If you’re not frontlist, you’re not . . .

1st-cav-patchIn the 1st Cavalry Division, the one battalion that was actually ‘armored cavalry’, 1/9 Cav, used to boast to the rest of us Infantry and Armored grunts: “If you ain’t Cav, you aint shit!”

And I used to respond: “Exactly.”

The traditional midlist is getting crunched big time. Less shelf space is a harsh reality. Any midlister who isn’t already hybrid is in trouble.

However, the person most in trouble in the coming years is the high end, but not quite always on the airport rack, author. Who is well known, consistently hits the bestseller lists, but isn’t what I label an “airport” author. There are not many of the latter. There are quite a few of the former. They make a very comfortable living right now from advances and, if they have an extensive backlist and have earned out, on royalties.

But. Spend two years without a new title and those authors will sink under the waves without a trace. Their publisher will have no commitment to market and promote them. Without frontlist, readers will quickly forget they exist, and more importantly, they won’t acquire new readers. The publisher also will never let go of the backlist.

There is an interesting conundrum among many traditionally published authors that I haven’t seen brought up: the incentive to wish for failure of their backlist. If an author has not earned out, and sees no prospect of that based on recurring sales, they have absolutely no incentive to promote that title. In fact, they want it to fail so badly that it falls below whatever sales threshold they didn’t pay attention to when they signed their contracts years ago.

With eBooks, that isn’t going to happen. The publisher doesn’t even have to go back to print.

While I believe most midlist authors who aren’t already hybrid have woken up to the need to do so, the people who really should do that NOW are these bestselling authors who see no immediate need to do so. Because they really have little idea how few sales they are going to be making once they’re off that radar.

Random House dumped my Area 51 series, even after selling over a million copies. I understand the business reasons for it. Sort of like Denzel Washington in Man on Fire: “I’m just a professional.”

Of course, some might wonder if I’m Denzel Washington or the man with the bomb up his butt tied to the car’s hood.

I managed to wrangle the rights to Area 51 back, using Jon Fine’s advice of being persistent and aggressive. And before publishers understood the value of backlist. When I got the rights, I told my wife “I just got my retirement.” Since then I’ve more than doubled the sales, to somewhere around 2.5 million copies sold. A nice check comes in every month on those sales. On something that would have moldered in Random House’s backlist, selling a thousand or so a year.

Agents and high-selling authors focus far too much on the advance money and far too little on the back end money. Those monthly checks. At Cool Gus we’ve been close to working with a couple of bestselling trad authors and re-pubbing backlist they had the rights to, but every time the author said they wanted to run it by their agent, we knew it was over. Because agents tend to only see that advance money. They want to repackage the backlist, sell it to a trad publisher–usually the one that has the current frontlist– and get up front checks. But once those checks are cashed, they’re gone forever. And so is that backlist revenue. And so are those rights. We’ve got two bestselling hybrid authors, and both very much like their monthly checks from Cool Gus on the back end. What was even more fascinating is this: one got an offer from Amazon Publishing for a title we were doing for him. He wanted to do it and we said go for it, because we believe what’s good for an author is good for us in the long run. He did. And regrets it. We were surprised when he told he was making more with us than with AP on that title.

I’ve been predicting this for five years but I can say with all sincerity the time is now for a high end author who wants to protect their future revenue stream. Shelf-space is shrinking. Fewer and fewer books are getting racked. Less deals are being made. When the day comes that you aren’t frontlist, you aint–


  1. I’m reading your publishing advice more and more obviously. Thanks for encouraging and empowering the indie author, Bob.

  2. Love your publishing advice, Bob. Right on target.

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