Friday, June 26, 2009

The Backlist

I have been thinking recently about backlist. For the uninitiated, backlist in a bookstore is all of the books that came out more than a month or two ago. So everything from Little Bee to Don Quixote is backlist. In these times of increased competition and economic downturn, many bookstores have reduced the amount of backlist they carry, relying instead on selling lots of what's new, and then moving on to the next new thing. And there is an argument to be made for this when one can go on to ebay and find a copy of The English Patient for 1 cent plus shipping. In fact, I went to an educational seminar recently where a buyer for a successful independent bookstore advocated returning any book that hadn't sold within six months.

We're definitely running a little tighter ship around here than we used to (we stocked roughly $25,000 in psychology books in 1999; now that number is $15,000, not taking inflation into account). But other sections are significantly larger than they were ten years ago, like graphic novels and cooking. We at Green Apple still think it is important to have a broad and unique selection of books to keep our browsing customers happy.

There are some books we'd be just plain embarrassed not to stock. We recently reordered Miss Lonelyhearts, even though it had taken two years to sell. So I got to wondering which new books have been here the longest, and I did some investigating. The winners are:

1) Forty Ouncer by Kurt Zapata has been here since February 1999. When I ran this report I thought that the winner would be some obscure French novel. The only reason I think this one has hung around so long is that we sold a lot of it way back when, and it has a cover image of a man face-down on a bar.
2) The Torrents of Spring by Hemingway. Maybe not an essential Hemingway book, but there it is.
3) That's Funny, You Don't Look Buddhist has been here since January of 2000. I'm shocked that this book by a popular local author hasn't sold in so long. Must be lots of used copies.
4) Failure to Zigzag. Another well-regarded book by a local author that is coming upon its tenth anniversary sitting on our shelves.
5) You Are Not I, a biography of Paul Bowles by Millicent Dillon.
And coming in at number 6 is my obscure French novel, Ballets Without Music by Celine.

So rest assured, as long as it remains viable, we will continue to use the blush test when determining which books we stock, which means that The Collected Prose of Robert Creeley (on our shelves since December 2001) is safe for now.


Nick said...

"Maybe not an essential Hemingway book"
Excuse me !!? All Hemingway books are essential.

Is this an (quite good) attempt to sell all those?

kdjameson said...

It may very well be a great way to sell all those books. American culture is so often fixated on the short term, the newest and shiniest, the trend, keeping up with the Jones', the what's coming down the pike, and the what have you done for me lately.

Now with the collapse of the economy and the reverberations into the publishing industry, this is even more the case.
As a local author (with two published self help books in your diminishing area of psychology), I've studied this phenomenon with a sick feeling.

Not only because I'm sure no one will stock my books which came out in 2002 and 2005, but because, in the bigger picture, I fear that readers will more and more overlook any book - of whatever kind or genre - that either came out before last year or hasn't been on the bestseller lists.

Nick may believe all Hemingway books are essential, but I worry that today's readers may be shaped by today's economy and demise of the brick and mortar bookstores and not just forget, but never have learned that certain writers even existed.

The combined impact of current and future decisions in the publishing industry and those of brick and mortar bookstores is such that what may end up defining the iconic American writer won't be based on writing skill and craft, but on the ability to find his or her books in the highly prized front windows of Borders or B&N (until their demise, natch), or an airport kiosk, or Amazon's Kindle.

So, keep naming the books you're stocking that haven't sold yet, it might spark a new trend in readers - buying a book no one's ever heard of. Keep that torch burning if you please.

Sparks said...

I for one am glad that the "obscure French novel" was a minor work by Celine - and one that we had in remainder at that!

LGJobson said...

Nicely done KPR ~ Run it every 5 years and keep us posted.