Simon Lipskar, Keith Arsenault, Dave Weich on Book Pricing for Literary Fiction

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.

18 Responses

  1. well…I actually appreciate

    I actually appreciate Lipskar’s comments. Although it’s tempting to go off on a grand tirade about serving the public good and honoring the written word, publishing companies are in the business of making money, and if their business model is working as well as Lipskar says it is, then it’s difficult to formulate much of a counterargument in the terms given.

    I do, however, find fault in the assumption made by both Lipskar and Weich that changing the way books are sold won’t change the way books are bought. Granted, I’m sure they have access to consumer research to which I’m not privy (although consumer tracking data seems to be wrong almost as often as it’s right), but I just can’t see how releasing paperbacks and hardbacks simultaneously would merely drive down hardback revenues without affecting ANY changes on the other side of the equation. Why wouldn’t people buy more books if it were less costly to do so? As Americans, it’s part of our national character to buy more than we need, and other industries run themselves ragged searching for new ways to exploit this. At home I have a mountain of DVDs I haven’t watched that I bought simply on impulse — they were available, they were cheap (from mass-market blockbusters to the latest Dogme 95 harangue, all under $10), and hey, I MIGHT watch them someday, right? I’ve never bought a hardback book on impulse; in fact, my hardback book-buying is always premeditated, and I often find myself at the bookstore debating “am I really going to read this? Is it worth it?” And a good portion of the time I answer “no” and put it back on the shelf.

    So I don’t see how this is a “hopelessly specious argument.” Granted, I’m a solitary case, but, if I may reduce myself to a demographic type, I’m a childless, urban-dwelling, NYT-subscribing twentysomething book-buyer with disposable income. And I’m hardly alone here. Hello? Anyone listening out there?

  2. Good of Mr. Lipskar to read
    Good of Mr. Lipskar to read the back issues on this subject. I’ve said a number of times that failure of various components of the book industry is due to lack of ingenuity. For example, check your myspace or facebook – a teenager might have several hundred friends in their network, a group might have several thousand, or tens of thousands.

    Who targets this audience? Well, JK Rowling for one. She aint hurtin for hardcover book sales. Somebody wrote a story once – a shoe salesman on an island paradise where no one wore shoes. He spread sandburs everywhere.

    If you need a billion new readers – make them! Make people read. Make schools teach new releases in literary fiction. Make it economical to where they have no choice but to do so. Explain to people that TV is stupid, digital gaming is stupid – reading is fun, good for you; it’s your best option. (Book industry – get off yer frickin duff.)

    I reckon Nash, and Hoffman, and Lipskar aint dumb – but they let Rowling outmarket them exponentially. Y’all got hired staff to figure these things out?

    I gotta go – gotta market my books.

  3. Milton, you’re reading
    Milton, you’re reading something into my argument that’s not there. You say “if their business model is working as well as Lipskar says it is, then it’s difficult to formulate much of a counterargument in the terms given.”

    Trust me, I didn’t say publishing’s business model was working, I said it was better than the proposal to publish most literary fiction in trade original or simultaneously. But, please, let’s not try to make this seem that I’m defending the overall rationality of the publishing business structure. I have more criticisms of “business as usual” than you do, I’d wager.

    Stokey, you say the following: “If you need a billion new readers – make them! Make people read. Make schools teach new releases in literary fiction. Make it economical to where they have no choice but to do so. Explain to people that TV is stupid, digital gaming is stupid – reading is fun, good for you; it’s your best option. (Book industry – get off yer frickin duff.)”

    I agree. We all do. But who I ask is supposed to do this? If you’re running a major publishing company (in most cases a smallish division of a massive public company), you are under intense pressure to deliver profits now. Would it be forward-thinking to invest millions of dollars of your budget into marketing books/reading in general rather than your specific books? Of course! But you’d be losing money short-term, because you’d be pulling money out of marketing your products. I’d love to see long-range thinking and strategizing happening, but I’m not sure who exactly is supposed to pony up the millions upon millions of dollars it would take to change the way people feel about reading. The “industry” is made of people who are actually competing for the same set of dollars; it’s not uniform, it’s not of one mind, and there’s nobody who’s going to lead a crusade that would cost this kind of money at the expense of marketing their actual products. But I hope to high heaven that I am wrong, wrong, wrong about that.

  4. Simon, I’m intrigued by your
    Simon, I’m intrigued by your comment that “I have more criticisms of ‘business as usual’ than you do, I’d wager”.

    I believe you, and maybe that’s an indication that there’s more common ground in this conversation than might be apparent at first glance.

    With regard to your last paragraph, where you ask “who is supposed to do this?” — in fact, I decided to begin this discussion project in an attempt to kick this dialogue into higher gear. When I complain about the ways books are published, my intended audience is not so much the publishers and other book industry pros (who have no reason to care what one lone blogger thinks) as it is the readers and book lovers who might, I think, agree with my points and might speak up more if they thought anyone would listen.

    I would love to see consumers challenge book publishing practices more often, and my biggest hope with this discussion project is that it will inspire others like me to speak up and make their feelings known. Publishers aren’t going to listen to me. But other readers might, and they might start speaking up more, and publishers might listen to all of us if we can make it clearer to the industry professionals who market to us what we want, what we like and what we don’t like.

  5. Well, there is, for example,
    Well, there is, for example, an American Dairy Association. I’m guessing they get money from competing brands of milk. Stokey, with your enthusiasm, I’m thinking maybe you should find out how those types of associations get started and how they operate. Maybe YOU are the one to do it. Of course, there is already an organization called Friends of the Library, which is similar. I think they invented the slogan “Read Banned Books,” which is a great way to promote reading, especially among young people. Get on the internet and find out how they are structured! (I would do it myself, but…carpal tunnel, y’know…)

  6. My problem with Simon’s
    My problem with Simon’s conclusions

    Simon Lipskar has spoken strong words here, and I appreciate him spelling out the argument against simplistic ideas of trade paper original as a panacea for all publishing’s woes. It’s very helpful for me to be able to compare my ideas with the opinions of somebody with much more in-depth experience than I have.

    But I have one major problem with the formula Simon lays out here, and that has to do with the idea that book sales are a zero-sum game. In fact, I can see no basis for the idea that there are any zero-sum games in the fields of arts and entertainment. Books are not a useful commodity. They are objects of desire and interest. They represent fads and trends. They elicit strong feelings of consumer identification. How can a field as mercurial and insubstantial as literary publishing possibly be seen as a zero-sum game?

    I mentioned this previously to Simon in private conversation, and he answered that while an individual book’s sales results might not be a zero-sum game, literary fiction on the whole still is. But I don’t think this holds true either. A look back at past trends shows that entire industries can be vastly energized and reconfigured by changes in consumer demand.

    For instance, in the mid-70’s it was considered unwise to open a big movie during the summer. Then a movie called “Jaws” opened in the summer and created not just an isolated sensation but an entire industry sea change, ushering in the age of the “summer blockbuster”. Was the movie business a zero-sum game before “Jaws” changed the way movies are released?

    Was the music publishing business a zero-sum game in the 1950’s when folks with names like Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley and Little Richard burst into popularity? Suddenly there was a gigantic “youth market” for records that simply didn’t exist before. Fifty years later, that youth market for music is still thriving.

    What about the way “Harry Potter” changed book marketing for children?

    In direct contradiction to what Simon suggests, I’d have to posit that while there may be zero-sum games in some consumer-product sectors — say, soap or breakfast cereals — there is no reason to think that zero-sum games exist in the fields of arts or entertainment at all. I just don’t see any evidence that they do exist. And I’d love to know from Simon why he feels differently about this.

  7. I agree with Bill – band
    I agree with Bill – band together to market your product in a generic sense. Mr. Lipskar asks who has the money? Well, Oprah does. The book industry should have a joint-task force meeting, everybody send a rep. (Get together at the London Lit Plus festival.) Or sooner. Plan a strategy, hire a marketing firm, and contact Oprah, Charlie Rose, PBS, the BBC. For starters.

    Get bloggers involved, the Litblog Co-op, DailyKos, etc. I have a lit blog on Kos, does the book industry blog on Kos? That’s 600,000 daily readers.

    Libraries have a natural connect with schools. That’s your future audience. When I was in school I was reading Dostoyevski, Vonnegut, AC Clarke, etc. Does the book industry even consider selling new releases to school libraries at either a discount, or as a package with textbooks. Like – you want textbooks, gotta take literary fiction too, that’s the deal.

    Also notice how Bill snuck in a plug for his book – the last story is about “read banned books.” See, that’s clever marketing.

  8. Bookstore sales of fiction
    Bookstore sales of fiction and non-fiction titles isn’t the only area where bound copy seems to be fighting for its existence in one way or another. I am the production manager for a major international publisher of academic books, and I see on a daily basis the stress that the market is bringing to bear on the gears of the operation, useful and steady as they’ve been over lo these many years. I understand now why it costs $200 for a new science textbook. The book publisher has to guarantee sales before the book even goes to press, and this is done via countless visits to universities all over the western world. The art alone, for a non-major (general ed) biology 1st edition can cost the publisher more than $100,000. Add to that the authors, who often number far beyond the ones with their names on the spine, the copy editors, fact checkers, typesetters, paginators, editors, photo researchers, proofreaders and development editors, and you’ve got yourself a pretty costly item. Often, the only way the publisher makes any money is after a few editions, which, to balance the business model, must cycle about once every 3 years. For essentially the same book.

    In the academic world, the business model isnt so much a working business model as it is the cobbling together of the remnants of what used to be a business model, after it’s been smashed against the windshield of technological progress. When a Google search for the molecular structure of caffeine yields a hundred more images than can possibly be contained within a college textbook, the value of the textbook drops significantly.

    Fiction and nonfiction are a different beast, but there are similarities in their capitalist movement through space and time. First, though, lets focus on the difference. The difference is content. Most college textbooks dont find a niche in the market because they are presenting new and unusual content, but because they leverage some kind of new presentation, be it teaching style, use of illustrations, end of chapter questions, etc. But a reader cant go to Google (or Groovle, if they are more visually oriented) and search for the meaning of life according to Firsty, genius fiction author. In this way, the hard (or soft) cover books that line the aisles of your local Borders are entirely unique. There is no other place to get the information contained in those books. When seen from this point of view, it’s quite a bit more understandable for an academic publisher to be frightened of change than it is for a publisher of quality fiction.

    So I’m disappointed to read the words of an industry insider who says, with what can only be a career’s worth of insight and experience, that the driving force behind the current business model, being challenged here by Levi (and others), is that, basically, it’s a safe way to continue making a predictable amount of money. When I read that, I have to weigh it against news I’ve read, about the book industry changing, or needing to change, and about profits sinking, risks disappearing, etc.

    And here is where I have to, with all due respect, pull out my bullshit meter, the thing blaring in my pocket uncomfortably. Any business where the leaders of its industry are making the kind of money that CEOs of media companies are making certainly deserves to be critically reviewed by interested parties, namely, in this case, serious readers and writers. I think it’s ok for me to call “bullshit” on statements about not wanting to take any risks when most of the book sales are owned by a few huge conglomerates of media enterprise. Of course, publishers should be making money. But how many houses, how many boats, justify the continuing ripoff of expensive hardcover sales?

    This is a populist argument, of course, and one that many industry insiders might sneer at — the ignorance of it, its idealism. But this is also the argument of a reader and a writer — the supposed market and true content producer of these fiction and nonfiction books. I found myself struck by one of the comments by Slipskar, in response to the demand for change and the demand for the publishing industry to create its own new, better market for books:

    “I agree. We all do. But who I ask is supposed to do this? If you’re running a major publishing company (in most cases a smallish division of a massive public company), you are under intense pressure to deliver profits now. Would it be forward-thinking to invest millions of dollars of your budget into marketing books/reading in general rather than your specific books? Of course! But you’d be losing money short-term, because you’d be pulling money out of marketing your products. I’d love to see long-range thinking and strategizing happening, but I’m not sure who exactly is supposed to pony up the millions upon millions of dollars it would take to change the way people feel about reading.”

    Of course, we must be realistic. But, we also must be open-minded. Change is bound to happen. In many ways, we can guarantee that, due to the internet’s ever-growing and ever-expanding new applications, due to globalization, due to a rise in socialism amongst increasingly wealthy nations, the book industry will be very different in 25 years or so. Who is going to define the change?

    Here, we can go back and look at the academic publishing world. Every day there is a new internet initiative, whether it be Google Scholar, the Firefox Campus Edition, etc., which narrows the gap between students and content. Yet, each new day is another day late for the industry — another day, another opportunity missed, another failure to define the future of book publishing. If we consider that the industry is bound to change, then every day that the industry fails to change means another day the industry is further away from continuing to succeed in the new market, another day the industry fails to capitalize on the obvious and actually continues to lead itself into sure obscurity. There is the likelihood, of course, that once the new market and the new business model is defined, some major publishing company will simply purchase that business model, apply it to its own staff and workflow, lay off some people from both their old business and the purchased business, and go on with things, safe and successful as ever.

    Or, the companies currently in business to sell books might figure out a better way to sell books so that they themselves define the next state of fiction and nonfiction publishing. Yes, these are public companies which need to turn a profit. But it seems that most people contributing to this conversation agree in principle that it would be better if newly released books were more affordable. The chance that existing companies have is limited to the time between now and whenever the next business model succeeds and pushes the existing one out of business. If this change is inevitable, then we absolutely should not be saying that it simply won’t work because of the structure of large public companies. Instead, we should be looking to these large public companies for the marketing and production talent necessary to change the business model for the good of the consumer.

    Will the consumer define this change? No. The consumer is helpless to pretend to boycott or to change their buying patterns, forcing the industry to change. The consumer pool is simply too huge right now to be able to leverage its buying power for anything but the most immediate needs — shipping costs, online access, seasonal trends, etc. The consumer is not anywhere close to the position it would need to be in if it wanted to change the practice of releasing hardcover books for the reviewers and bookstore windows. That is a change which transcends monthly buying trends or free shipping promotions.

    So I think we really do need to look back at the original argument, that book publishers really ought to be considering more new releases in less expensive format. The current less expensive format is paperback, but it doesnt need to be. It needs to b
    e whatever the industry puts out there as a more affordable product. I do believe that more people would buy books if the new releases were less expensive. I, for one, would buy more books. Many people who line up for endless reservation lists at libraries would be moved to buy the book if it were significantly less expensive at first release. It’s up to the industry, isnt it, to make sure that a new, less expensive product is profitable and marketable? Thats the job of the industry, and the demand of the consumer is clear. At least to this group, and even to the people, the pessimistic ones, here at this roundtable — the need for a less expensive product is clear.

    In the past, publishing trends have been defined by the little guy. If it werent for mass paperback publication, “Howl” would never have had the impact it had. The best selling book of poetry in American publishing history was written by the man (Ferlinghetti) who started the first American bookstore dedicated to the quality paperback. And it’s still possible for the little guy to make a big change. But it’s certainly less likely than it was in 1953. So it’s possible that, 25 years from now, the book industry will be defined by the populist energy and initiative that spans places like the internet and small startup publications.

    But why would the book industry allow this to happen? And think of how much more powerful a change the current companies could make, if they simply decided that their short-term was 5 years instead of 6 months, and that their long-term plans were viable with what might become of the industry itself 25 years from now.

    In the end, yes, I suppose that the market will eventually demand a change. But if major book publishers wait for that demand to take real shape before they react to it, then the major players that we see now simply won’t be around to enjoy the new market. That doesnt bode well for the stockholders, and it doesnt seem, to me, to be worth the extra vacation house or three.

  9. Thanks for the reply, Simon.
    Thanks for the reply, Simon. And I certainly didn’t read your comments as a wholesale endorsement of business as usual in the publishing industry, but I stand by what I wrote earlier.

    It’s not necessarily fair to point to buying patterns and strategies in other media, and I realize that the publishing industry is its own specific animal, but it’s hard not to when, as Levi has put convincingly below, the music, film and television industries have such a knack for creating new demographics and new revenue sources out of the ether. And these things don’t happen because all the movie studios band together and resolve to change the way they do business for the greater good, they happen because one ambitious person or company tries something new and daring, it catches on with the public, and before long the competition is scrambling to keep up by doing the same thing. It’s not about leading a crusade, it’s about cut-throat pursuit of greater profits.

    You say, essentially, that publishers will continue to maintain their current habits until they become unprofitable, but this “if it ain’t broke…” mentality is something you don’t see elsewhere — in other media, it’s a race to be the first to do something new, even at the risk of cannibalizing one’s own business (for example, Microsoft’s infamous “Evolve” ad campaign that attacked its own old product, or the current brouhaha between movie studios over HD DVD v. Blu-ray).

    So that’s what I see lacking in the publishing industry: the fearlessness (sometimes verging on recklessness), and the simple profit-driven innovation that could revolutionize the way people buy books or, for that matter, read them. I know publishers are out there fighting tooth-and-nail to nab the next wunderkind novelist or celebrity memoir, but why isn’t anyone trying to uppercut the competition by delivering an inventively improved consumer experience, or cornering a market that everyone had previously seen fit to ignore? Perhaps they are, and I hope they are, but I just don’t see it.

  10. Coalescing ConsensusI think
    Coalescing Consensus

    I think there does seem to be at least one consensus taking shape — that hardcover books bring in more profits. All three panelists on this thread made this point.

    Said Lipskar:

    “it makes sense to make more money by selling in editions with higher profit margins”.

    Said Arsenault:

    “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”. [This would be due to the higher profit margin for hard bound]

    Said Weich:

    “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 elsewhere”

    Of particular note — what I think is a key piece of novel information in this discussion is that this consensus opinion is based on the fact that hard bound books have a higher mark-up than paper bound books. It is not that they simply cost more, but the markup over production and distribution costs is greater for hardbound than paperback so hardbound book sales make a greater per unit net profit than paperbound.

    If this were not the case the argument would fall apart. Another consensus is that it is a zero sum game and that the same amount of books would be sold as paperback as hardbound (which I agree with Levi is not necessarily something to assume). Given that if the profit margins were the same, it would make no difference in terms of profits if the books were sold as hard bound as paperback.

    One could argue, then, that the answer would be to raise the softcover prices a bit to match the hardbound profit margin. That might even make more money because more copies might be sold. That’s rhetorical and I am not arguing for that.

    I think there is some information we need and don’t have to address this issue as well.

    What are the relative amounts of hardbound vs softbound sold? Do hardbound originals greatly outsell the softcovers that are released after a year or so? Or vice versa. What are the numbers?

    I appreciate Simon Lipskar’s non-deliberate “snarky” comment that:

    “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.”

    Such candor is great and I can’t agree more.

    Dave Weich made some great observations about the dual format as well as good comments overall:

    “the hardcover launch effectively amounts to field-tested market research”

    One drawback, though, is that some first time authors never make it to paperback when their hardcover doesn’t sell well.

    For example, many years ago (1995) I read a book called Moon Cakes (an appropriate title for this time of year) by first time author Andrea Louie. I bought the hardbound, but I did look and pay attention but it never came out in paperback. That wasn’t particularly fair for her. It probably would have had a better life as a paperback, despite the sales apparently being too little for the hard bound to get a paperback deal.

    Now, this book Moon Cakes went through the system — hardbound release and therefore it made it to the “influential” people and it was reviewed (that’s how I heard of it). But alas, it did not help out. It’s a nice book and I liked her writing style a lot. But this model did not serve her or her book well.

    I have a question for Simon or others — is their concern that publishing is going the way of the newspapers? Old media vs new media etc…

    I can see a time when the old New York publishing oligarchy is fairly irrelevant in the not to distant future (although this will never happen completely).

  11. “So that’s what I see lacking
    “So that’s what I see lacking in the publishing industry: the fearlessness (sometimes verging on recklessness), and the simple profit-driven innovation that could revolutionize the way people buy books or, for that matter, read them.”

    The revolution is now:

    A. Amazon
    B. Ebook readers

  12. If I find a book I want to
    If I find a book I want to read and find that it is only in hard cover, I tend to sit at the bookstore sipping coffee and read it anyway ~ if I don’t have the cash.

    And as I like to draw in my books as I read them, I keep with me a note pad where I write down parts I like and draw pics. And when the book comes out in paperback if I liked it I will sometimes buy it.

    A good example of this is Deirdre Bair’s book “Jung A Biography”. However, after reading it many a day while sipping coffee at the local bookstore, lucky for me, I later found it in hard back at the reduced bookstore for like 6 bucks!

  13. Well, I’m not entirely
    Well, I’m not entirely surprised that my comments have aroused a fair bit of controversy.

    From what I can tell, the key area of dispute is whether or not trade publishing really is a zero-sum game as currently practiced; actually, the dispute seems to be over whether a revolutionary product or approach to the business could make it a growth industry, which would change the economic models (and which would certainly upend my basic argument). I should be clear that in the email exchange Levi mentioned, I told him that the ENTIRE trade publishing business was essentially zero-sum, not just the literary fiction part of it. (By the way, I’m going to put aside the barbs thrown in my direction in various posts that accuse me of defending profiteering, the “New York oligarchy,” and the old world order that will be swept aside by glorious revolution, and I’ll instead focus on the meat of what various commenters have objected to in my answer to Levi’s question.)

    To start with, let’s go back to first principles: folks, we’re talking about books (and about the investment of time reading requires). Whether commercial or literary, books are just not a mass media in the same class as pop music or movies. This is no radical insight, but reading requires work in a way that little else in our culture does; it’s a form of entertainment that makes fairly significant explicit and implicit demands on the consumer. Read Steve Wasserman’s recent piece on book reviewing, and he makes some incredibly valuable points about what reading actually is and why, as a consequence, book publishing has basic limitations in terms of growth.

    Yes, as has been pointed out, Harry Potter changed publishing — but if you take a cold, hard, brutal look at the facts you’ll see that book sales during the Harry period trundled along at pretty much the same pace they always have (more of them just happened to go to books written by J.K. Rowling). The Da Vinci Code changed publishing too, with the same overall results.

    That’s because you’re talking about phenomena within the context of the ocean, not new bodies of water.

    I do think there are things on the horizon that might very well permanently alter the paradigms I currently work in. And in many ways I would welcome them. Ebooks, for one, will certainly shake things up in ways we haven’t yet anticipated (because, frankly, they currently suck compared to print books). And the internet — and peer-based book recommendations — have only just begun to change the landscape. Maybe one of these or some other as-of-yet unknown thing will genuinely make more people read books (or at least buy more of them, as has been argued, though I have to confess that I’m slightly entertained that one solution that’s been proposed here essentially involves screwing over booklovers by getting them to buy lots of books they’ll never read because the price is simply irresistible).

    In the meantime, as so many of you have pointed out, there is a lot that ails the publishing business. It’s not a “healthy” business and I’m not pretending that it is. We do a lot of belly-aching within the industry that you don’t get to hear, though the press airs our woes for the public fairly regularly. I’m not going to waste a lot of time by enumerating the problems we face, but they’re big and real. And there is undoubtedly a whole lot of head-in-the-sand behavior at publishing houses, much of which happens for short-term profit reasons.

    That said, I have to tell you, there are a whole lot of smart people working in this business whose honest desires are to make more books work, to solve some of the structural impediments to running more profitable businesses, to find talented writers the audiences they deserve, and even to publish important and life-changing works of art. We’re not as hopelessly out of touch as your comments would portray us.

    Beyond all this, though, here’s the thing, and I hope you can accept that I say this honestly. My job is to make money for writers, not to make books cheaper for readers (as I typed that sentence, I cringed and ducked as the proverbial tomatoes came flying). I do not apologize for this. I’m sorry if that frustrates you, but I’m not sorry that this is my job. What I can tell you from personal experience is that every single writer I know — whatever the kind of books they write (literary or commercial fiction, serious nonfiction or celebrity bios), whatever their political persuasions (right, left or off the charts in either direction), whatever their on-the-record history as evangelists for the democratizing effects of the web, etc. — wants to be paid the maximum number of dollars for their work.

    This is a for-profit world, and writers deserve and should be paid as much as they can get. One of the ways they profit is by contracting with publishers to sell you hardcover books. And it’s not merely the big dog writers who make millions off this system; it’s also the midlist (and below-midlist) writers whose hardcover sales give them a slightly better chance at making a living wage.

    As you protest the horrors of “the publishing business,” remember that formats with lower margins take money out of your favorite author’s pockets (the average author published by a major trade house makes about $3.75 per hardcover sale as compared to about $1 per trade paperback). It’s not just the corporate fat cats (oh how easy it is to mock them with contemptuous “stick it to the man” pseudo-populism!) who thrive on hardcover prices; it’s the authors whose earnings are in no small part derived from a royalty based on the list price of those very same hardcovers. I’m not asking for you to subsidize the publishing business or to support authors out of pity by buying hardcover — you can and should vote with your pocketbook in terms of what formats you prefer to buy. I’m just telling you, as I did in my original post, that so long as there is a hardcover audience (and there is), I’m going to make money for my authors by selling their books in this format.

  14. Simon wrote: “by the way, I’m
    Simon wrote: “by the way, I’m going to put aside the barbs thrown in my direction in various posts that accuse me of defending profiteering, the “New York oligarchy.”

    I’m the guy who used the term “New York oligarchy” and I want to point out I didn’t mean anything at all as a barb and I feel bad if you took anything I said as a barb or as critical or unfriendly in any way.

    I appreciated your comments a lot because they bring knowledge of facts and therefore a clarity on the issue at hand.

    It is interesting and important to know that there is a higher profit margin for hardbound books — I wouldn’t have known this.

    I agree with your point of view that the important thing is to make money for the writer. I don’t really have any complaints about the two tiered system.

    My intent in this discussion is to look at both sides and see if there is a win-win.

    The answer would be to raise the profit margin on paperbacks. They would still be significantly lower than the hardbound, satisfying Levi’s complaint, but would still make the same profit for the authors and publishers.

    I like hardcovers and there are plenty of people who buy them. The issue seems to be that it takes a year for the paperback to be available for those who don’t want to buy hardcover because of the pricing.

    So how about simultaneous HB and PB release with the early PB marked up to equalize profit margin with the HB? Then after one year, lower the PB price. Therefore the consumer does pay a bit more for early access to a PB (still a lot less than HB), but then the same dynamic of lower profit margin after a year for PB takes hold.

  15. For what it’s worth, I’m
    For what it’s worth, I’m completely on board with Simon. I’m always mystified when I see people try to compare books to DVDs/movies/music/etc. Not even apples to oranges. More like key limes to rhubarb.

    There’s a cold, hard business reality which shapes it all. While it can be brutal/tough/nasty, I like dealing with reality.

  16. If a book comes out that I
    If a book comes out that I want to read, I go to the website of my local public library and request the book. Even if they don’t have it, they can almost always get it within 5 days. They notify me by email and I go pick it up. The library is only a 10 minute ride from my house.

  17. I’ve never really cared much
    I’ve never really cared much for library books. You can’t draw in them and once you take them back you can no longer go back to them and reread. Besides you can’t drink coffee at the library!

  18. Compartmentalization of
    Compartmentalization of Desire

    I found Simon Lipskar’s comments both enlightening, and more than a little troubling. No question that he understands the reality of marketing books, and for questions that arise within that context, I’m convinced we have to accept his expertise. As long as we limit our activities to the ideology of the market, these seemingly autonomous forces determine what we can and cannot do, and for that matter, what we can and cannot think; what is the point, after all, of wasting our time in fantasies? Reality is reality.

    Or is it?

    I wouldn’t bother to raise the question if I had more faith in our power to compartmentalize, to judge the value of a book as a commodity, and as… whatever else it is: art, literature, a cultural artifact, without leakage, without contamination from one compartment to the other. I would assume that an agent or publisher who admitted a books “intrinsic” value into commercial considerations would not see leakage from that side as “contamination;” more likely, this would be an argument against the totalizing ideological influence of the market . But this would be true only to the degree that the membrane is permeable only in one direction.

    Is it?

    We are subject to an ideology which informs us what is and is not real, informs us that we are at best, instruments governed by that reality, that we cannot not operate outside of it, that our freedom, such as it is, consists in understanding the operational forces (as Simon does), and choosing after the fact, what those forces have determined for us. Because what is “real,” is the market, we all know perfectly well, that no value can exist apart from it, no value that is not fully quantifiable and subservient to its Laws. How then, to return to my question about compartmentalization, are we to formulate ideas or make judgments that are not thoroughly contaminated by the governing ideology? The problem is–how do you separate forms of desire? And when we talk about ‘values,’ that’s what we mean–forms of desire. No matter the intelligence, the integrity of the reviewer–book reviews, on one or more levels, become reviews of a salable object, or more precisely, of how the book will effect the desire to purchase and own.

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!