Decades Old? No Problem: Publisher Makes a Bet on Aging Books

The life of a good book can span hundreds of years, but most of the time, a book gets a flash of attention when it is first published — if its author is lucky. Then, it fades away.

A company called Open Road Integrated Media is trying to change that by giving a second life to older books. It does that by using machine learning to make those titles more visible online and, with a new venture announced on Wednesday, by republishing books that were largely forgotten or had fallen out of print.

“There’s potential to breathe new life into these books,” said David Steinberger, chief executive of Open Road, “and that flies in the face of conventional wisdom in the industry.”

Publishing houses traditionally focus their marketing efforts almost entirely on new books. Once a title has been out for a while, publishers generally have to move on to the next one, no matter how much they believe in the book. There is little to direct attention toward older titles, although in rare cases, new readers may find them through a movie or television adaptation or even popularity on TikTok.

Open Road markets older books with a machine-learning technology that scans the internet for every mention of a title — digging through reviews, social media posts and retail websites — and then generates marketing suggestions for that title. The program also experiments with pricing and promotions on retail websites to try to increase sales and by adjusting keywords so that the books surface in search results.

Another important prong in the company’s approach is an army of about three million heavy readers who receive Open Road’s newsletters. By following links books on retail websites like Amazon, those readers stimulate algorithms that give the titles better placement on the sites.

On average, Open Road is able to double the sales of the backlist titles it promotes, Steinberger said. Sales of “1942: The Year That Tried Men’s Souls,by Winston Groom, have more than doubled to 35,000 e-books sold since Open Road took it on, he said. “The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man,” by J. Drew Lanham, has sold more than 15,000 e-books, also more than double its previous sales.

Grove Atlantic, an independent publisher, is working with Open Road to promote about 1,500 of its backlist titles, including “1942: The Year That Tried Men’s Souls” and “Black Hawk Down.” Morgan Entrekin, the publisher of Grove Atlantic, said that after seeing the results, the company became an investor in Open Road.

Every publisher, he said, has put out books it knew were great but that just didn’t work in the marketplace. “It’s very gratifying to see them sell,” Entrekin said. “The fact is that, over time, quality can win out.”

Open Road is primarily in the e-book business, and while its republished works will be available for print on demand in the future, they expect the focus to remain on e-books.

A new venture by Open Road, Re-Discovery Lit, will republish books that either are out of print or have such meager sales that the rights to the book have reverted from the publisher back to the author. (Typically, publishing contracts include a clause to this effect.)

Re-Discovery will start with a few hundred books this year. They include “Season Ticket,” by the longtime New Yorker writer Roger Angell; “Threats and Promises,” by the New York Times best-selling romance author Barbara Delinsky; and a thriller series called “Who Killed Peggy Sue?” by Eileen Goudge, also a New York Times best seller.

“We have these great books that are waiting to be found by a new set of readers,” said Sara Shandler, editor in chief of Alloy Entertainment, which published Goudge and is now working with Open Road. “But with so much focus on what’s next, some of those terrific titles get forgotten.”

Elizabeth A. Harris writes about books and publishing for The Times.  @Liz_A_Harris

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