Book Pricing for Literary Fiction: First Week Summary

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.

7 Responses

  1. the only important
    the only important question

    “the only important question is whether or not high book prices significantly inhibit sales and discourage popular word-of-mouth”

    It is hard to know how to determine this. I think, though, that one way to address this question is to ask what sells more? The hard bound or the trade paper back.

    I think the actual number of copies sold of specific books in their hard bound original release vs their later paperback release is important to know. My intuition is that the paperback sells more. I have no idea if that is statistically correct.

    If the paperback greatly outsells the hard bound I think that would be a fair indication that the price of hard bound books may inhibit sales.

  2. TKG, I’m glad you’re asking
    TKG, I’m glad you’re asking this question. Yes, we’re going to try to “run some numbers” in the coming weeks, and we’re going to see how it all ads up. This is made difficult by the fact that book sales stats are not made available to the public, but there are various sources that will help us piece together some good financial projections.

    You know, there’s a reason I planned for this conversation to span two months — we’ve got work to do here! Thanks for your input so far.

  3. I have to say that I disagree
    I have to say that I disagree profoundly with using the question of which format sells more as a metric to determine whether novels should be published originally as trade paperbacks.

    The short answer is, yes, most books sell better in paperback than hardcover, but the number of factors that contribute to this are many and therefore make the question irrelevant. Perhaps, for example, trade paperbacks sell more copies because a trade paperback reprint of a literary novel features objective rave reviews from the press on the cover whereas a trade paperback original only features author blurbs (generally dismissed by many thoughtful consumers as logrolling) and publisher hype (obviously the publisher thinks the book is great; why else publish?). There are many other reasons I can think of off the top of my head, this is just one example.

    The question this metric does answer is whether books should be published in paperback (the answer, obviously, being yes). It does not answer when they should be published in paperback after a hardcover release or not.

    The more interesting question is whether original hardcover publication represses both original hardcover and paperback reprint sales of a title (based on anecdotal experience, I think the answer is a resounding no in general and a possible yes in certain cases, which is why trade paperback original for specific titles sometimes makes sense), and further whether the extent of that diminishment of sales of both formats is a net financial loss or gain for the publisher and author (nearly impossible to measure, I think, but if you could prove it decisively, you’d have an answer that was unimpeachable). Those are the real questions.

  4. Points taken, Simon. I’m
    Points taken, Simon. I’m glad you are here to provide real feedback and a strong dose of skepticism here. Yes, the question you present in your last paragraph is the key question we need to try to answer.

    But, let’s set our expectations a little lower than you’re suggesting when you raise the question of “proof”. Given all the factors you mention, as well as the difficulty of getting meaningful data on book sales, it’s not likely that we will be able to conclusively prove anything, but we are hoping we can provide strong suggestive evidence that hardcover-first publishing for literary fiction has a more negative effect on overall book sales than is generally recognized by both consumers and industry insiders. Would you agree, Simon, that if we manage to get that far, that we will have achieved something useful here?

  5. I guess the problem I have is
    I guess the problem I have is that I don’t particularly see a problem here, and you do. In other words, you’re hoping that some minimal suggestion that there are reduced sales because of hardcover pub is enough to make a blanket case, and I’m suggesting that individual success stories (or individual disaster stories) aren’t enough to explain away the macro-economics of the hardcover business.

    I should reiterate, particularly in the light of David Poindexter’s terrific business model for Macadam/Cage (and remember, I wrote in my first post that doing something against the general mode of behavior is very often an economic opportunity, and I applaud David for having the vision to do something different with his company’s approach), that I’m really, really, really not opposed to trade paperback original publication in specific cases for specific reasons. I’m just opposed to committing a logical fallacy by deriving general truths from specific examples and thereby spreading harmful ideas about what would “make publishing better.” I want to make publishing better as much as you do, but I’m unconvinced that publishing most literary authors in trade paperback would do anything other than exacerbate our existing structural problems.

  6. Simon — yes, I do see a
    Simon — yes, I do see a problem, although I agree with the point you’ve made a few times here that there is no reason for publishers to listen to consumers about this issue unless they can speak with a much louder voice (and speak with their wallets) than they have.

    And that’s what I’m trying to instigate here (and believe me, it is frustrating and I find myself often wondering why I don’t just shut my mouth and give up). I do believe that most industry professionals are not aware of how many eager readers out there — and I am one of this number — who simply never consider buying expensive hardcover books, both for financial and aesthetic reasons. Unless we can make ourselves heard, the industry will never know how many of us there are not buying books we might otherwise buy. So, yes, I do see a problem, but more than that, I see an opportunity to make a positive difference, and that’s what I’m trying to do.

    Also, Simon, I do appreciate that you are sympathetic to trade paper original in certain cases, but I have to respectfully say that this doesn’t go far enough to satisfy me. I don’t know why this is, but with a few recent exceptions, it often seems that the books that are published in TPO are exactly the books I *don’t* want to read. Yes, I know I’m asking for a lot when I ask for an industry-wide sea change. But why shouldn’t I reach for the stars? Even if I end up getting smacked down repeatedly in this discussion — and according to some of the responses I’ve gotten, both public and private, I definitely am feeling a bit smacked around — I can proudly say that I tried.

    But it would have been a much poorer discussion so far without your well-reasoned arguments, Simon, so thanks again for being a part of it.

  7. Why I buy and readI’ll buy a
    Why I buy and read

    I’ll buy a book because I’ve heard or read – by a reliable source – that it is good and well worth my time – and, when in the bookstore, I read the first few pages and I can see the writing isn’t run of the mill. Most every book I’ve bought and read, I’ve bought this way; regardless if the book is a paperback or hardcover. I have been, on occasion, put off by the hardcover price – and in those instances I simply wait until the book is out in paperback, or even better on the Amazon used book lists. I guess what I am saying is I am likely a typical reader, and the relentless harsh manly realities of the marketplace will likely sort this one out.

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