The Backlist / Midlist Conundrum

Elizabeth Bluemle -- October 10th, 2012

A friend of mine is in school to become a children’s librarian, and one of her classes has her reading as many Newbery books as possible. I asked her if she had discovered any Newbery favorites she hadn’t been aware of, which got me thinking about my own favorite Newbery titles, some of which I realized I haven’t recommended to a child in too long. Books like I, Juan de Pareja, The Trumpeter of Krakow, Fog Magic, The Moorchild, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, The Great Gilly Hopkins, Rabbit Hill.

With all the noise in the world, I find it is all too easy to let great backlist slide, even Newbery backlist. And I’m a bookseller who deliberately created a bookstore with a deep backlist, and a store culture that is particularly appreciative of the depth and enduring quality of great books that have been around for a while. So I am concerned with the question of how best to keep worthy backlist (and not just Newbery titles, which at least have the stature of the award and ongoing library/school support) alive for young readers today.

I have to say, I love it when publishers smartly repackage backlist classics, as long as the covers are appealing, and serve at least as improvements over the prior versions.  Not only can a savvy reissue land on media and consumer radar, it reminds us booksellers about these titles we have long loved and want to remember to recommend. The pop from a repackage probably doesn’t last as long as we might like — the books are quickly subsumed by new titles again — but can have a lasting impact. The Quentin Blake illustrations for the Roald Dahl books, while not always my favorites (I still miss Nancy Eckholm Burkert’s James and the Giant Peach), gave incredible new life to those books. (Alert: This needs to happen with E. Nesbit’s books: bright, lively new covers on these fabulous titles are decades overdue.)

I can’t help but wonder how e-readers will affect children’s and YA midlist and backlist. I assume that most e-book sales are for frontlist or very recent backlist title, with a few exceptions. (I can’t find statistics that break down the sales data in this manner.) As more and more readers access books through e-readers, and as bookstores disappear and library budgets shrink and shelves are weeded to make room for the new, how will readers learn of I, Juan de Pareja? Or even more endangered, non-Newbery backlist wonders like The Second Mrs. Giaconda? Or The Old Man Mad About Drawing? And so many, many more….

So, how do we keep the midlist and backlist books we love foremost in our own minds, as well as in those of our customers, while still sounding the clarion horn for the best of the new books, too?