Reviving backlist books you thought were dead

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In our second September blog post on the theme of Marketing and Communications, New York Times bestselling author Laurelin Paige shares her tips on how to breathe new life – and new sales – into backlist titles.

“My latest release tanked.”

“This book is a flop.”

“Guess that one was a waste of time writing.”

You’ve heard these phrases before, and if you’ve been writing long enough, you’ve probably said one of them yourself. In a business that often relies on timing, algorithms, exposure in a crowded market, and just plain luck, you’re bound to have a book release that doesn’t perform how you expect or want. It’s heartbreaking and shakes your confidence, and we authors tend to try to move on by pushing that low earner aside and concentrating on “doing better” in the future.

Before you write off that “failed” book forever, though, I’ll tell you what I’ve learned in my seven years of publishing as an indie author: A book has many lives.

In fact, I have built my entire career off of reviving backlist books. Books that performed amazingly well and books that originally “failed” have both gone on to earn me money year after year. This year, for example, only 25% of my income came from front list titles. But my backlist didn’t generate those dollars all by itself. I had to make it happen. In this post, I’ll share some of my favourite strategies I’ve used to bring my backlist books back to life.

1. Design a new cover

Maybe your current cover is “perfect” for the book in your eyes, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily right for readers. Or maybe it’s outdated. Or perhaps it was originally a good cover that did its job, and now you want to attract new readers. One excellent way to do that is to give a book a new cover.

My December 2014 release, Free Me, underperformed for me. I loved the cover, but it didn’t resonate with readers. Also, I released it at a crowded time of year. Both factors caused it to be overlooked. So six months later, right before the release of the next book in the series, I changed the cover, discounted it to $0.99, and ran a BookBub Featured Deal to promote the discount.

The following year the book earned more than it did its first year after publication and – several cover changes later – it continues to be one of my all-time bestsellers.

2. Write a free prequel

Releasing a free prequel to your story (a freequel) is a great way to entice readers to try out your books. You can release the freequel either before or after your book launch to drive new readers. Either way, it can be a tool you use over and over.

I made my March 2017 release, Dirty Filthy Rich Men, available for pre-order three months before launch. After a couple of months, it had a handful of pre-orders, but nothing to shout about. This book happened to have a natural break after the first 17,000 words, so I took that first section, titled it Dirty Filthy Rich Boys, and released it as a freequel a month before the full book. I still included this section in the full-length book as “Part One” with a note to readers to skip to “Part Two” if they’d already read the freequel. I ran a blog tour and ads for it as I would for any other release. I ran ads to the freequel and pre-orders increased 200 per day for the next 30 days, which was significantly higher than pre-orders before the freequel release.

I periodically run ads promoting that freebie, which helps continually rake in sales for the full book over time. The freequel is too short to run a BookBub Featured Deal, but I have run BookBub Ads to promote it, and once a month I run a $100 Freebooksy ad that drives around 250 extra sales. Here’s what one of my BookBub Ads promoting this freequel looks like:

3. Lower the price

Perhaps it’s a no-brainer to suggest discounting to get new readers, but it’s worth mentioning. Personally, when I’m torn between running a $0.99 sale or making the book free for a limited time, I tend to end up doing the latter. Free books drive reader discovery like no other sales tactic I’ve tried, especially when paired with a BookBub Featured Deal. Now, here’s the thing that might surprise you: this tactic works more than once. I know authors who run a free book once and then think there isn’t any benefit in doing it again, but I have found that discounting to free can work successfully about once every six months.

Pro tip: Make your best book free. The whole reason for making a book free is to drive readers to buy your other books. You don’t want to give them a mediocre book and hope they’ll want to see if you get better when they pay. Give them the good stuff upfront.

My June 2013 bestseller Fixed On You – the first book in a five-book series – had been downloaded over 750,000 times before I dropped the price to free for the first time. The first time Fixed On You was free, my income from that series doubled for two straight months compared to the previous month. I continue to make that first book free every six months and still see great results. The last time I did, June 2019, the series income more than doubled the following month.

4. Raise the price

As contrary as it might seem, raising prices can often attract readers that weren’t looking at your book before. There are so many books priced $3.99 and below, raising the price might make your book stand out from the crowd. A higher price can also appeal to some readers who believe quality is associated with price, especially if you pair it with a cover change.

Fixed On You was originally priced at $3.99. After making it free for the first time, I raised the price to $4.99 – and after its next sale, I raised the price to $5.99.

These results are harder to track. The first several months at the higher price, the series earnings matched what I’d been earning when book one was free. These results could have been because readers from when it was free were taking their time moving through the series. The numbers were good enough, though, that I stuck with it, and now it seems like an even bigger deal when I make it free – so my discounting to free strategy continues working well every six months.

5. Repackage backlist books

Sometimes you need to do something more drastic than a cover change to grab new readers’ attention. Changing the book description and title may work even better, especially if you can latch onto a current trend.

My February 2014 book Take Two was released with Samhain, a small traditional publishing imprint. When the company folded and I got my rights back, I had the book edited again, changed the title to Sex Symbol, gave it a new cover, and released it on Kindle Unlimited. I ran a book tour and ads as though it was a new release and included a note in the description that the book had previously been released under another title.

Sex Symbol was a fantastic release, earning me as much that month as the new book I’d released the previous month.

6. Move a book (or series) in or out of Kindle Unlimited

Kindle Unlimited, an exclusive Amazon program for authors, can be a good moneymaker. Readers pay a small monthly fee to read Kindle Unlimited books, and authors are paid per page read. It’s a great way for readers to discover new authors they might not have taken a risk on reading without the program.

But Kindle Unlimited isn’t magic. If you move a book or series into the program, you have to run publicity and promotional campaigns for it like you would any new release or readers won’t notice it. It’s also important to note that the best way to make money in the program is to have several other books in there as well. Those readers like to binge read. Give them something to binge on.

Similarly, if you launched a book or series on Kindle Unlimited and it’s never been on other platforms, you can get new readers by going wide. After making a book wide, I like to run a BookBub Featured Deal for the book to really draw attention to it.

My April 2018 book, One More Time, was released on Kindle Unlimited after being featured as an Audible First book. In January of 2019, I put it on all vendors and ran a $0.99 BookBub Featured Deal for it. One More Time made 675% more during its first month on all vendors than the previous month and 300% more the following month.

7. Repackage books into a box set

Collecting all the books in a series or with similar themes and packaging them together in a box set can be a great way to revive sales. You don’t even have to give the readers a big discount. The convenience of having them all together can be a real draw, and the new cover and new buzz about it might be just what you need to capture that reader who wasn’t paying attention before.

In July of 2016, I packaged all the books in my Fixed series and put them in a bundle called the Fixed Universe. I priced the bundle at $19.99 on all vendors except Amazon, where I didn’t include it at all since they pay a lower royalty for books priced over $9.99 (35% versus 70%).

The box set didn’t cannibalise sales! The bundle brought in $4,000 extra dollars its first month without decreasing sales of the individual books at all. And the only marketing I did was via my newsletter and Facebook page.

8. Bundle your book with other authors

Get together with some of your author friends and package some of your books under one theme. Usually when authors do this, they offer the bundle at a discounted price or free, but bundles work well at higher price points, too. The best part about bundling with other authors is that you get combined marketing power. You get free advertising in their newsletters, their social media profiles, and in their reader groups, gaining exposure to a brand new audience – and they get exposure to yours!

I’ve participated in several of these bundles over the years (in fact, I’m currently in one called Hot for the Holidays). I’ve always found the results impressive, and have never found my individual book’s sales to be hindered by one of these bundles. Even when the bundle has been free, there are still many readers who don’t know about it and continue to purchase the book at full price. To ensure these bundles drive sales the way I want, I make sure my back matter (right after the book ends) tells readers exactly where I want them to go next.

9. Repackage books into a series

Connecting books with one series name is a fantastic way to drive readers from one book to another, even if they’re all standalones. You might gather a bunch of stories set in Hollywood, for example, and call them the Hot Hollywood Series. Link them as a series on retailer sites and make sure the back matter of each book leads to the next one. Linking books into series is very helpful to readers. It tells them what to read next. They don’t have to decide on their own, and – especially when you have a large backlist – that decision can be overwhelming without guidance.

I have a very successful friend, Lauren Blakely, who has several series of connected standalones that weren’t originally connected. Sometimes she even updates the older book and writes in a side character to connect to the next book. If one series is performing really well, she might pull in a standalone from another series, since linking it to the high-performing series will then boost its sales. She says she generally sees an uptick on the other book’s sales when she does this.

10. Use your newsletter

We authors tend to use our newsletters to advertise our new releases and/or discounts and not much else, which is a waste of free advertising space. I send out a newsletter at least twice a month and have very low unsubscribe rates. Here are a few strategies that have worked well for me:

  • Mention one or two backlist books. I like to include a review from a reader.
  • Gift one of your books to subscribers — I use BookFunnel to distribute when I do this.
  • Do a newsletter swap with another author where they mention your book and/or give it away and you do the same for them. I do this once a month.

Be creative and imaginative here. This is a great place to test what you might do with a backlist title before launching a bigger marketing campaign.

Every time I mention a backlist title in my newsletter, my sales for that book spike for at least two days – and usually they double. Earlier this year I did a newsletter swap with author Julie Kenner who has a similar audience to me. She gave away my book Dirty Filthy Rich Men and had 3,000 downloads. The book is currently on sale for $5.99 everywhere else and sales didn’t dip at all. What’s more exciting is that my data shows around 15% of those readers went on to purchase book two at $6.99.

These are only a handful of things I have done and that you can do to revive your backlist books. Some of these suggestions may seem fairly obvious, and some may not work for you, but we can all use a reminder now and then. Hopefully these ideas challenge you to think about your own backlist books in a different way.

Of course, don’t forget the number one way to revive those old books: Write more books. There is nothing truer than the old adage “Frontlist sells backlist”. Don’t ever let one release defeat you. Get back to your laptop and give it your all. Your next release may very well be just what your backlist needs to come back to life.

Laurelin Paige is the New York Times bestselling author of the Fixed trilogy. She’s a sucker for a good romance and gets giddy anytime there’s kissing, much to the embarrassment of her three daughters. Her husband doesn’t seem to complain, however. Follow her on BookBub here.

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