Book Pricing for Literary Fiction: Sarah Weinman, Tao Lin, Ron Hogan

I’ve asked a variety of literary-minded people to weigh in on our big question: Does literary fiction suffer from dysfunctional pricing? I think these are three exceptionally good responses.
— Levi Asher

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Sarah Weinman writes for many publications including the Los Angeles Times Book Review, the Baltimore Sun and her own crime-fiction blog, Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind

Q: Do you consider it possible or likely that publishers of literary fiction could be making greater overall profits by abandoning the traditional practice of making books available only in expensive hardcover for the first year? Might publishers be losing more in word-of-mouth than they’re gaining in margin?

First, I think you and Simon Lipskar have really pinpointed the heart of the debate as it stands. Because “publishing” comprises so many things, and trade publishing is only a small fraction, and then literary fiction is the tiniest of tiny fractions. In other words, I often suspect that those mega-advances, in the scheme of things, work like loss leaders (the best description I ever heard of how loss-leading works was an episode of WKRP in Cincinnati where Carlson’s mother explains why it’s perfectly fine — nay, acceptable — for the station to lose money. But I digress.) So let me break the question down in a few ways.

Literary fiction is peculiar. It comprises, as I said, a tiny margin of publishing, but it’s seen as the ne plus ultra of particular imprints, adding glamour, prestige, elegance, and whatnot. Such books are a way for imprints to claim they aren’t just about the bottom line, when of course they are — they want to make money. So even though it is, I think, more advantageous to publish many literary titles in trade paperback format (especially debut novels) I don’t think there’s a strong *need* to do so because of how little literary titles contribute to the overall profit margins.

Also, litfic is where certain imprint heads (*coughcoughSonny Mehtacoughcough*) can assert their powers and publish titles that have no chance in hell of selling more than a thousand copies — but if done in hardcover and packaged handsomely, add the noted prestige, elegance, etc. And since it was the head’s decision, no one can question the wisdom, right? In other words, I think litfic is where the biggest crapshoots and most head-scratching decisions take place because there is the greatest amount of subjectivity. No perceived market? Let’s turn it down. Oh, but maybe there’s some vague New York hook and 3000 copies in hardcover can make a bit of money? Okay, let’s publish and see what happens, but don’t expect any real support if you’re the author who “wins” in this scenario.

Ultimately, and literary fiction titles display it the most, there’s a disconnect between what readers want and what publishers want. The latter wants to make money (or have some kind of cred, however tenuous.) Readers want to find books they love and spread the word about and may not pay the kind of money publishers hope to make. Solve the disconnect — and as much as I love, love, love trade paperback originals, I absolutely see Simon’s point of view here — and you’re on the way to creating common ground.

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Tao Lin is the acclaimed author of Eeeee Eee Eeee, a novel, and Bed, a book of short stories

Q: Did you have concerns about publishing your two new books as trade paper originals?

Tao: My publisher, Melville House, decided to publish my books as trade paperback originals. I don’t know all the things a publisher takes into consideration when choosing. Probably a lot of things I’m not aware of with bookstores, printers, softcover rights, shipping costs, etc. Also in my case it would have been really expensive, probably, to do hardcover on both the books (Bed and Eeeee Eee Eeee, were published at the same time) and I think very risky, since these are my first books and no one knows me, no bookstores know me. And if they only made the novel hardcover that might get the books separated in bookstores which probably would do something, I don’t know, like maybe the bookstores then would only buy one of the books. Someone said a bookstore won’t buy many copies of a book if it’s a first book in hardcover and the author isn’t already famous. That seems true.

Outside of financial concerns I much prefer softcover. I don’t like hardcovers. They are larger, heavier, harder, and more complex (the jacket) but the same number of words and also the same words. I like things that are smaller, less heavy, softer, and more simple. A hardcover as a sentence would be like, “Basically the fact of the matter in terms of what is going to happen to your mother is that your mother after a temporal period of fourteen days, or two weeks, is going to bite the dust,” while a softcover would be, “Your mother will die in two weeks.” Those are extremes but you know what I mean. Wanting a hardcover book (outside of financial reasons) seems to me either a superstitious thing (something based on abstractions like legitimacy, prestige, etc.) or an extra-literary thing (like you just want to have something that looks really nice, and the words do not matter as much, which isn’t bad, or isn’t any more bad than wanting a nice-looking cover or a nice lamp or shirt or something). There are some exceptions. For example maybe someone hits their book a lot while reading it and break their softcovers and can’t read them anymore, or something.

My view of the publishing business has changed a little I think. I think a main thing in determining whether or not your book will sell many copies is if bookstores put them on their front tables. Melville House has been good with this, I think. They have nice relationships with many independent booksellers. And they made very nice covers for my books. I can’t think of any other publisher that would have made these covers. I really like the covers.

Another thing that I have thought lately is that reviews from major places like The New York Times and The Washington Post, or wherever, do not make much of a difference in how a book sells, maybe not as much a difference than if just a lot of small blogs talk about your book. I don’t know. Maybe that’s just for books of younger people. I’m still not sure how some books come to sell like half a million copies. I think it is just required to happen to a certain number of books a year. A few really important people decide and then it happens.

In conclusion I’m very happy with what Melville House has done with my books. I’m not just saying that so they’ll like me more. Eeeee Eee Eeee is in its second printing and it didn’t get reviewed in any big places really. I like that. I think I really like the idea of selling a lot of copies of a thing that was created independently and distributed without much mainstream attention (attention from publicly-owned companies), if only for personal reasons, though also because of other things like morals or something (unless everything is a personal reason, which I think sometimes, then only for personal reasons).

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Ron Hogan is the author of The Stewardess is Flying the Plane!, covers the book beat for for Galley Cat and is founder of the long-running literary website Beatrice

Q: A big part of our debate seems to hinge on whether or not it’s possible that an industry-wide evolution from hardcover-first publishing to dual-format publishing could actually result in larger profits for literary fiction, a
nd thus be a win-win for both consumers and producers. The idea is that publishers currently squander the boost that review-generated buzz and timely word-of-mouth gives to most other forms of arts/entertainment such as film, music, etc. This also presumes that there is some untapped youth/alternative market that may want to buy more literary fiction than they currently do. Do you feel this idea has any merit?

Ron: Inevitably, somebody’s going to suggest that a more obvious way to make “larger profits for literary fiction” would be to stop handing out superannuated advances, but the fact of the matter is that although books like Special Topics in Calamity Physics or Bright Shiny Morning generate a lot of pre-pub chatter because of their advances, most “literary fiction” is acquired for substantially more modest amounts. So how do you maximize profits for those books, beyond minimizing the risk of investment?

Personally, given the increased respectability afforded the trade paperback original in the last few years, I’m not sure I see the point of simultaneous dual-format publishing. That’s like saying I could go to Peter Luger and get the exact same porterhouse for the usual price or for half-off, with no significant difference in preparation or presentation. OK, fine, there are differences between a hardcover and a paperback; so maybe to make this analogy work, the cheaper steak should come with plastic knives and forks–but if it’s still the same meat, I’m willing to negotiate the cutlery!

Would the youth really rather be reading more literary fiction rather than, I dunno, what do kids do today, anyway, watch The Hills? I have no idea. Are publishers missing an opportunity to sell books through “review-generated buzz and timely word-of-mouth”? Beats me. I don’t even know if the youth care enough about today’s print-based media to pay attention to what its reviewers have to say about anything, let alone books. And has anybody been able to quantify the extent to which calling attention to yourself on the MySpace has actually persuaded the youth to buy your book?

Q: Regarding one of your points, however, there does seem to be a real justification for dual format printing. One issue is library sales — libraries prefer hardcover. A bigger issue is consumer affinity — it’s clear that the book buying public is largely segmented into two groups: hardcover buyers and paperback buyers. Even beyond pricing, there are aesthetic and practical differences that matter to book buyers.

Ron: Producing library-edition hardcovers and trade paperbacks for consumers simultaneously is a different situation than producing simultaneous hardcovers and trade paperbacks for consumers.

If it’s genuinely cost-effective to produce simultaneous formats simply for the sake of reaching “certain consumers” who turn up their noses at trade paperbacks, okay then. But those “certain consumers” don’t strike me, at first glance, as being related to the “untapped youth/alternative market that may want to buy more literary fiction than they currently do” that you mentioned earlier; in fact, they strike me as two entirely opposite markets. If publishers are comfortable splitting their energies creating TPOs to reach the youth and simultaneous hardcovers to satisfy aesthetes, and they can make it work, more power to them. But if the hardcovers are just an afterthought, then I’m not sure what the point is. (Again, we’re not talking about the library editions.)

Now that I think of it, I’m actually somewhat awed that it’s PAPERBACK buyers that are “rewarded” with bonus materials in the back of the book, from reading questions to Q&As with the author to original essays. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the rationale behind putting that material in the paperback: That’s the edition reading groups are most likely to buy, so you want to give them as much incentive as you can. But I would think, particularly if the trend is towards simultaneous dual-format, hardcover buyers should be “rewarded” for laying out the extra cash. Maybe they think the hardcover itself is sufficient reward, but I wonder how it would affect sales if spending more money actually got you more content?

Q: Anything else you’d like to say about this subject?

Ron: Looking back over what your earlier contributors wrote, I feel that I should clarify my interpretation of your first question, and the premises that follow. I read it as suggesting that simultaneous dual-format publishing is meant to be a corrective to a dysfunctional business model–and from what Simon Lipskar and others have been saying, PUBLISHERS (as opposed to READERS) don’t necessarily think that the roughly one-year delay between hardcover and paperback editions which is the current norm needs to be adjusted.

Which underscores the key question for me — who benefits from publishing marginal authors in simultaneous formats? (I say marginal because, let’s face it, this is probably never going to happen to authors with whom publishers believe they can clean up in the hardcover market.) If the answer to that question is not “readers AND publishers,” then simultaneous dual-format will always be an experiment rather than a trend. Maybe instead of asking “how can we convince publishers to give us cheaper books sooner?”, the question should be “what can publishers do to make hardcovers so attractive to us that we can’t wait until next year for the paperback?” And I guess that takes me right back to the idea of putting bells-and-whistles content in the hardcover edition … or at least connecting it to the hardcover edition in some way.

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That’s it for this week — more good stuff next Monday. If you’re anywhere near New York City, don’t forget to come to my poetry reading happy hour at the Bowery Poetry Club this Thursday at 6:30 to 7:30!

5 Responses

  1. Thank you, Tao LinTao Lin’s
    Thank you, Tao Lin

    Tao Lin’s commentary is especially interesting to me. A relatively new author, Lin gives practical advice (you want your book out front) and champions the idea of independent creativity and distribution. This is good stuff!

    eee, eee, eeeeexcellent . . .

  2. Publishing on DemandHow does
    Publishing on Demand

    How does this figure into the equation?

    There’s more than one way to increase profit. One way is to reduce costs. Paperbacks are cheaper, but not cheap enough with centralized production and non-flexible numbers.

    So where does wider distribution, more localized production, fit into the picture? Talking production on demand here. Where word-of-mouth can matter.

    Why does one pattern have to fit all? What works for high-market genre, clearly does NOT work for litfic… which is what we’re talking about here.

    So why can’t marketing, with all the new technology available, with the wider range of venues for publicity, can’t there be a marketing strategy designed to work specifically for litfic?

    If the basic sell for publishers is the collateral damage… whoops, I mean, prestige, of now and then putting out a winner… why would even a marginal profit edge from a new approach not make it worth trying?

  3. Good points, Jacob. As far
    Good points, Jacob. As far as I can tell, this has been gradually happening. There has certainly been a revolution in printing technology in the last decade — in fact I wish I had had time to speak to a printer in the first section here.

    But I do think more flexible printing facilities can help and are already helping very much — this is what makes the newer ideas people are having actually feasible.

  4. Good point on publishing on
    Good point on publishing on demand. New technologies if applied well could be a big help to literary fiction. Levi, excellent dialog that you have stimulated. It really has been balanced, and very informative!

  5. Not to plug myself (really,
    Not to plug myself (really, it seriously makes me squeamish) but I’m basically undertaking a year long marketing experiment with my writing as guinea pig. I’ve got a POD book that most likely fits into the LitFic category, a blog, and a new short story every two weeks. I’m doing very grass roots marketing via the blogosphere and handing everyone I meet after a few beers one of my business cards. The question to be answered is: Can I carve out an audience this way and make a POD book profitable?
    I’ll let you know next July.

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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!