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How Long Is The Life Of A Book?
Written by
Kamy Wicoff
September 2017
Written by
Kamy Wicoff
September 2017

I am on the mailing list for She Writes Press author Kelly Kittel, and on May 17th of this year I got a newsletter with the heading, "Breathe is One!" It was a wonderful celebration of Kelly's first year as an author (Breathe: A Memoir of Motherhood, Grief, and Family Conflict is her first book), but it also concluded with words I found inspiring and noteworthy: "I pray that Breathe will continue to march forth and make the world a better place. That it will help others and be treated kindly. And that it will live a long, long life." When I saw Kelly at Book Expo America a week later in May, she shared that coming up in the summer she had book events scheduled in several cities, even though she was a full year past her pub date. And that's when it really hit me: books no longer have a shelf-life, and this is definitely something to celebrate. 

This revelation was reinforced by conversations with other She Writes Press authors, like Sande Boritz Berger, whose novel The Sweetness will be a year in September, but who is still traveling and doing appearances and events, and Rebecca Coffey, whose novel Hysterical: Anna Freud's Story, published in May of 2014, was just named an American Library Association "Over The Rainbow Book" for 2015. Spring 2014 author Jill Smolowe just published an essay in the New York Times based on her book Four Funerals and A Wedding: Resilience in a Time of Grief, that sent a whole host of new readers to her moving memoir. These experiences, and these authors, defy the conventional wisdom that once a book is several months past its pub date, it is either a success or it isn't, and it's time for its author to move on. 

Before Amazon, there was a practical reason for this. Books literally had a shelf-life. If a book didn't show momentum in the first six to eight weeks after its publication, booksellers who needed to make room for new titles (and there were always lots and lots of those) were forced to return copies to the publisher, and authors either had the option of buying those copies back and trying to sell them themselves, or giving the order to pulp the lot of them. But it wasn't just shelf space that placed an expiration date on a new book. It was also the traditional reviewing system. As a rule, big newspapers and glossy magazines won't review books that have already been out for awhile, and this is still true. If an author or her publicist can't get a spot in those critical pre-publication months, she isn't going to get a spot at all. But with book blogs, Goodreads, and online publications, the rules are much looser--individuals, unlike institutions, don't care when a book came out, they just care whether it's the book for them. Crystal Patriarche, CEO of She Writes Press but also head of her own PR firm, Booksparks (Crystal is my publicist), told me she thinks this "slow burn" is the main way the game has changed: in the current environment, books have the time, oxygen and tools to build audience and gain momentum. Where before there was a window that was open for a finite amount of time, and then closed, books now have a much longer runway on which to take off. Placement in bookstores is nice, but with so many new ways to distribute books, it isn't mission-critical to a book's ability to reach its audience.

The downside to all of this, of course, is that it prolongs the period during which authors are expected to keep their focus on a book they probably finished writing at least a year before its publication (I submitted the final, proofread manuscript for Wishful Thinking in February of 2014, but the book has only been out for a little more than two months), and makes it difficult to dive into what's next. But all in all, I think it's wonderful that new technologies have made it possible for a book to have the time and space to find its feet--in short, it's wonderful that with the help of the internet, our books get time to Breathe. 

Do you have a story of the benefits of the long tail for your book, or thoughts about how this new reality impacts authors? Please share.

I had someone approach me at the BlogHer conference last summer with a copy of my first book, published eight years before, in her hand for me to sign! Moments like that make it all feel worthwhile. Let's hear yours.


*This post was originally published in July 2015.

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Trending Articles

  • How long is the life of a book? So...the answer is: Eternal.

  • I thank you SO much for this post.  I really never thought about this before.  My first book's publisher went under and now it's unavailable. So, my present publisher told me she'd republish it for me.  Yay!  And I'm still promoting my book that came out in June.  In the past, yes, I would have felt it was "past its prime".  Your post is very encouraging.

  • Very encouraging!  Thanks, Kamy. ~:0)

  • Deborah Clearman

    Great piece, Kamy! I love encouraging publishing news. My first novel, Todos Santos, came out in 2010 and is still selling. Every time I go to Guatemala (where the novel is set) I pack 20 copies in a suitcase and go around to all the English language bookstores in the country. They always stock up!

  • I'm so glad this resonated with so many of you, and it's wonderful to hear the stories of your long-lived books. Gives me hope too. :) Keep 'em coming!

  • Betsy Teutsch

    Good to have this confirmation, which jives with my present experience. I am in the 2nd quarter post pub (march 2015) of 100 Under $100: Tools for Empwowering Global Women. The book is broad in scope and has afforded endless, super-interesting opportunities for networking. I will, for example, be presenting at a Global Education conference this fall - to several hundred social studies teachers. (Wouldn't it be great to get this book on a class reading list...?) Honestly, when I was immersed in researching and writing, I didn't even know that Global Ed was a thing. It is still primarily me priming the pump but now I am starting to hear, occasionally, from folks directly which is great.

    Another thought. If you are an active blogger or Pinterest-er (and to a lesser extent, a Instagrammer or Tweeter) and use hashtags and labels and key words in titles, your work is there forever. The more popular a particular post is, the higher it appears in searches. So something written quite sometime ago is still finding new readers. This, of course, wasn't true when it all depended on the latest edition of the NYTimes Book Review or Newsweek Magazine.

  • Liz Gelb-O\'Connor

    This is especially true when part of a series. My SWP book is part of a series that won't conclude until 2017! So, I'm hoping for sales that may actually build over time vs. peter out.

  • Rebecca Meredith

    I'm so pleased to see some confirmation that a book doesn't have to be Breaking News new to continue to find, and even increase its audience. My first novel, The Last of the Pascagoula, was self published in late 2011. I entered it in Writer's Digest's yearly competition for self published and took first place in mainstream/literary fiction. A literary manager in LA contacted me and we signed a contract for him to shop it for film. So far no bites, but I continue little promotions like Kirkus Indie (Starred Review) and keep pushing. When I begin to worry that my next one won't come out soon enough to keep momentum going, I draw great strength from articles like these.

  • Kamy

    where to start? I am a prime example of the "never ending tail/life of a book". As I've mentioned here before, I've been a writer for a very long time and have 23 novels still out selling; some as old as 31 years. Self-publishing, Create Space, Audible audio books and the Internet has made this possible. Five years ago my last publisher wanted to revive all my old novels going back to 1984...and I revised 14 of my oldest books and they were put out into the new world of eBooks and paperbacks once again. Audio books for the first time ever. My new books have brought them all out into the light again. As those books leave my publisher I am self-publishing all of them. For the last three years I have been earnestly rebuilding and refashioning my empire. It's been a lot of work, but immensely satisfying. It is amazing to see a book I actually originally wrote over 40 years ago out there with new life breathed into it. A book, now, does truly last forever. I am so happy to have seen this in my lifetime, even near the end of it, that I am grateful every day as I watch my sales and readers continue to come in. 

  • Julie W Weston

    My first book, The Good Times Are All Gone Now, was published by the University of Oklahoma Press in 2009!  I still get requests for the book, and it is still available from OU Press.  I will be going on a book tour shortly for MOONSHADOWS, my first mystery set in 1920's back country Idaho, and I expect to take my first book along, too.  I can order from OU Press or bookstores do order from the Press.  The second one is from Five Star Publishing, and I expect it will be available for quite a while.  Thanks heavens for the "long tail."  It does take a while for a book to gain momentum, as you point out.  And in this publishing era, there is time.

  • Anjali Mitter Duva

    This is so true! I feel the same way. Part of what I like about being in this non-traditional book world is this very thing, that I can continue to promote my book, Faint Promise of Rain, that came out last October. That I can plan events, approach all kinds of venues, see it live for a long, long time. I've done over 20 events so far, and I have another 14 or so planned through the fall. A friends of mine recently asked: "Are you ever going to stop?" She was joking, sort of, but the answer is: no! Not unless I lose steam. Not until, at the earliest, my next book comes out. I've always found it frustrating that the "life" of a book was considered to be 3 months, as though books then disappear, or are no longer worth reading. Pshaw! Nonsense. Our books will continue on their paths for years to come.

  • Kelly Kittel

    Thanks for the shout-out, Kamy! Serendipitous that this is posted here at the same time as my post about Breathe turning one with that very same quotation! Totally agree with your thoughts here on books being "evergreen", as Brooke says. They say word of mouth is the number one way people opt to read any particular book. And the marketing Rule of Seven is that folks have to hear about any given thing seven times before they actually act on or buy it. So it stands to reason that it takes awhile sometimes for readers to crack open any particular book cover. Or click on any given title-in-waiting on the home page of their Kindle, as the case may be. I know I still have classics on my list! In This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett writes that when she's on tour for her latest book, her readers usually ask her mostly about her previous book! So, keep writing, keep publishing, keep talking! And, yes, keep Breathe-ing!