Does literary fiction suffer from dysfunctional pricing? After hearing six smart industry insiders address this question, we’ve made a few surprising discoveries, exposed some apparent contradictions and talked through some long-buried misunderstandings. Let’s take a quick inventory.
Surprising discoveries? Well, Soft Skull publisher Richard Nash’s comment that bookstores actually prefer paperback books to hardcovers is news to me. I’d always assumed that bookstores (who also benefit from the higher markup of more expensive books) were among the conservative forces here, and I’m glad to be corrected on this point. It’s also news to me that, as literary agent Scott Hoffman reveals, large mass-market stores like Wal-Mart and Target can actually motivate a publisher to switch a title to trade paper original format after originally planning a hardcover run. Clearly, the equations that determine formatting decisions are themselves in flux right now, and it seems that book producers are already scrambling to keep up with marketplace changes in this regard.
Apparent contradictions? Well, the irony should not be lost that while advocates of trade paper original (like, admittedly, myself) claim to be representing the authors best interests in helping books reach customers, authors like Mark Sarvas clearly prefer the hardcover format for the superior cachet.
Further contradictions arise when we survey the rate of change. Richard Nash says “we are seeing fewer and fewer hardcover debuts”, but as sales manager Keith Arsenault points out “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”, and literary agent Simon Lipskar states that hardcover publishing is “here to stay” and represents “good business, pure and simple”.
It’s also not completely clear whether or not hardcovers typically justify themselves by returning profits. Simon Lipskar certainly finds that they do, but Richard Nash, Scott Hoffman and Keith Arsenault seem to dislike the financial model, while marketing director Dave Weich mentions that as a reader he “never bought hardcovers”, but finds value in the status quo because “the hardcover launch effectively amounts to field-tested market research” for the paperback.
Then there are the long-buried misunderstandings. In the follow-up comments to his post, Simon Lipskar objects to being characterized as a representative of the “New York oligarchy” and appeals for a fresh look at some old prejudices about how the book industry works:
“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.”
At moments like this, I feel most certain that this entire conversation is serving a useful purpose. Industry critics like myself often feel we need to put book publishers through an “intervention”, but maybe what we all need, together, is a few sessions of family therapy.
Let’s move forward. I’d like to lay a foundation based on the first week’s findings and narrow the scope of the discussion in at least one major way. Simon Lipskar points out the undeniable fact that book publishing is a for-profit business that benefits not only corporations but also writers and, hopefully, readers. Let’s accept this fact, and let’s all agree that we are not here to debate capitalism itself. If advocates of trade paper original publishing cannot make a believable case that adopting the lower-priced format should lead to greater general profits, then we have no case at all. Fortunately, most advocates of trade paper original publishing do believe that the desired change will lead to greater profitability. The question of whether or not publishers should make money is not worth asking; the only important question is whether or not high book prices significantly inhibit sales and discourage popular word-of-mouth.
With this in mind, I’m really looking forward to next week’s participants, which will include, on Monday, a well-known book publisher who has already made a deep commitment to rethinking and re-engineering the way books by promising debut authors are published and priced. We’re also going to begin moving past the “primary sources” (individuals who work directly in book publishing) and start including thoughts on the subject from a wider range of people, including critics and bloggers who have been following the discussion and can help us reach, we hope, some kind of useful conclusion to it all.