What’s the Backlist?

There is no precise and generally agreed upon definition of a backlist. I’ve seen multiple attempts, from ‘books older than a year’, to ‘every book but the most recent one’ to ‘anything over 3 months old’.

Key word here is ‘old’. In the end, the focus is all about previous books.

I like the definition of anything that isn’t your latest book, so we’re going to use that here.

The Importance of the Backlist

One of the things I did want to discuss in this section is the importance of the backlist. It is significantly more important for independent authors than traditional published authors, mostly because most independent authors can expect to have more works out than trad pub.

In general, most traditionally published authors can expect a book a year to be released – at best. If you’re lucky, and they rush production and your book out, it might come out within 6 months of one another, but generally a 1 to 2 year gap is not uncommon. This is, mind you, in science fiction and fantasy. I believe romance is slightly faster, though don’t quote me at that.

Depending on the author though, a once a year release schedule is often significantly lower than the output of most independent authors, at anywhere from three to four books a year minimum. I know authors putting out twelve books a year (mind you, these are 60-80k word books and not epic fantasy monstrosities at 200-300k words).

If you look at it that way, within 5 years, an independent author might have as many as sixty books or, more likely, somewhere in the range of fifteen to twenty five. That’s still a lot of backlist.

We’ll talk about sales degradation in a bit, because it does come in play. However, the fact stands that very quickly, even an author putting out a book a year, will – by definition – have more in their backlist than what they have coming out. Learning to make use of the backlist, generating additional income will make an author more and offer them stability between releases.

Even if you release slow – and arguably, because you do – learning to make full use of your backlist to generate on-going income is important.

Another note – just because we generally speak of backlist in full novels, it does not mean your other works should be ignored. Short stories, omnibus collections, novellas and novelettes and translations of these all can add to the income stream.

Case in point – my own.

So How Much?

Practical example – I’m attaching two different pie charts. The first was in January 2024, when I had a new release to a side novel set in my bestselling series. Not unexpectedly, it did not do as well as a main series release, partly including the fact that I’d given the book for free to those on my mailing list already – and promoted that. With that in mind, it’s the easiest recent new release month to showcase how much the backlist can help.

5% of my income from the new release from ebooks, 95% from my backlist. 

That’s a huge difference. Even on ‘good’ months, my new releases do not make up more than 45% of my monthly income. At least, not directly, since a new release in a large series has boosting effects on the sales of the series themselves, of course.

Here’s another document, showcasing what happened over the entire of 2023. The two largest slices of the pie chart are for new releases that year, everything else is from a backlist.

You’re probably wondering how big my backlist is. I roughly have 144 unique works uploaded, but these are not all books. I have over 20+ short stories, 12+ omnibuses and anthologies, nearly 20 different novellas and novelettes, etc. In other words, I have quite the variety of works, and as you can tell from above, they all add to the general on-going income stream.

Sales Degradation

Alright, I should point out some issues with my discussion of this. Firstly, and rather importantly, I only have my own data to back this up. Obviously, spoken with others, but I do not have their data sets. Secondly, the data you see is generally for works that I still promote – though in different manners – so these are not just left to whither on the vine.

That being said, as you can see from one of my least successful releases, sales drop off precipitously after the first 3 months. The 30/60/90 day cliff is quite clear in this, with only occassional bumps in sales/reads as we conduct promotions. Now, since this work gets only minor social media engagement and opportunistic promotional supplementation, sales are not huge.

However, even multiple years after release, it continues to generate around $20 a month from ebook and print sales on Amazon. Additional income comes from having the book wide, though it is very low, adding at best another $10. Overall, it makes maybe a $1 a day. At almost $0 cost (beyond time).

And, as mentioned, this is my one of my worst releases. Other hit series continue to generate more (gross and net) profit. 

Too Big a Backlist

After a point, deciding what to do with your work and various backlist items becomes a problem. Too many works, too many individual items to handle, especially with our real job still being writing.

So, that’s what the job of the book is. To provide structure and recommendations to make your job easier.

If you’d like to read this business post please consider becoming a Patron and choose the $2-tier to be able to read the business posts only and ask questions about the business side of writing.