Digital Backlists


The Guardian, fount of all sorts of interesting articles about books and reading, published a piece about the digital backlist by Anna Baddeley last week. Apparently publishers, realizing they have lots of possible e-books in the form of their backlist, have been digitizing these lists. The problem, one that I’ve lamented here, is that all marketing attention is focussed on new books, on the latest and so-called greatest. Baddeley describes this attention in the article:

An author’s latest is always “their best yet”, while every debut is heralded with messianic zeal. The side effect of this is that any book more than a year old seems dusty and irrelevant.

This blog celebrates backlist books, those that may seem dusty and irrelevant. (Of course sometimes I talk about new books because who can resist talking about J.K. Rowling!) Apparently these books are online, but can be difficult to find. Baddeley suggests that what we need is a new kind of online store for these books.

Amazon is great when you know what you’re looking for but hopeless for browsing. This is a problem for backlist titles, where readers might be in need of a chaperone. There is no category on the Kindle store for “interwar travel writing” or “1940s noir” or even “classic erotic fiction”. A gap in the market for a virtual “secondhand” bookshop?

As a person who works in a bricks-and-mortar shop, I can attest to the need people feel for chaperone’s when looking for books. I think what is actually needed is confidence and patience when looking for books. Many people have neither of these qualities. They are sure that there is some expert (usually they mistake bookshop staff for experts of this kind) who can instantly tell them which book will solve all their research/information/entertainment needs.

What I want when I walk into a second-hand or other bookshop is books that are arranged in some way, space and light enough to read the titles, and time to browse. The books need not be minutely categorized, but reasonably put into general areas (fiction/mystery/science fiction are one possible place to start) and then arranged within the section, usually by author’s last name. There needs to be space and light enough to see the books. One particularly crowded and messy secondhand bookshop that I frequent has great prices, but I only buy books from certain shelves which I can easily access and browse. It is better for browsing if there aren’t loads of people around, and browsing takes time.

I can’t imagine what a browse-friendly online shop of any kind would look like, especially a bookshop. Online shopping by its very nature seems to require some knowledge of what it is you are looking for. I am not at all a fan of buying things online for the very reason that you cannot browse and have a good look at a book to see if it is what you want. People sometimes don’t special order books in our shop because they really just want to have a look at the book before they buy it. What features might a browse-friendly online bookshop have?


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