There’s nothing quite as satisfying as falling in love with an author and then realizing they have an extensive backlist, just waiting for you to read. Finishing a beloved author’s backlist is satisfying, too. It’s one of the best ways to truly get to know an author and to engage deeply with their work. Lots of readers I know tackle a specific author’s backlist each year, or set goals to read someone’s entire catalogue over the course of their life.
But what happens when you’ve finished your favorite author’s backlist? Recently I’ve started working my way through other kinds of backlists — from indie presses to cover designers. I love how reading through these backlists shakes up my reading life. It gives me a fun project, but it’s entirely unlike reading an author’s backlist. Often I end up reading books I might never have picked up otherwise and end up loving them. I’ve discovered several new translators whose work I adore. I look at books differently, too — instead of just glancing at the publisher or cover designer or translator, I pay close attention, so that I can seek out more of their work.
And there are so many creative ones to dive into! Audiobook narrators are an obvious choice. Prize reading — working your way through the short or long lists of various prizes — is another. You could try doubling up by reading both backlists of a writer couple or a parent-child duo. Once you expand your idea of what a backlist is beyond just the work of a single author, the possibilities are endless. Here are a few of my favorites:
One of the easiest and most obvious kinds of non-author backlists to read is the indie press backlist. Reading the whole back catalogue of my favorite indie publisher, Metonymy Press, inspired me to read more and more publisher backlists. Metonymy is a great press to start with because their catalogue is small — less than 12 books. Working through the backlist of a bigger indie publisher (Milkweed, Coffee House, and Graywolf are a few of my favorites) is probably a lifetime undertaking.
One of the reasons reading indie press backlists is so fun is that you get all the best parts of reading an author’s backlist, but usually with more variety. Once you find a press that publishes the kind of books you love — whether that’s romance, litfic, mysteries, memoirs, or sci-fi — you can dip into that press’s catalogue for books in that genre (or in that style, format, etc.) written by a wide range of authors.
The same principle applies to imprints of bigger publishers. Tor.com is currently putting out a ton of fantastic SFF novellas every year. Carina Adores is a great imprint to check out if you’re looking for contemporary queer romance.
Every now and then, when I’m writing about a book, I have trouble finding out who the translator is. Usually translators are named on the cover, but certainly not always. The fact that I sometimes have to do research to track down this absolutely essential information is proof that translators are not given the credit they’re due.
This is one of the many reasons I love reading translators’ backlists the same way I read authors’ backlists! Last fall I fell in love with Anton Hur’s beautiful translation of Love in the Big City by Sang Young Park. This year I read the equally beautiful (and devastating) novel Violets by Kyung-Sook Shin, partially because it was also translated by Hur. The rest of his translations are on my TBR, and I can’t wait to get into them.
These days, when I read a translation I love, I note the translator so that I can find the rest of their books. An astounding amount of skill and artistry goes into translation, and I like getting to know translators’ particular styles. A few translators whose backlists I’m currently working my way through include Kristen Gehrman (who translated The Tree and the Vine by Dola de Jong) and Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse (When the Whales Leave by Yuri Rytkheu).
Are you the kind of person who falls in love with a book for its cover? Awesome! Maybe you should take choosing a pick by its cover to the next level and try reading the backlists of your favorite cover designer! It can sometimes take a bit of sleuthing, but you can usually find the artist information on the copyright page.
Romance is an especially fun genre for reading cover designer backlists, as there are quite a few prolific cover designers out there: Leni Kaufman has an extensive backlist of illustrated covers, including Delilah Green Doesn’t Care by Ashley Herring Blake and Finding Joy by Adriana Herrera. If you want to delve into old-school romance, check out Elaine Duillo, who did the art for hundreds of romance novels during her long career.
If you like the idea of learning more about cover artists but aren’t sure where to start, Nicole Caputo, the creative director of Catapult, Counterpoint Press, and Soft Skull Press, is also the co-founder of She Designs Books, a project dedicated to celebrating women in book design. It’s a great place to a) drool over gorgeous covers, and b) learn more about artists you might not have heard of before.
Indie Press Series
Last year I read The Face: A Time Code by Ruth Ozeki, a short and beautiful book about Ozeki’s face — among many other things. It’s one of those perfect books you can read in an afternoon, but think about for days and days afterward. I didn’t know it at the time, but a friend pointed out that it’s part of The Face series from Restless Books. In addition to Ozeki’s book, the series includes two other book-length essays in which writers use their own faces as jumping-off points to explore family history, geography, relationships, and so much more.
Lots of small presses have series like this, and reading through them can be a lot of fun. If you enjoy reading through prize shortlists, you’ll probably enjoy reading series reading, too. Milkweed Editions has the Seedbank Series, for example, dedicated to world literature.
Editors & Agents
There are so many people involved in making books beyond the authors themselves. While most of the kinds of backlists I’ve listed here are relatively easy to explore, reading the backlist of an agent or editor is a bit tricker. Unless you’re a writer yourself, or work in publishing, you usually have to read the acknowledgments to find out who else worked on the book — editors, copyeditors, agents, etc. But once you know the name of an editor or agent, you can find them online and determine what other books they’ve been involved with.
This is one kind of backlist I have yet to tackle, but I’m excited about it. Authors, obviously, deserve tons of credit for their books. But as someone who’s had my work edited, I know firsthand how much of a difference it makes. Reading the backlist of an editor is a way to honor that work, too — and a reminder that almost no one makes books alone.
If you’re looking for a place to start with alternate backlists, check out these essential indie presses for queer book lovers, these YA book cover artists and designers to follow, and these must-read 2022 books in translation to get started.