I’m especially excited to present today’s set of responses to the question “Does literary fiction suffer from dysfunctional pricing?” featuring one publisher who has already bet the future of his company on his answer to the question.
— Levi Asher
David Poindexter is Publisher of MacAdam/Cage
Q: MacAdam/Cage is a trendsetter in simultaneous hardcover/trade paper original publishing. Can you tell me how your “Reader’s Choice” program got off the ground?
David: What used to happen is, we’d publish these brilliant novels in hardcover, books by new authors who don’t yet have an audience, and they’d sell a few copies. A year later we would release the paperback, but bookstore buyers would look up the low hardcover sales numbers and decide not to order the paperback. Or they would order fewer copies than we’d hoped, because the hardcover numbers were low.
In theory, a paperback release should give a new author’s book a “second life” after the hardcover. But this doesn’t work because the low hardcover sales numbers end up reflecting badly on the paperback and the paperback doesn’t get ordered.
So this was our dilemma — How do we break a new author? How do we get these books out there and into the hands of more readers? Because that’s what it’s all about. We couldn’t go with trade paper original because there’s an automatic implication within the book trade that this signifies a lower-quality book. But, bookstore buyers are actually much more inclined to order paperback originals, and readers like to see a paperback. So we started “Reader’s Choice” with last Spring’s catalog. And we shipped twice as many books.
Q: Are you the only publisher regularly putting out simultaneous hardcover and paperback editions of the same book?
David: I’ve heard that some university presses are starting to do the same thing. Other than that I am, as far as I know.
Q: What proportion of your list is published in dual format?
David: For the Autumn 2007 catalog, about seventy percent.
Q: That’s great. How does this work from a cost point of view — is there an added cost to simultaneous dual format publishing? Are there other drawbacks?
David: In terms of printing, there is not much difference in cost. And the hope is that the added cost is offset by the additional orders. Other drawbacks, well, the amount of paperwork to publish each book is doubled!
Q: Have you had any problems with authors who are unsure about this approach?
David: A few times I’ve had to explain that we’re doing this to gain more readers. Finally they get it. “Oh yeah. Readers.” But the authors are happy because they get a nice box of hardcovers, and we’re happy because the book gets out there.
Q: I get the feeling that you are the type of business-person who enjoys “refactoring” a business model. Are you innovative for innovation’s sake?
David: Actually it’s the opposite. I’m trying to be more and more traditional. I want to do whatever works to sell books. If I have to walk across the street naked to sell one of my author’s books, sure, I’ll do it. I just want these brilliant books to be a success.
You know, paperback publishing fuels the mass market, or it should. As for hardcover, well, hardcover readers are great readers, great proponents of books. We want to support both.
Q: Is there a particular upcoming title that you see as a probable success story for dual format publishing?
David: Sure — it’s called A Steep Approach to Garbadale and it’s by a great British author, Iain Banks. He’s very well liked in the UK, but people are just learning about him here. We already shipped four times the typical number on this new novel.
Danielle Marshall is a Marketing and Promotions Specialist at Powells Books
Q: From a bookselling point of view, does the traditional 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?
Danielle: I have often thought that the traditional paradigm is strictly for reviewers and a “class” problem. Paper originals tend to be seen as lower quality fiction, although we all know they are not. Consumers don’t think in those terms. I know that the profit margin on a cloth edition is higher and that explains some of it’s presence in the marketplace. But I have noticed that some publishers are trying to break new authors with a $19.95 price point.
I know that readers are thirsty for good books in paperback, but until books come out in that format, there are plenty of books to fill their void. We could all quit our jobs and read non-stop and never put a dent in the number of books that have been published in the last 25 years alone. I wish publishers would take the trade paper original risk more — Harper and Penguin are good at it — but the financial risks of trying to break out a novel with almost no review attention is daunting.
As far as literary fiction is concerned, I think we are doomed to the traditional model for the most part. At least until a bona-fide, well reviewed, major award winning, and bestselling “trade original” happens.
Which may be never, considering those books rarely get reviewed.
Kelly Nagle is a Librarian with the Hillsborough County Library System in Tampa, Florida
Q: From a librarian’s point of view, is there a big difference between paperback and hardcover?
Kelly: Libraries love, love, LOVE hardcovers. Paperbacks fall apart so fast that it’s hardly worth buying them. In reordering classic fiction, it’s been depressing how many are only available in trade paperback. Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut is a recent example that we could not buy in hardcover. I’m buying the paperbacks, knowing that they aren’t going to last — it’s just to have something for people to check out.
As libraries, we usually get a discount on the books we order. For example, the 50th anniversary edition hardcover of On the Road retails for $24.95 and we would get it for about half price. This makes buying hardcovers much more affordable.
I don’t know if this is off-topic, but we’ve also started getting leased books. We get a certain amount of leased bestsellers and when their popularity dies down we return them. Saves money again.
Q: Would you care to share a personal opinion on the great hardcover vs. paperback debate?
Kelly: Well, I don’t buy all that many books – I count on the library to have them available when I want them.
If I were to buy a book, I’d rather have a hardcover. My Jane Austen book collection is all hardcover — they look better and last longer. I just buy them discounted through Amazon so the price isn’t so bad.
As for reading, I don’t really care except that those big heavy hardcover books hurt when they fall on your face when you doze off reading in bed. Trust me on this one. But seriously, I probably would prefer a hardcover if I were reading at home and a paperback if I was carrying it around with me.
We’re nearly done with the first phase of this discussion (in which we hear exclusively from individuals directly involved with publication, sales or purchasing of books). In our next posting, we’ll pay special attention to the impact of book reviewing practices on these questions.
How do you feel about the discussion so far? Please let us know if you are finding this useful and whether or not any of these responses have swa
yed your own opinions on this subject.