Sometimes I write about publishing using terms that are fully defined by the industry and sometimes I ignore the traditional definitions and give them my own twist. Today I want to split hairs on the topic of backlist books, dividing them up into the categories of evergreen, backlist and annuals. All three terms are used in the publishing trade, but they are normally used in such a way that the definitions overlap. I made up a little video about evergreen titles on my publishing channel, but I didn't really talk about three basic types of backlist titles.
Backlist titles are generally taken to be those that don't appear in a publisher's current frontlist catalog, but are still in print and selling. But there's a big difference between titles that are in print and selling because they happened to become modern classics and titles that are designed for the long run. I think the term backlist should be redefined to apply strictly to literary fiction and literary nonfiction, books that are to some extent timeless because they aren't purpose crafted to meet some current market demand. Solid backlists are what give, or at least, what used to give value to literary publishers as business ventures. These days, the cult of the bestseller, or blockbuster, has had a negative impact on backlist building, but building a backlist is the only way to build value in a publishing business that can't walk out the door in a huff.
Evergreen books are the how-to, professional and non-literary nonfiction titles that can sell for three or five years without a new edition, or in extreme cases, even several decades. These include cookbooks, self help books, basic how-to books ranging from investing to child rearing. Professional books are also a big part of the evergreen market, though the update tempo to new editions may be higher for the simple reason that it's highly profitable to get the same professionals to buy a new book every few years. Most evergreen titles aren't intentionally crafted for a long shelf life, but they are often acquired for that reason. The approach the author takes to the subject matter is as important as the subject itself. You don't want to fill a book with references to current events if you're hoping it will still appear fresh in five or ten years.
Annuals are books that come out every year, or at least on a regular basis, that require updating by definition. These can be almanacs, buyers guides, travel guides with the year plastered on the cover. Many annuals would seem to be good candidates for eventual replacement by Internet based subscription services, though books like Writer's Market remain perennial bestsellers in paper form. Some publishers prefer annuals to evergreens because the unit volume of annuals is potentially higher, often reaching the same customers year after year. But I believe that evergreen titles are the best investment for self publishers, because of our limited title production and often shaky finances:-)