Book Pricing for Literary Fiction: A Plea From Paperback Readers

We presented some hypothetical sales numbers two weeks ago in our “Does Literary Fiction Suffer from Dysfunctional Pricing?” discussion. In order to back up these hypotheticals, we also gathered real book sales data from a combination of sources including newspapers, business magazines and corporate financial filings. Most importantly, we asked Nielsen/BookScan, the organization that monitors book sales for media outlets and industry analysts, for some private information on a few selected literary fiction titles including The Echo Maker by Richard Powers, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson and The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas.

These were three of the very best new literary novels published in the last 18 months, and each of the three seemed upon publication to have had a good shot at being a “breakout hit” among various market segments, especially those large market segments that skew towards youth or alternative. So, how did these books sell? Well, I can’t reveal the actual sales figures that Nielsen/Bookscan was kind enough to send, but I can summarize these sales figures in a word.


I’m sorry to be so blunt, because these three superb books deserve better. But the sales figures are simply pathetic compared to those of the best books in other genres, which regularly sell in the high six or low seven figures. The very best literary titles, however, have to struggle to get within shouting distance of six digits.

I’ve been closely observing the way books like Echo Maker and Tree of Smoke are marketed, and it seems clear to me that these books sell so poorly not because an audience doesn’t exist for them, but because there is a terrible mismatch between pricing and audience. These books could have wide appeal among the demographics that prefer paperbacks, but the publishers do not seem capable of exploiting this large and lucrative market.

The Echo Maker is a brainy book, and what’s wrong with that? The book should have been marketed toward the collegiate and post-collegiate crowds that like Radiohead, David Lynch, Kurt Vonnegut, William Gibson, The Matrix and Lost. Most importantly, it should have cost no more than 15 bucks. Echo Maker got incredibly good reviews and won a National Book Award, but the $25.00 hardcover sold ploddingly because it was priced and marketed wrong for its natural audience.

The paperback of Echo Maker finally came out a month and a half ago, with a whimper and a boring cover. I have yet to see anybody on the New York City subway reading a copy.

Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke is a Vietnam war novel with clear reference points to the current Iraq war, and it should be marketed to the audience that watches the Jon Stewart Show, the audience that flocked to see Fahrenheit 911. Tree of Smoke is an exceptional book; it got a flat-out screaming rave on the cover of the New York Times Book Review, and is currently the Las Vegas favorite to win the National Book Award next month. But once again — whether it wins the National Book Award or not — its sales are nowhere near what they should be, because the book is priced and marketed wrong for its natural audience.

The $27.00 hardcover of Tree of Smoke has so far sold about 25% of its printing, which means 75% of its printing is going to come back to the publishers warehouses and soak up whatever profit the 25% that sold earned. Denis Johnson deserves better.

What about Scarlett Thomas’s The End of Mr. Y, which was published as a paperback original? Interestingly, Harcourt’s $14.00 book (a favorite of many litbloggers) sold fewer total copies than either Tree of Smoke or Echo Maker, but it sold a much better portion of its print run than the other titles and is likely to make its publisher (and author) a modest profit while the accountants are still sifting through the rubble of the Echo Maker and Tree of Smoke returns.

Good for Scarlett Thomas! Her book deserves even better too, but of course, but at least several cargo boats full of unread copies didn’t have to get pulped in order to get The End of Mr. Y to its audience. This modest success will help the young novelist build an audience for her future works.

* * * * *

Today’s post is the final one in this two-month inquiry, and I was originally planning on presenting some specific recommendations for how the literary fiction publishing community can do a better job of selling books. These recommendations were going to include, in much greater detail:

• When hardcover-only publishing is necessary, shorten the interval between hardcover and paperback publication from a year to three months. We are living in the Space Age, after all.

• Make paperback-original publishing more palatable by raising the prices a couple of dollars. This isn’t what I hope to see, but it’s a compromise I’d gladly accept. I’ll pay a couple of dollars more for a paperback.

• Try selling hardcovers in stores but presenting paperback “subscription plans” that are affordable by non-wealthy people. Or, conversely, try selling hardcovers via subscription and paperbacks in stores. (Just, please, try something new!)

• Move faster towards digital formats that integrate simply with our existing devices (instead of trying to sell us monstrosities like the Sony Reader, which are even more bulky and overpriced than hardcover books).

However, I finally decided that it’s not my job to figure out how the publishing industry can sell books better. That’s Peter Olson’s job, and Leonard Riggio’s job, and George L. Jones’s job, and John Sargent’s job, and Carolyn Reidy’s job, and Marjorie Scardino’s job, and David Young’s job, and David Steinberger’s job, and Jeff Bezos’s job, and Michael Powell’s job. There are no simple answers to these problems, as the complex discussions we’ve had in the last two months revealed, so we need our top talent to figure out what to do.

Myself, I didn’t even go to business school (though I often wonder what some people who did go to business school could have possibly learned there). I’m just a consumer, and I figure the main thing I can do as a consumer is let the publishing community know that I and many other readers I know would welcome much more innovation in the way they try to sell to us, and that we are really not happy with the job they are currently doing.

That’s absolutely not to say that we don’t like the books they’re putting out. The books are excellent — we’re just tired of hearing executives moan about the fact that they are losing money on them. With such great material to work with, they have no excuse to be selling in such low numbers.

I truly believe we are living in, if not a golden age, at least a blessed age of original fiction and poetry. I wouldn’t bother to run a literary blog if I didn’t believe this.

And yet our grandest writers believe the book business is in decline, and I think too many of our top book publishing executives feel the same way. If they do believe this, we hope they’ll move aside and make room for newer executives who know otherwise, and who are interested in reaching some new market segments. Because, seriously, we’re out here, and we’re just waiting for you guys to figure it out.

* * * * *

As I contemplated the ending of this long two-month inquiry and conversation one recent afternoon, I wandered up the marble steps of the New York Public Library to pay a visit to the Gutenberg Bible they keep behind glass in one of the reading rooms on the third floor. This 550-year-old book looks remarkably
like the books that are published today. Its two main distinguishing features are its gigantic scale and its gilded edges. Despite the size and the gilding, this book wouldn’t look out of place on the dusty shelves at the Strand or any other used book store. Books really haven’t changed much since 1455, and this is a remarkable fact in itself.

But we are entering a digital age, and change will come whether we like it or not. The age of Gutenberg will never end, but books have to get smaller and cheaper and more portable, and the time to begin this transition is now. I hope this project on LitKicks has helped.

And as we draw the final post to a close, I’d like to thank three people who helped make this whole project happen. I am not sure if each of these three people agree with all (or any) of my conclusions, but all three of them were crucial to its success.

Mark Sarvas offered some critical advice in the planning stages, and urged me to take this project seriously. Simon Lipskar gave the discussion some “teeth” with his hard-hitting and very thoughtful responses. Finally, Mary Delli Santi was my sounding board and “reality check” at every step of the way.

Most importantly, I’d like to thank all the participants who responded to my questions in these pages, all of the participants who posted comments, and everybody out there who read, learned from or enjoyed any of it.

I don’t know about you, but I’d like to talk about something besides market segmentation and product pricing for a while. See you at the bookstores, folks … you’ll find me in the paperback section.

7 Responses

  1. Bravo!This was a great

    This was a great series. I followed it closely and learned a lot.

    I hope your plea is heeded, Levi. And someday soon. I would love to spend more time in the bookstore perusing relevant litfic paperbacks, than I do in the library.

    To All Publishers:

    The litfic audience is out here – come get us before you lose us outright.

  2. Intelligent ReadersIt’s been
    Intelligent Readers

    It’s been a great discussion & study. I’m so glad you and all the others contributed their knowledge on the subject.

    I mentioned before that many of my co-workers read paperbacks during breaks. Most of these books are by authors like Danielle Steel, Stephen King, John Grisham, Tom Clancy. But Levi, you made me think, what if Tree of Smoke were displayed by the grocery store check-out line along with all the others, with an intriguing cover, and priced to move. I always see these “popular” books, an inch thick for God’s sake, in grocery stores and Wal-Mart, going for $6.95 or something. How do they do that?

  3. Great Series!Who says the
    Great Series!

    Who says the litblogger has limited attention span? This piece was huge! I don’t know what the final answer is, but there will always be people who love great literature. Whether they have to borrow beg or steal the latest and greatest, they will. It reminds me of the qoute that Frank Zappa always had on his records – “the present day composer refuses to die” by Edgar Varese. I submit that the present day literary reader refuses to die, and the present day literary writer refuses to die. Despite inept attempts by the capitalists to market the books, despite a growing culture of dumb-assedness in the US, despite all the other roadblocks, good writers are still writing good literature, and readers are reading it. What else matters? This is not about money.

  4. Damn the Man!I used to be a
    Damn the Man!

    I used to be a “them” person, as in “why can’t they fix things?” But then I got old, and the graveness grows. Now I’m a “we” person. What can we do to change this?

    Can Litkicks have a segment on the right side somewhere for “recommended reads.” That would be books that Levi, or someone else, thinks the buying public oughta plunk down some cash for. I’ll start by recommending books by Don Eminizer, Bill Ectric, and Tony O’Neill.

    Damn the man – find books to buy at Litkicks.

  5. I’ll have to think about that
    I’ll have to think about that one, Stokey. I like it in theory — just not sure I have the time to build the feature as well as it would need to be built. If I had a staff of developers on LitKicks — hell yeah.

  6. Might I suggest using
    Might I suggest using tags for this. I don’t think it would be too hard to tag some with books’ pages with RecommendedRead, etc… Call this Phase I (could be implemente in a day).

    Of course, this could be easily exploited by anybody tagging any crappy book, but I think phase II would be for somebody to write a widget that filters out tags except for “trusted” taggers. This “trusted” sources list could be either maintained centrally, or by a user who can pick taggers they trust. I vote for the latter.

    just my $.02

    BTW – I would be willing to help out as “time” “allows”

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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!