How many movies should you star in next year?
How many records should you release? How many songs should you write?
How many times a week should you post to your blog?
And when should my next book come out? Or your next newsletter or that next cartoon? What about Nike–they launch more than one product every day. Is that too many?
A lot of the stuff marketers make is unanticipated, impersonal, irrelevant junk that consumers merely tolerate.
But some of it is not spam, it’s content. Stuff worth reading, worth paying for (at the very least, worth paying attention to.)
So, how often?
This discussion is usually filled with superstitions, traditions and half-truths. Daily comics come out every day because that’s when newspapers always came out. And newspapers came out once a day because it was too expensive to publish three times a day (and advertisers and readers wouldn’t support the extra expense.)
When movies were met with great fanfare and often stayed in the theaters for months, it was suicide for a big movie star to do three or four movies a year. But in a DVD/YouTube world, there’s not a lot of evidence that this pace makes as much sense. Saturday Night Live was on every week because there’s only one Saturday a week, but if it had launched today, it’s hard to see the benefit of it being a weekly…
I’d like to propose that you think about it differently. There’s frontlist and backlist.
Frontlist means the new releases, the hits, the stuff that fanboys are looking for or paying attention to.
Frontlist gets all the attention, all the glory and all the excitement. They write about frontlist in the paper and we talk about the frontlist at dinner. Digg is the frontlist. Siskel and Ebert is the frontlist.
Backlist is Catcher in the Rye or 1984. Backlist is the long tail (the idea) and now, the Long Tail (the book). In a digital world, backlist is where the rest of the attention ends up, and where all the real money is made.
Backlist doesn’t show up in the news, but Google is 95% backlist. So is Amazon.
Sitting in a meeting yesterday, I brainstormed a term, "haystack marketing." I googled it to see if someone else was using it. You guessed it–number one match was an article I wrote eight months ago. Google doesn’t forget even if you do.
So, here’s the strategy:
- Assemble a tribe, a group of true fans, followers, people who have given you permission. Give them all the frontlist they can handle. Make it easy for them to spread the word, to Digg you or bring a friend to your movie or buy your new book for their friends. If you create too much content for this crowd, then you’re publishing too much. They care, and they want to hear from you.
- Promote your backlist. Invest significant time and money to make your backlist available, to recirculate it, to have it adopted as a textbook in English class or featured on Netflix or part of a retrospective on TV. Take all that money you waste in frontlist marketing and spend it on the backlist instead.
- Repeat. Frontlist becomes backlist, backlist grows, fan base grows, it scales.
Frontlist reaches your fans. Your fans spread the word, and eventually your backlist reaches everyone else. The backlist turns some people into fans, who then look for the frontlist.
The bestselling fiction authors (with one exception) all got hassled by their publishers for writing too often. Erle Stanley Gardner, Agatha Christie, Stephen King, JK Rowling… all but one had to write under a pseudonym because their publishers said they wrote too much. Nonsense. They wrote for their tribe, they give their followers just barely enough to read. Not too much, not by a long shot. And then, they were lucky enough to have persistent and talented publishers that managed to get their backlist read, over and over, by millions of people. People who turned into fans.
Key assertion: you don’t publish it unless it’s good. You don’t write more blog posts than you can support, don’t ship more variations of that software than your engineers can make marvelous. But given that you’ve got enough bench strength, enough remarkability to spare, now what?
When I look at my work, I think I’m in sync with my readers–one blog post a day feels right, while ten (which some bloggers pull off) wouldn’t work for us. One book a year feels right, while three a decade (which Malcolm Gladwell does) wouldn’t work for me or my core readers.
On the other hand, I do a lousy job of self-marketing my backlist. I have no doubt that a more patient push of The Dip would have doubled the numbers of books I sold (but posting about quitting all the time would have annoyed you guys to no end). It’s still selling well, but given the base of sales (a big frontlist launch can lead to even bigger backlist, of course), more focus on the backlist would have been a profitable choice. The thing is, organizations can do this far better than an individual author can.
[Example: In the last month, four of my books have been mentioned in the NY Times. (The Dip, All Marketers are Liars, Meatball Sundae and Small is the New Big.) All backlist. All to people not in our tribe. This is far more useful and surprisingly, predictable, than the hit or miss nature of frontlist promotion. In my case, I think I’m putting my skills to better use when I’m writing, but that means I need to figure out how my backlist is going to get noticed. If you’ve got a team, part of the team should obsess about the backlist, honing it, editing it and promoting it, while the rest work to generate (as opposed to promote) the frontlist.]
The opportunity isn’t to give into temptation and figure out how to recklessly and expensively market the frontlist. It is to adopt a long and slow and ultimately profitable strategy of marketing your ever-growing backlist.