There, thought that might get your attention. And now, I’ve got it, just to clarify: I don’t mean *all* books, or traditional print books. I mean individual titles – on the grounds that, with the growing irrelevance of the entire concept of out of print, backlist titles are serious competition for new writing that deserves its own place in the sun.

Goddamn, here comes the backlist.

This speculation was inspired by Andrew Rhomberg’s post in Digital Book World entitled “Discoverability, Not Discovery, Is Publishing’s Next Big Challenge.” There he emphasizes that: “Books don’t go ‘out of print’ any longer. They now remain available as ebooks basically forever. Thus the total catalog of books available to readers for purchase or download has swelled dramatically and may now be around the ten or twenty million mark.”

Now, obviously, as a professional who works in this area, Rhomberg has an incentive to emphasize the discoverability problem, and the degree of competition that older writing poses to new work. For an established author with his own long tail of backlist titles, this may be an advantage – what veteran science fiction author and political commentator Norman Spinrad, way back in 2011, called “immortalizing the backlist.” But for new writers seeking to make a mark, does it actually create even more of a competitive challenge from even not-so-important works that are still far more available than ever before?

For various reasons, I don’t think that this creates a major competition issue for new writing. Inevitably, it is a minor one, though, and I’d welcome any feedback or comments on exactly how serious an issue people think this is, and what other questions it raises.

Here are a few of those reasons, though – as well as some pointers towards some more serious major competition issues that new authors may be facing in the post-self-publishing world. One is relevance. Although not all new novels are on the ambulance-chasing level, most do require some traction on their times and their society to win popularity. That doesn’t have to be achingly contemporary settings and concerns – after all, Dan Brown worked his way to stardom by tapping into current American obsessions with conspiracy theories, despite his deep dives into the past. But people do want to read about what’s going on around them. Sometimes, they want to read in order to understand what’s going on around them. For instance, J.G. Ballard’s Crash or Super-Cannes may not be everyone’s favorite bedtime reading, but they certainly provide some of the best guides going to a world that includes Princess Diana’s auto-demise and Anders Breivik, and where life seems to imitate art regularly, hand over fist.

There’s also idiom, diction and register. A writer can write their way to immortality simply by keeping their ear to the ground. The gift of capturing the rhythm of the speech around you is one of the best gifts an author can have. And it’s one that doesn’t date, but also one that does date any work produced under its aegis. Runyonese, for instance, is fantastic fun, but now as dated and as about popular as the cloche hat.

But there are two challenges that I do think are now more pressing and difficult to address for new writers than they were before the onset of the great ebook transformation. One is the effort to digest, learn from and assimilate all those great works that an author has to read. The huge legacy of the literary past has never been more obvious, and accessible. As Rhomberg also writes, “most readers have e-readers or tablets full of ebooks not yet read.” Writers need to be readers more than anything else. How are their writing hours – and their egos and self-confidence – going to suffer with that inner pressure telling them that they need to get through that cultural treasure trove before they can be taken seriously?

The other major problem is simply the huge volume of new writing. If this means the migration of the slushpile into some vast open and publicly accessible pool, where some great work occasionally rises to the top, then so be it. But new writers therefore face huge, open, visible, public competition from their peers in KDP, Smashwords, and every other online platform going. That strikes me as far more serious and challenging rivalry for recognition – let alone sales – than the zombie hordes of backlist titles, dead but still walking.

All your thoughts and comments, please.


  1. So frontlist vs backlist is now more a function of the relative promotional effort behind it. So can an eBook become extinct in the same way that being out of print was in the paper era? Virtually out of print, extinct, undiscoverable?

  2. Let me get this straight — because books by new writers may not be as good as older books that are now still available, that’s a ‘problem’? Isn’t it simply a free and open market working as it should? A shouldn’t new writers who can’t compete with older material to stop writing and find something more productive to do?

    If unlimited access to high-quality writing — whatever its age — is a ‘problem’, then it’s the kind of problem we need more of.

  3. I probably read more older books than newer ones. Especially for genre fiction. I’m just not in tune with the current and popular trends – no teens or vampires for me.

    I also like books with slower paces and more details and frown upon heaps and heaps of action. So even if the old books go away I’m probably not going to love the new writers en masse.

    Keep the older works alive and available for years to come. There are already more books written than I live long enough to read.

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