Who talks about Leonardo DiCapario as their ideal boyfriend any more?

    So I think part of it is, readers love pop culture in their books, because it helps them relate to the characters. But those same references then date the book very quickly.

    Also, on the first in a trilogy being dropped… I don’t feel like I see that very often, in ya fantasy at least… though if the first book wasn’t popular, the rest may just come out with very little fan fare.

  7. >An observation I made a few weeks ago….

    I was in my son’s elementary school library. At the back, there are the shelves of sets of books used in classroom work – the books that are set reads, that they keep 20-30 of on these shelves.

    The majority (>75%) of them were so old*I* remembered either from my own childhood or from my time after college when I was the kids clerk at a large soon-to-be-national-chain bookstore (back when said soon-to-be-chain still had employees dedicated to each section who knew the sections well).

    I know that schools and teachers tend to be conservative with book choices. But looking at what was there, I can see why so much of it was backlist material (all the choices are still in print). They’re readable, literate, standalone stories.

    I grew up as the kind of reader who devoured everything my library had to offer. I still read J and YA fiction pretty regularly. And so much of it is so – ephemeral. Walk into the National Chain Bookstore Branch nearest me, and what do I see? Ten bad imitations of Harry Potter, Three bad imitations of Unfortunate Events, seven spin-offs of Little House, and five repackaging-into-smaller bites of the childhood classics of yesteryear. The rest? “Volume 20 in the Time-Traveling Dinosaurs series: Viking Pirates Pillage Ancient Rome!” pretty much sums it up. The few gems are difficult to find in bookstores that sort books not by author but by tiny sub-genres or “Finished Harry? This is just like it!

    And so much of it is unmitigated crap. Sentences dumbed down by using thesauri, bad plotting, insulting failures in logic, annoying Deus ex machina in place of solid plotting.

    I’d bet that a larger percentage of children’s books published 25 years ago are still in print than of those published 5 years ago. Most of today’s books seem rushed to market to capitalize on some currently perceived trend, or worse yet, written by a committee of uninspired Ed.Ds (who are not, themselves, readers) as a quick response to that trend.

    Gosh, I sound like an old fart, don’t I? LOL! I’d better just go finish reading “Miss Bianca” to my 7 year old. Full of big words, but somehow he loves it anyway.

  8. >I also wonder, with the plethora of published books, how much attention is paid to getting word of mouth and not relying on reviews or a publicist who may well be overworked in trying to get every book recognition.
    @Sara: It seems to be a case of “if the shoe fits, then copy it ad infinitum”. It may only change of the general public stops buying it – chicken and egg.

  9. >When publishing companies become subdivisions of giant media conglomerates it isn’t only, as you rightly suggest, that the top decision-makers are very far away from the books being produced.

    It also creates an environment where there’s a constant loss of institutional memory: if the publicity department has 100% turnover every three years, the older books aren’t remembered when opportunities arise for their reintroduction in association with new releases, in press interactions, etc.

    Editors who move from house to house leave behind dozens of books every time they go. Without someone to remember, let alone defend them, those books slip into back-of-the-backlist oblivion.

    Combine that instability with corporate budgetary imperatives (of warehouse efficiency, for example, or overall debt reduction) and you create a set of conditions strongly biased against long life for midlist titles.

    That having been said, some publishers are way better about keeping backlist available than others. In my experience, companies with an inclination to the school & library market are slower to eliminate titles than the biggest commercial houses.

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