A solid backlist can make a bookstore’s selection stand out

With the introduction of programs such as Indie Next’s Revisit & Rediscover that highlight backlist titles, as well as backlist book swaps at bookseller gatherings, the American Booksellers Association has tried to encourage independent booksellers to carry more backlist titles. Publishers, too, have been pushing for a change. At the start of the year, HarperCollins introduced one of the most innovative programs to date: offering a discount on Harper and Harlequin backlist books for indies.

No extra incentive was needed for some booksellers, such as John Evans, owner of Lemuria Bookstore in Jackson, Miss., to carry a strong backlist selection. “Backstock is how you create your store’s individual identity,” Evans said. “It’s no different than the national, regional, and local authors that come to your store. They’re creating that identity.” Sue Boucher, owner of Cottage Book Shop in Glen Arbor, Mich., agreed: “For us, backlist provides the spice and adds to the adventure of searching through a little bookstore.

Though Evans also has a deep commitment to frontlist, particularly new books by authors with whom he has developed strong relationships over the course of the past 41 years, his store actively promotes backlist. Lemuria has two rooms dedicated to first editions, and it is one of the few bookstores to seek out hardcover editions of popular paperback titles. “What we found, predominately, is that people prefer hardback if it’s a good book,” said Evans.

Boucher and her staff handsell backlist titles alongside frontlist, and she added a spinner rack to display booksellers’ favorite older books. Despite the store’s location in a summer tourist destination, Cottage Book Shop sells a lot of backlist, and many store sections are primarily backlist. “We would have a hard time selling new hardcovers in sections like self-help/psychology, mystery, history, and bio,” said Boucher.

City Lights Books in San Francisco is even more committed to backlist: books that have sold out their initial orders compose more than 80% of inventory, said head buyer Paul Yamazaki. For him, a major consideration in buying a book is how well it will sell as a backlist title. “We know for a fact,” he said, “that people come [here] for the backlist, small press, and university press titles.” In a bookstore that’s only 2,100 sq. ft., Yamazaki has to be particularly selective regarding frontlist in order to maintain that 80/20 balance. That’s one reason why City Lights decided not to stock Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run, which, Yamazaki noted, is readily available throughout the Bay Area.

As part of its backlist focus, City Lights ensures that 20% of its backlist comes from university presses, including books such as Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings’s Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life (Belknap), which continues to do well in hardcover three years after publication. Booksellers are encouraged to recommend older titles for their staff recommendations, including trade university press books.

Indies located near Amazon’s physical bookstores use backlist to differentiate themselves. Adrian Newell, book buyer and operations manager for the book department at Warwick’s in La Jolla, Calif., said that, though “we are primarily a frontlist store, and 40% of our sales are generated from new hardcovers,” she feels “backlist titles help to make our selection stand out; they make the store more interesting.” She’s willing to try bringing back older books, such as…

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