An interesting item in Publishers Weekly this week reminded me that an often over-looked element in publishing is actually quite important.

Two basic terms: frontlist and backlist. The first refers to new books on a publisher’s schedule. These are the new books everyone is excited about: authors, publicists, even editors. All want to see how Book X will “do.” Publishers put up whatever marketing dollars they’re willing to commit during the first weeks of launch.

This is likely the highpoint for most authors. Since too many books are published and the market is glutted with sub-par offerings, there are less opportunities for quality books to really establish “legs” needed to sustain sales over a long period of time.

The frontlist, oddly enough, only remains so for a short time. In fact, almost as soon as most titles are released, they become … backlist!

Such is the bizarre and immature nature of the publishing game. One minute an author fields a flurry of emails and phone calls from the marketing team (along with a last-minute read-through of the final galleys from editorial) – the next minute, as they say, nobody knows you. It isn’t the fault of the publishing team; it’s just how it is.

All this of course doesn’t apply to franchise authors like Max Lucado, or now, Katheryn Stockett. Publishers would no doubt put their Twitter messages into book form. Oops, I just gave someone a great idea. Look for “Max’s Tweets,” from some publisher in a few months.

In any event, I think more time should be spent combing backlists for good books and promoting them for a long time. I used to work for a publisher who did that, and he was very smart; he knew that everyone was chasing the hot new thing that probably wouldn’t materialize. He was more interested in sustaining healthy sales on a lot of backlist titles. That strategy has helped him weather the economic downturn, by the way.

In the PW article I referred to, Dustin Kurtz, a bookseller at Manhattan’s McNally Jackson, understands the store’s clientele, which is the key. For example, he knows that his customers favor “Thomas Friedman’s watered-down cosmopolitanism [over] Thoreau’s inward gaze.”

Of course, that highbrow expertise doesn’t always sell in Peoria, but you get the idea. Know your market and what books that market wants. Here is an unsolicited tip for book publishers: Hire a person to beef up backlist sales. The model individual for this isn’t easy to find – some sales knowledge, combined with a deep knowledge of the product. Then go over a list of accounts, study them, and really learn what they’re after.

I’ve always thought a “researcher” in the marketing/sales department was much more valuable than a yuppie who presents well but really doesn’t love books or understand how to move them.

What kind of backlist sales numbers would compel a publisher to invest in such a person? Let’s say 20 titles could go from 504 copies sold per year (or 11 copies) to 4,000? Let’s say the publisher nets three dollars per copy. Such numbers would yield $12,000, compared to the old sales figures of $1,512. Pretty good increase. That would yield a $200,000 increase in sales, making the position worthwhile.

How could a person generate that kind of increase? Obviously, learn the book market. It would probably be better to specialize in fiction or non-fiction, but not both. From there, locate a half-dozen niche books and then research the potential sales channels: ministries, libraries, independent stores, military PXs, etc.

Next, re-engage with the author and find out what kind of platform he or she has developed since the book was launched. Explore social media opportunities, blogging. No publisher will invest in a new round of publicity, but work these angles with the author and let him land interview opportunities.

Also, have a meeting or two with the sales reps. They need to be continually educated.

An independent sales rep I know called me the other day and picked my brain about some sales channels. He wanted to sell a particular niche item to a certain group. Since I was only watching a Buster Keaton movie, it was no skin off my nose, so I told him what I knew, that said potential sales channel would throw him out the front window if he pitched that particular product.

“They’ll hate it and hate you for it,” I said.

“Thanks for the tip!” he replied.

You see, salespeople don’t always have time to actually read the material they sell. That’s why someone in the organization needs to tell them what it is.

The beauty of my proposed position for a publisher is, such a person wouldn’t necessarily be out of that mold. Perhaps the right person is retired, an English teacher who loves to read. Such a person could be groomed for a backlist sales position and do it even part-time, perhaps even for straight commission. This lessens the risk for the publisher and puts some extra money into the backlist person’s pocket.

I would love to see deserving backlist titles really get into second, third, tenth printings. Everyone would be happy, including the person at the end of this great chain of being, the reader.

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