Our survey of top publishing insiders on questions of book pricing continues. Today we’ll hear a wide range of thoughts on the subject from Simon Lipskar, Keith Arsenault and Dave Weich.
— Levi Asher
Simon Lipskar is a literary agent with Writer’s House
Q: There seems to be much mutual misunderstanding between publishers and readers on the subject of hardcover/trade paper original publishing and book pricing. Can you provide a helpful perspective?
Simon: The mutual misunderstanding between readers and publishers is fairly simple. Readers want books cheaper, and publishers want to make the most money possible. I don’t mean this in any kind of snarky way, but, seriously, the fact that you have to wait a year to buy a book you want to read because publishers first release in a format that you personally find too expensive and less portable is irrelevant to them. I went back through and read your posts on the subject, and they aren’t about publishing — they’re about your desire to buy books when you first hear about them. I’m not criticizing this; complaining about the high price of goods is a time-honored practice. But it has little to do with the real subject, which is why hardcover publishing is definitely here to stay (or at least until people stop buying printed books, a different subject, but a real one).
At the heart of the matter is the simple fact that going to trade paperback original (tpo) for most books would not increase sales for all books; all it would do is cut into the margins that publishers make. At a macro level, publishing is a zero sum game; shifting to tpo more generally would only have economic costs, not economic gains, because the level of bookbuying — or rather the amount of time America’s consumers spend reading — is relatively fixed. If you could argue that a general shift to trade paperback original would make more people read more books (a hopelessly specious argument), that would be meaningful (or alternatively, you’d have to argue that if books were cheaper, consumers would buy more books they won’t actually read, but I think that’s a pretty weak argument as well); but so long as that’s not the case, it makes sense to make more money by selling in editions with higher profit margins. In other words, without more readers or more time spent reading (neither of which would magically happen should books be originally published in paperback not hardcover), overall sales would stay the same; the level of the ocean (total book sales) wouldn’t change, just the makeup of the ocean (more paperback, less hardcover). And that particular ocean would be less profitable, which ultimately would make publishers more shy about publishing quality fiction and instead publish obvious, certain things (which they already tend to do). Just to be clear, what I’m arguing is that publishers who make less money (because the books they sell have lower price points) are publishers who take fewer risks, publishing fewer books and focusing on the more obviously lucrative ones; in other words, the net result, I think, of a general trend toward trade paperback original publishing would be less publishing of the kinds of books you love.
But the prevalence of hardcover publishing is exactly why it sometimes makes sense to publish in trade paperback original — the fact that most books are first published in hardcover makes tpo an opportunity. It’s why it makes sense for publishers to launch tpo lines — as Morgan Entrekin at Grove/Atlantic did, which inspired your first post on this topic. But you’re misreading Morgan’s embrace of tpo if you think it’s about the fact that most books should be in tpo; he publishes almost all his books in hardcover and will continue to do so, because it’s the most profitable thing for him to do. He’s just saying that in a hardcover original environment, there’s an opportunity to publish in tpo because it’s not the norm; there’s always an economic opportunity in doing the opposite of what all the other guys are doing.
Until such time that readers truly decide that hardcovers are overpriced and react by ceasing to purchase these editions — and that time assuredly hasn’t come, based on the continued success of hardcover publishing — publishers will continue to publish in hardcover. That’s not elitism, as you’ve charged. It’s also not willful ignoring of consumers’ desire. It’s just good business, pure and simple.
Keith Arsenault is a Sales Manager for Publishers Group West (Perseus Books Group), a major book distributor
Q: Do you feel the publishing industry is well-served by this practice of hardcover-first publishing for literary fiction, or do you see any validity in the idea that this tradition inhibits sales, alienates potential readers or dissipates the buzz generated by good reviews? In general, do you think our predominant pricing models for literary fiction are what they should be?
Keith: Personally, I think that the format of hardcover fiction and the price it often carries — especially for debut authors and from many small to midsize literary houses — is a very large hurdle to leap while trying to reach new readers and generating sales. I’m continually amazed as some of the prices that appear on hardcovers, and it’s an influence in my buying decision — unless it’s an author whose work I collect, and then I’m always looking for that first edition/first printing hardcover.
There is definitely some smart publishing being done in OTP editions (Grove’s Black Cat series; Houghton’s Mariner imprint, to name just two), and I think it’s a great way to gain an audience for authors whose work would get overlooked in hardcover. The notion that only hardcovers will get significant reviews the major book review sections is no longer the case, so I don’t see the need to always publish in hardcover first. It’s certainly a prestige thing, and I’d think it’s the model that agents are going to prefer because the deal is obviously going to be larger on the hc sale which means more money in their pocket.
Scanning the hardcover bestseller lists nationally, the titles most often appearing are from ‘brand name’ genre authors; there are a few exceptions when a more literary novel breaks through, but those instances are so few and far between. One only needs to take a trip to The Strand, Buck-A-Book, or Half-Price to look at the mountains of hardcovers discounted to rock-bottom prices to see that it might be an untenable business model to perpetuate.
That’s my two cents, looking forward to what others have to say.
Dave Weich is Director of Marketing and Development for Powell’s Books
Q: From a bookselling point of view, does the tradition of hardcover-first/premium-priced publishing model serve the literary fiction marketplace well? Are you seeing significant movement towards trade paper original, or significant experimentation with book pricing, or other signs of paradigm change? Are there factors that play into book pricing that the reading public does not generally understand?
Dave: Until I worked at Powell’s, I never bought hardcovers. Why bother, when there were always more new paperbacks coming out than I could read? I was young and perpetually short of cash, and I didn’t particularly worry about reading DeLillo’s latest when I hadn’t yet read most of his backlist. (Not that I knew it was called backlist at the time.)
But maybe for a publisher that’s exactly why the dual format system serves a purpose: If everything came out in paperback, all the consumers who are willing to pay $25 for a nicer edition (at a higher margin) would spend their savings elsewhe
re. Most people, I bet, would buy approximately the same number of books and repurpose the extra cash. Meanwhile, the people who already buy paperbacks wouldn’t buy more books; they’d just on occasion buy different, newer ones. Also, the hardcover-first paradigm gives each title two chances to find an audience. There’s a reason why book covers change for paperback editions; the hardcover launch effectively amounts to field-tested market research. And many publishers are taking advantage of the lag between editions to include bonus material in the paperback.
The flaw in this argument is that some people skip the hardcover because it’s too expensive, and then once the paperback comes out (a whole year later), the buzz over it is gone; the media is by then praising some new title people can’t afford. Because, yes, trade originals do get less attention in the media. That’s only now starting to change, as publishers realize that some titles might be better suited to paperback. Sherman Alexie’s Flight is a prominent example.
On the other hand, sometimes a hardcover can help create word of mouth for the paperback. I’m betting that The God of Animals does very well in paper, after a so-so performance in hardcover. Water for Elephants is certainly a great example of a book that exploded once it came out in paper.
Anyway, I happened to come across this quote yesterday:
“The world of publishing is changing in very major ways,” says Davidar [the publisher of Penguin Group (Canada)]. “It isn’t the same place that it was 20 years ago. Readers aren’t necessarily willing to wait anymore. Increasingly, you have one big hit, people go out and buy the hardcover, and because of deep discounting and used books, readers won’t wait for the paperback. [This will make] the model of the classic trade publishing house outdated.”
I don’t necessarily agree with his pronouncement, but it does raise another issue, which is that the industry varies significantly (in terms of price points, competition, and available formats) from country to country.
We’ve now heard from six individuals who know the book business extremely well, but we’re far from a consensus. We’ve also got several more important perspectives to add to the conversation in coming days and weeks! We’re just getting started here, but don’t hesitate to contribute your own thoughts on these questions as the discussion progresses.