Does Your Backlist Need a Boost?

BY HANNAH GUY • April 15, 2021

Does Your Backlist Need a Boost?

Dear Book Sales,

Where did you go? Please come back…

Unless you’re a household name and author of a New York Times bestseller, there comes a time in every author’s life when the excitement of a new release has died down—and so have your book sales. Not only does the thrill of “money” and “fans” start to dim, but it can be kind of a blow to the self-esteem. Don’t they like me anymore? Is my book terrible? Do I completely suck?

Chances are the answers are no, no, and no. Book sales tend to dip quite a bit after your book’s been out for a while, especially if your marketing efforts are flagging and/or you waited too long before you really started promoting your book.

If you’re a regular reader here at the Kirkus Writers’ Center, you already know how new releases can give a hefty bump to backlist sales. But what happens when you’re still working on your next book and you know it’s not going to be released anytime soon?

While you should be continually marketing and promoting your most recent release, you can also look to boosting your backlist sales to ensure that not only is there a little money coming through but that your books are in front of potential readers as much as possible (without obnoxiously plugging your book on social media, because there is always that person who responds to unrelated topics with “Hey, while you’re here, buy my book”).

Pushing your backlist might seem counterproductive when you always feel the need to have something new and exciting ready to go (and it’s great when you do), but neglecting your backlist can be a rather costly mistake. According to Daniel Parsons in “How to Boost Your Backlist Sales,” most authors don’t make much money from their first few books, but as they keep writing and publishing, those backlist sales really start taking off—and paying off in delicious monetary dividends.

“It’s only as they build their brands and become proficient marketers that they see their new releases skyrocket—and their old books rise up the charts to join them,” Parsons writes. “After that, launching new books becomes a secondary priority, far behind stoking the fires of the backlist. You see, put simply, most successful authors learn that twenty backlist titles selling consistently can dwarf the sales spike of a single book launch over the course of a year. What’s more, perennial sales stabilize your income, helping you to avoid huge peaks and troughs.”

So how can you increase your backlist sales?

Offer a book for free

There’s been a lot of discussion among self-published authors about the pros and cons of offering a free book, especially if it’s permanently free. “Free” doesn’t always mean “read,” and there is some psychological basis to the idea that when something is free, we don’t always value it as highly. But Parsons suggests that the benefits outweigh the risks.

“Up-to-date research conducted by Written Word Media in 2020 indicates that, out of 1,000+ authors surveyed, those who earn six figures or more are ‘the most likely to have a book listed as free at the time of taking the survey,’” he reports.“The report suggests that authors with a large backlist ‘have started making books permanently free as a way to drive consistent downloads.’ And therein lies the caveat. Permafree titles are proven to lure readers into buying paid sequels. You just have to ensure that you have good read-through and a large enough backlist to make this a viable strategy.”

If your backlist isn’t as considerable, you might consider offering a free novella that readers can enjoy and get a feel for your writing, which might just encourage your audience to go and buy your next book.

Refresh your online advertising

If you haven’t been looking at advertising as a means of promoting your books—including your backlist—this is the time to start. Think about taking out ads not only on social media but on websites and blogs that will plug directly into your reader base, including book review sites, book bloggers, and even news and media sites.

If you’ve already been working with ads, look at refreshing them, updating your images, cleaning up your messaging, and even finding ways to promote your book in the context of current news and pop culture trends. In short, find a new way to make readers excited to read your book. By keeping on top of your ads, you’ll ensure that you get the most bang for your advertising bucks.

Explore limited-time promotions

Everyone loves a sale, and readers are no exceptions. If your sales on a particular title are really low and have been so for a while, it might be worth looking at offering a limited-time promotion on that title. Rather than just dropping the price and waiting for sales to pick up, plan out a proper promotion in advance. You’ll want to consider:

  1. When is the best time to promote this book? If your book can be easily classified as a summer read or fits in with a holiday, such as Christmas or Passover, plan accordingly, and offer a promotion in the two weeks leading up to that date. Take a look at any holidays or “awareness” days, weeks, and months that particularly suit the book or the subject. Have a sizzling romance? Plan something for Valentine’s Day. Have a book about changing your lifestyle or eating habits? Set something up for the new year, when readers are looking to make changes.
  2. How much do you want to charge for your book? There is usually a sweet spot for sales that hits somewhere between “cheap enough to make it irresistible” and “high enough that readers think it’s a great price.” In short, readers (like all consumers) want value. Browse through popular retail sites and see what prices books are being offered at and what comparable books are going for.
  3. Where should you promote your book? Don’t just put your book on sale. Advertise it. Create social media ads, make a website banner on your site, and blast it across your newsletter, social media, and blogging channels that you have an amazing book on sale. Emphasize the urgency (“Buy it now!” and “Limited time only!”), the price, and include any powerful review excerpts or blurbs signing your book’s praises.“Don’t just wing it,” writes Jenn Beach in “5 Ways to Promote Your Book Backlist.” “Don’t just randomly decide that you should do a sale or freebie of a backlist to boost sales and new readership. Plan it….Do you have a new book in a series coming out and want to push sales of the first book maybe a few months before, then maybe a sale of the last book currently out in the series right before the release of the next book? Look on the calendar [and] decide when that should be.”

Refresh your books

Depending on how long you’ve been publishing, you may be looking at older titles with something akin to embarrassment. Poor-quality or outdated covers, cringey or overly wordy descriptions, and even poor editing can erode your book sales over time.

It might be time to give your old books a new look. While it’s not something you want to do too often (remember that recognition is a strong element of effective promotion and marketing), it might be time to create some new covers that have similar branding to your latest title (font, layout, etc.). But while you’re at it, you can look for other ways to refresh your books by:

  • Updating the description by making it cleaner, more compelling, and contemporary
  • Including any blurbs or amazing review excerpts
  • Re-editing it, especially if reviewers have complained about errors
  • Adding new content, like a bonus chapter or a novella that may qualify as an extended prologue or even a prequel
  • Bundling your books, especially if they are part of a series or about a similar topic
  • Working with another author to offer some kind of cross-promotion that offers extra content or even the other author’s book for free

Hannah Guy lives in Toronto and is a professional writer and copywriter who specializes in books, books, and more books. Follow her on Twitter at @hannorg.

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