The Death of Browsing; the Death of the Backlist; the Death of the Book Industry?

There are few terms that have undergone so great a change in context as "ecosystem'. Several decades ago, the notion was the bailiwick of ecology and environmental types, whose outlook was frequently at odds with the needs of the business community. Oh, how times have changed! For at least as long as Apple launched the iPod and interfaced the device with the iTunes store, an ecosystem now came to mean an integrated hardware and content product offerings. In the brave new digital world, where hardware, software and content often converge, entities seek to create a product ecosystem that will distinguish them from their competitors.

The book industry has had long had its own ecosystem, characterized in the main by authors, publishers and brick-and-mortar retailers. But lurking behind this well-recognized ecosystem is a subsidiary ecosystem that has well served the needs of authors, publishers and the reading public. One of the main pillars of the subsidiary ecosystem is the way that reader browsing has fed the sale of backlist titles, which in turn has served as a significant source of income for both publishers and their authors. However, at least according to a recent Bloomberg radio podcast that reached this Kat's ears, the browsing/backlist ecosystem is under threat from the rise of the online book retailer and e-book markets, which in turn may threaten the larger book publishing business. At a time when even a large book dealer like Borders can go out of business, here, this phenomenon is worthy of a closer look.

The publishing business is roughly divided into a front list and a backlist. The former refers to the first year or so after a book is published. The latter refers to books that are no longer on the front list, but which appear in a publisher's catalogue. The book retailer will then decide which of the books appearing on the publisher's backlist are worthy of being stocked on the retailer's bookshelves. Thus The Da Vinci Code is now a backlist book and it continues to sell well (as Mr and Mrs Kat can testify, having recently fought the crowds to visit Rosslyn Chapel near Edinburgh, a site that appears prominently in the book, here). For those who like greater backlist longevity, it is difficult to beat the late J.D. Salinger's classic work, The Catcher in the Rye, which is reported to sell over 200,000 copies each year. Backlist sales are not just "nice to have". It is estimated that up to 50% of a publisher's profits in a book are attributable to the sale of its backlist titles. Add to this the fact that most of a publisher's expenses are incurred at the front end (such as editing, printing and marketing) and one can see that a substantial portion of the amounts received from the sale of backlist titles goes straight the publisher's bottom line. The successful sale of back list books is therefore an essential component of a traditional publisher's business model.

Naturally, it is not enough that a book appear on a backlist list and that the book is then stocked on the retailer's shelves. The customer (unless he or she enters the book store seeking a specific title) must decide which book to purchase. It is for that reason that book-browsing is so important. From the customer's point of view, browsing is the ultimate form of "contact sport" when it comes to books; for generations, browsing has taken on not simply commercial but also psychological and even cultural significance (indeed, it was noted on the podcast that shopping malls still prize bookstores because they draw browsers to the site, who then may well frequent other stores in the shopping complex.) As such, the backlist enjoys a symbiotic relationship with book browsing, each feeding off the other and the two of them together serving as integral sub-parts of the larger book industry ecosystem.

The rise of both the online book retailer, such as, as well as the e-book reader, materially threaten to disrupt the browsing/backlist ecosystem. To the extent that online retailers and e-books both contribute to the decline of the brick-and-mortar book industry, there are fewer such outlets for the reading public to frequent. Fewer outlets, together with fewer browsers, mean that that there are fewer opportunities for browsers to come upon a backlist title that they may wish to purchase. Fewer purchases of backlist titles put increasing pressure on a critical part of a book publisher's sources of income. Given this, it seems to this Kat that the publishing industry has two choices (not necessarily mutually exclusive). First, it can continue to search for effective ways to emulate the browsing experience in the online environment, thereby preserving the functionally of the browsing/ backlist subsidiary ecosystem. Secondly, it can jettison, at least in part, this subsidiary ecosystem and search for substitutes to that ecosystem that work in the online world. This Kat, a book lover before he even learned how to purr, will follow this drama with eager, even compulsive interest.
The Death of Browsing; the Death of the Backlist; the Death of the Book Industry? The Death of Browsing; the Death of the Backlist; the Death of the Book Industry? Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Friday, July 19, 2013 Rating: 5


  1. Not a whisper of the Google effort to difitize all books...?

  2. Having backlist books in bookstores is also a reminder that 'classics' exist and human knowledge is very much cumulative. The best book about love in the English language is unlikely to be one written in 2013.

    Also the bookstore scene in the film 'Notting Hill' is priceless and could not have been done in an online context.

  3. I began shopping on Amazon 16 years ago and quite the contrary to your view I have found that Amazon is actually the one place I know I can get many of the backlist titles that are just not available in my local shops (I live in Dublin) I would further suggest that most avid readers feel the same way as I do. Unless one happens to be in commuting distance to Waterstones on Piccadilly bricks and mortar book stores have long ago ceased to be the first port of call for a book not on the front list.

    I wonder what other ipkat readers views would be on the subject?

  4. I agree with anonymous 12:26, eReaders and eBooks would actually tend to increase both the range and the availability of the backlist.

    I think in digital music stores this is called 'the long tail' (quite appropriate for this site).

    As there are minimal overheads and a much larger market, it becomes feasable to 'stock' items that you might only sell one or two of a year.

    As for the browsing issue, I'm not wholly convinced that it is easier to browse in a physical bookshop than a virtual one. Virtual stores have links out to lists of associated books/recommendations/extracts of the books in question.

    While the pool you're dipping into is bigger the success (or otherwise) of online retailers depends almost wholly on how that content is curated, but there are enough blogs/apps(eg.Goodreads)/review sites that the more adventurous reader can still mine for gems.

    The availability of out of copyright works on eReaders for free (via Project Gutenberg for example) has also apparently massively increased the number of people reading these 'backlist' titles (although it's probably torpedoed some publishing house's profits in that area). I would have thought that with careful promotion publishers would still be able to take advantiage of 'in copyright' backlist titles to stay afloat.

    That said, although I have an eReader, I still tend towards physical bookshops & paperbooks rather than eBooks, but am finding readng Proust as an eBook far preferable to lugging around my weighty paper copy.

    It is the promotion and curating aspect of access to this vast backlist that'll make or break publishers, but there's ample opportunities there for the people who get it right.


  5. Further to my 12.26 comment and Marks 12.11 comment:

    Firstly Neil thank you for a very interesting and thought provoking post.

    I happen to work in the music industry and the difficulties faced by literary publishers echo the music industry’s plight, in fact the music industry is probably even more affected by the move towards digital at this point in time.

    Bricks and mortar stores are the first port of call for “back catalogue” (or Long Tail) albums and with the demise of these stores record labels are selling much less back catalogue product. This sad fact is just another piece in the jigsaw that is the demise of the music industry, along with changing socio-economic trends, dastardly publishers, labels and collection societies unwilling to adapt to new technology and of course piracy.

    Aside from my family my two passions in life are books and music (in that order). Music first; I am an avid collector of “physical product” be it CD’s or Vinyl yet I also shop on iTunes and have a Spotify account. I have found that using iTunes and having a Spotify account hasn’t really slowed down my thirst for owning the physical product. I don't imagine however that I am an average consumer. Whether it is CD or Vinyl I like the space it takes up and I enjoy browsing through my collection for just the “right” album to suit the mood.

    With regard to books I have not so readily embraced the new tech available. Even more than my music collection my library is my pride and joy (grudgingly acknowledged by my family). I have a library of approximately 1,500 books, primarily paperback and primarily fiction. I simply cannot imagine my collection on a tablet or e-reader perched jauntily on the coffee table. I have an annoying habit of walking into a bookshop and emerging hours later blinking in the late afternoon light wondering where my family have disappeared to. Whether its new books, second shops or even charity stores I can get lost all to easily browsing for my next great read.

    All that said i agree with Mark that carrying Proust on my commute to and from work was a chore in and of itself, so perhaps there is space for and e-reader on my shelf after all.


    Again thanks for an entertaining and insightful post.


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