Are Big Publishers Losing The Battle For The Big Backlists?

Ian Fleming Publications Ltd., the company which manages the literary estate of the deceased James Bond creator and thus controls not only all pre-existing James Bond works, but all future ones too, have been in the news this morning

It has been announced that Simon Trewin from United Agents is no longer representing the company, which has been snapped up by Jonny Geller of Curtis Brown (UK). The reasons for the move are unknown, but will be speculated upon.

The timeline is interesting here, and I can’t help but wonder if this is something to do with the James Bond backlist. These titles should be especially lucrative given that Bond has shifted over 100m copies in print. Some are available as e-books, published directly by Ian Fleming Publications in June 2008, just before they signed with Simon Trewin.

The performance of these e-books has been muted and, looking at the listings, it’s not hard to see why. The covers are pretty shoddy, the formatting isn’t exactly top-level, and the descriptions are flaccid. Plus, the prices are quite saucy for older backlist titles.

Last month, Mr. Trewin sounded caution about agents becoming publishers, whereas Curtis Brown have openly suggested that they will be following fellow UK agent Ed Victor into publishing “but with a rather larger list”.

Perhaps I am making a leap here, but could we see an official announcement from Curtis Brown (UK) that they are moving into publishing, possibly leading off with a relaunch of what should be a lucrative digital franchise? Time will tell.

Either way, this lucrative backlist is currently out of the hands of a major publisher, and it’s not the only one. Last week, we had the stunning announcement of JK Rowling’s self publishing venture. Somewhat drowned out in that news was Amazon’s capture of 47 of the old Ed McBain titles – another author who has sold 100 million books.

Are big publishers losing the battle for the big backlists?


In other news, Robin Sullivan has a nice article in Publishing Perspectives today about how self-publishing has gone from the last resort to potentially the best way to maximize your revenue. Hopefully, it will act as a reminder to those outside the self-publishing world that there are more people making money at this than Hocking, Konrath & Locke.


Kris Rusch wrote an excellent article on Friday which should be read by anyone with a passing interest in writing short stories. great overview of the history of short story magazines and the current rude health of the market.

I have mentioned several times on this blog that self-publishers who write short stories shouldn’t neglect traditional markets.

In fact, if you write a lot of short stories, you should consider adopting a system which will maximize your revenue. This would usually mean selling first rights to an American magazine. Then, when rights revert, selling reprint and/or anthology rights. Foreign rights should also be explored.

Once all those sources are tapped out, then and only then, if maximizing revenue is your #1 priority, should you self-publish them (as doing so beforehand will limit the markets you can sell to).

If nothing else, it’s a great selling point in your blurb if you can say the story was picked up by a certain magazine or anthology. In fact, I’m sure that’s part of the reason that If You Go Into The Woods is outselling Transfection by a factor of nearly 2 to 1, even though the latter is in a more popular genre and, I feel, a stronger story.

So it goes!

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time he spends outside. He writes fiction under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.

19 Replies to “Are Big Publishers Losing The Battle For The Big Backlists?”

  1. David, this is an interesting post.,72765.0.html

    Author Cheryl Bolen says on the Kindle Boards that Harlequin/Silhouette plans to flood Amazon in mid-July with their old 1990s titles. In her words:

    “I reported a week ago about Harlequin/Silhouette uploading all their 1990s titles for the first time as ebooks on July 15. I have since learned what royalty rate to expect on these, and the rate is even lower than my print royalty of 6 percent of the cover price!

    Novelists Inc. commissioned a literary attorney (Elaine English, who is also an agent) to examine a representative sample of contracts from over the years, specifically to rule on ebooks and royalties and reversion of rights.

    Her findings were most unwelcome, to say the least. The long and short of it is, authors will only get 3 percent of asking price. In my case, the ebook(s) is being offered for $4.79. So, my cut will be 14 cents a download. Woe is me.

    And even worse, most of us who published with Harlequin/Silhouette will probably never be able to get back our rights.”

    See the link for the ongoing discussion.

    1. I remember seeing that thread when it was first posted, and I see it has grown some legs!

      Those royalty rates are just shocking, and Harlequin should be ashamed of themselves. I’m sure Passive Guy would love to see one of those contracts. In fact, he wrote very recently about other egregious contract practices of Harlequin:

      Thanks for reminding me of that thread, I’m off to read the rest of it now.

      1. Ghad….

        3% is so underhanded it… (next 5 thousand words deleted for your safety. It described a harlequin executive, high voltage wires, and a really horny and diseased monkey that participated in an amusing but gruesome tale.)

        Anyone who signs with Harlequin (now that self publishing is viable) is a fool. I hope this story gets around quick. I feel for the authors….

        On a plus note, having a HUGE 1990s catalog hit the ebooks is certain to increase interest in ereaders… Bummer it had to happen this way.


    2. Ouch!
      Nasty situation as described there! I wonder how that would stack up in a real court case. Seem like the equity of such a contract is a major issue not strictly dealt with in the contracts as they stand.


      Re; Publishers, I think you are on the money, publishers HAVE been largely caught off guard as corporations in this backlist fight. But for good reasons, ie: that in the past backlist was rarely the spinner it might be in the digital age. Some folks have spotted this and moved quickly, others were slower.

      I think though the new age is a little more fluid then we give it credit, hence Bloomsbury Reader and Macmillan’s new imprint, Compass, have the opportunity to gain back some/much of the ground lost to agents over the next few years.

      One thing that’s perhaps not clear yet is that the power of the rights holders is going to impact on ANY agreement and the term of those agreements is going to become short or at the very least time defined for the first time. Very few estates or large backlist authors are likely to want to or indeed need to grant rights for the full period of copyright. A sensible hedge would be to do a deal for 3-5 years and re-assess at that point and let’s face it, publishers will still be willing to do that deal!


      1. One commenter on that thread noted that Amazon affiliates will be making more than the author. That’s got to hurt. Harlequin never had the most author-friendly contracts in the business, but this is another level again.

        I think that publishers perhaps inaccurately assessed the value of their backlists. They looked at the amount of copies in print, they saw certain titles clogging up used bookstores, and saw no real value in them. The Ian Fleming backlist is probably a special case, as is JK Rowling in many ways, but Ed McBain should never have fallen out of print. I think publishers severely underestimated the desire of both new e-reader owners wanting to re-purchase their favourites in digital form, and the appeal that new generations of readers would have for these books – the former especially.

        It will be interesting to see how aggressively the imprints you mention (and others like them) pursue “open market” backlists. There will be a lot of competition here: self-publishing, agent/publisher hybrids, existing publishers, and newer ventures.

        You make an interesting point about time-limited contracts, and this is particularly pertinent given that with POD and e-books, books will never really fall out of print in the future (unless the publisher wants them to). Authors will be seeking to protect themselves against publishers holding on to rights but not exploiting them. There has been talk of time-limited contracts, but there has also been talk of interesting clauses such as “minimum wage” clauses – i.e. the title will revert to the author if the book doesn’t sell X amount per year or generate Y amount in royalties actually paid to the author.

        I think things like this will become common – or at least will be things that authors will attempt to insert into contracts, publishers, for obvious reasons, would seek to avoid such clauses.

    1. Hi Ruth,

      Not sure why the Twitter button wouldn’t work, it usually does, but thanks for going to the trouble. I think “relaunching” would be a little more accurate as much of the backlist is available in digital form (self-published by Ian Fleming’s literary estate). However, sales aren’t great, and a quick look at how they have published these titles will tell you why. I’m sure the literary estate’s new agents will be keenly aware that these backlist titles can be exploited further.


      1. I agree that they did a poor job with relaunching the Flemming books. I thought at first you did a spoof mock-up of a cover for your blog. That cover is hideous.

    2. Hi Dave,
      You’re absolutely right…should have said re-launched. I’ve been published & around publishing too long to be the least bit surprised, though. Only in publishing could the almost-impossible occur: launching editions of JB in an exciting new format but doing it in virtual secret, under the total cover of night, disguising the real goal which is to sell the effin books to a zillion new fans WHO ALREADY KNOW & LOVE JB. Well, I guess when you’re dealing with a secret agent you have to expect subterfuge & misdiretion. lol

  2. Thanks for the short story article. Traditional publishing first, as you described, was originally my plan for short stories. But the big hole in that article for me is that there wasn’t even a mention of my genre, historical fiction (and/or traditional Western). An increase in science fiction/fantasy markets is only good for the science fiction/fantasy writers! 🙂 That’s just confirmation of what I already knew from thrashing through the Short Story Writer’s Market guide, cover-to-cover, several times. The number of paying publications who might conceivably accept something I wrote could be counted on one hand (and one of them ceased publication while I had a submission in!). While there are some online publications that look promising, I’m not entirely sure yet how I feel about publications that ask for the right to keep your story online in perpetuity.

    1. Elisabeth,

      Often the clause about the story appearing in perpetuity can be negotiated. In fact, I know of several magazines that state in their submission guidelines that they will remove it on the writer’s request (usually though they may insist on keeping it up until the next issue is out, which is fair).

      If they do keep it online in perpetuity, you should be aware that will affect your ability to sell that story again, and you must decide whether it is worth that. When I sold my first story again as a reprint, that was a condition of sale, but as it was a reprint (and I was getting paid more than the sale of the first rights), it was worth it. One important thing to check is whether the rights are exclusive or non-exclusive. If they are exclusive, you could be prevented from printing excerpts on your site, publishing it on your site, self-publishing it, or selling it again at all. I would avoid that unless it was for top money or a really top market. You always want to keep your stories open for potential anthologies, reprints, foreign sales, collections, and/or self-publishing. My deal was non-exclusive, so I didn’t mind as I was planning to self-publish next, plus they were going to put it in an anthology.

      That article did focus on SF/F markets because that’s what Kris Rusch writes, although she does touch on lit mags too (which are often open to historical stuff). For a complete list of markets, I highly recommend – it’s free and lists pretty much every market out there and you can search by genre, pay rates etc.


  3. I haven’t read Robin’s article yet, so forgive me if I’m duplicating information here; but on the Dead Robots Society podcast that she did two weeks ago she said Ridan will be making an announcement soon that they have signed some major authors to do their backlists for them. Robin said these were authors you would know by name. It should be interesting once this news comes out.

    I understand the criticisms for agents becoming publishers, however, if an agent is between publishers who don’t want to publish the backlists and authors who loath getting their hands dirty by doing any business dealings for themselves I can’t say I blame them for taking this opportunity for themselves. A lot of authors really don’t want to do the work themselves or even bother researching how it can be done. I think they are content to make the lowest possible deal to just have it all go away so to speak. I know the indie mentality is do it yourself get as much as you can, but if you listen to other authors on more traditional blogs that is not the way they think.

    And finally (sorry so long) if there is any publishing industry that will definitely survive this change it will be the romance publishers they are savvy and adapt faster than any other group out there. I’m sorry some authors won’t get their backlist back, but hopefully they made enough of a name for themselves to take their fans with them when they write independently.

    1. I haven’t listened to that podcast yet, thanks for reminding me about it. She didn’t mention that re backlists – I’ll be fascinated to see who it is.

      To be clear, I don’t think there is a conflict of interest in an agent becoming a publisher if that agent ceases being an agent. In the US at least, several commentators have noted that it’s not just unethical, but may actually be illegal.

      The reason it is considered unethical is because of this conflict of interest. Your agent’s job is to get your the best publishing deal possible. If they become a publisher, their interests are no longer aligned with yours. How can you know that they will try and sell your book to the best of their ability and get your the best possible contract, when they personally could make more money by publishing you themselves?

      Your agent is supposed to not just procure you offers, but also advise you on them. What kind of advice will they give when they are now in competition with the very companies bidding for your services?

      Imagine you went to a real estate agent and asked her to sell your house. She calls you a month later and says that there are no offers, but she will buy it for $200,000. How do you know this is a fair offer?

      Re. Romance writers – they are a tough bunch, and they will ride out this storm, and yes, there are additional benefits to the deal with Harlequin outside the measly royalty rate, and many of the authors knew what they were signing (but did so because it was the only offer on the table). But it seems that some of these contracts will be unenforceable, and it will be interesting to see if there will be any legal action, whether that’s by legal authors, an organization like the RWA, or some form of class action suit.

  4. Oh, wow those are bad. I agree that the cover you have here isn’t bad as far as artwork — don’t ask me why but it reminds me of that weird song that was popular on MTV in the 80s Fish Heads — but it doesn’t represent Bond so much, but at least it is art.

    Those new covers look like something a second grader would do when learning photoshop. Your sister must cringe when she sees something like that.

  5. Dear David,
    As always I learn so much from your blog. It is so funny because if I do a search for casino novel Casino Royale is always one and I am #2. When I started on Amazon I didn’t even know those books were still selling.
    When I bought my Kindle I downloade free classics for the first year, and a few fiction books. So when free books are in the top 100 I know why they would want to make money for their backlists.
    Cara B

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