It really ought to be called the core list, because it's fundamentally misunderstood as something in the background, an afterthought.
The backlist is the stuff you sell long after you've forgotten all the drama that went into making it.
Book publishers make more than 90% of their profit from books they published more than six months ago. And yet they put 2% of their effort into promoting and selling those books. Editors, agents, salespeople all focus on what's new, instead of what works.
It's more exciting, more fun and more hopeful to seek out and launch new books. It's the culture of many industries, particularly ones that are seen as creative.
Nike and General Mills and the local freelancer all generate a bigger contribution with their classic stuff.
It turns out that time spent on packaging, promoting and spreading the ideas in the core list is almost always a solid investment.
There's a simple explanation:
Successful backlist products have crossed the chasm and are selling to the mass market, the largest chunk of any market. These are people who don't buy a lot of books (or sneakers, or cereals) a year, but when they do buy one, they buy a popular one. And so, every year, year after year, millions of copies of Dr. Seuss books are sold. Not because they're new, but because that's what people buy.
On the other hand, frontlist products, the new stuff, are bought by a smaller group, the early adopters, the people who like buying new books. These people are easier to reach, probably more fun to work with, but because they seek variety, they rarely all align and buy the same product.
[FWIW, the readers of this blog and followers of my work are almost all in this category--focusing on early adopters is a fine way to build a platform for work you care about—it's something that I do on purpose. But it doesn't always make economic sense.]
The way for an enterprise to build a core list, then, is to latch onto those frontlist titles that have proven themselves, to persistently and consistently work with the retail channel and the existing customer base to make them into classics—useful, reliable products or services that the masses can rely on.
This takes discipline and effort—product creators like me find this difficult. But publishers of all stripes, the organizations that exist to bring new ideas and useful technologies to the world, need to dig in and do this work.
[Expiring today, Saturday: For the first time ever, Linchpin, one of my backlist books, is on promo on the Kindle. It's less than $2.]