These are eventful times for the Dysfunctional Pricing in Literary Fiction debate. This past weekend the New York Times Book Review debuted a new permanent bestseller list devoted to trade paperback, a significantly positive gesture towards acceptance of more inexpensive formats by an industry bellwether. Publishing insiders and observers are also talking about the transcript of a literary fiction power summit featuring Sara Nelson of Publisher’s Weekly, Sonny Mehta of Knopf, Jonathan Burnham of HarperCollins, Morgan Entrekin of Grove/Atlantic and Jonathan Galassi of Farrar, Straus and Giroux that just went up at the Virginia Quarterly Review.
Our own discussion resumes with a dialogue between myself and Simon Lipskar, whose previous words in this series have generated much commentary. We begin after last week’s discussion in which I referenced the “power summit” transcript as evidence for the argument that hardcover publishing is a blight on the popularity of literary fiction.
— Levi Asher
Simon Lipskar is a literary agent with Writer’s House
Simon: You and I read the Mehta/Entrekin/Galassi/Burnham roundtable quite differently. All of them run active paperback businesses; despite the absolutely true fact that it’s harder to make hardcover books “work” these days, you nonetheless don’t see them rushing to move a majority of their acquisitions to tpo. When they discuss the “winner take all” reality of the business, one of the things they’re all hoping for/needing is for one of their hardcovers to go platinum. The difference in profit to them is substantial if they sell 100,000 hardcovers of a title vs. 100,000 trade paperbacks. (I also want to point out that I hugely disagree with you that with the discounting of hardcovers in online bookstores, that price is the single factor that has kept Denis Johnson, Richard Powers and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie from selling more copies than they have).
There are really a great number of issues that go into the duldrums of the literary fiction business. I’m very much in disagreement with you that the “key” problem is pricing. I’m not going to be convinced, not because I’m not willing to reconsider my beliefs, but because nothing I’ve heard here or elsewhere persuades me that my (and most of my colleagues’) prevailing analysis of the business model of publishing is inaccurate (in terms of the value of hardcover in a zero-sum environment).
One last note about trade paperback publishing. In the roundtable, they talk about in terms of authors’ feelings being hurt. That may be true, but the real issue, frankly, is that publishers pay significantly lower advances for tpo. I’m not going to apologize, as I’ve said before, for having my clients’ financial interests at heart; if hardcover pays better, that’s just the way it goes.
Levi: First, I do concede that even the famous “tpo heroes” like Morgan Entrekin publish mainly in hardcover. And this is what frustrates me! I’m not making noise here because I think publishers will listen to me — I’m making noise because I hope readers will listen to me and start making noise themselves. Publishers must always make practical choices — it’s up to readers (and critics and bloggers, etc.) to change what is practical for publishers by speaking up more loudly about what we prefer.
And I also understand your point that publishers pay lower advances for tpo, and that your duty as an agent is to do what’s best for your writers. Absolutely, I don’t disagree at all. But maybe as the industry evolves towards tpo (the NYTBR’s new trade paperback bestseller list is a big step!) publishers will start offering better advances for tpo, right?
Finally, you said that you hugely disagree that the lack of sales for good books by Powers/Adichie/Johnson can be singly attributed to pricing. I never implied that this is the single factor, of course … but I do want to say that I believe there are many readers out there for whom these books are simply invisible because they are in hardcover. Maybe the biggest point I want to get across with this discussion is how deep the division between hardcover-affinity and paperback-affinity buyers cuts. I can’t pretend to know why this division is so deep — an 8 or 9 dollar difference in sales barely explains it. But when I was ten years younger (and more broke than I am today) I know that a book didn’t exist for me until it was in paperback. Hardcovers were those useless bulky things you walked past when you entered a bookstore. I wonder if it’s widely recognized within the fiction industry how many readers — people who absolutely love and worship books — feel this way about hardcovers.
Simon: Let me try one more way of explaining my position. Like you, I recognize that there is a major divide between hardcover and paperback buyers (or at least there is between those folks who, as you describe, just don’t think a book exists until it’s in paperback). It’s real, and I’d never imply that this isn’t a piece of the puzzle. However, you are equating the fact that there is likely both a larger paperback business as well as a consumer group who will never buy hardcovers with the idea that books should be made available first in this format. That’s where we part ways. I think that the fact that you have to wait 9-12 months (and by the way, publishers have rightly been experimenting with a lot of different reprint schedules, often much shorter than the past average of one year after hardcover) to buy the paperback does not repress business; in fact, I would argue that it often augments business, as the paperback marketing has the benefit of existing word-of-mouth.
What I’m getting at is the great mystery of why a particular book works (and I’m skipping the not-so-great mystery of why a book with a $500,000 marketing budget works). It’s almost always due to word of mouth. Word of mouth begins before publication, among the insiders: booksellers, industry professionals, lucky early readers, etc. But most of the real stuff, the kind of word of mouth that allows a book to sell more than a few thousand copies, happens organically and slowly in the months following publication and subsequent to the reviews and press coverage. In point of fact, something like six to twelve months after publication is nearly perfect in terms of allowing word of mouth to ripen — just in time for the paperback reprint, which more people will likely buy anyway.
Word of mouth happens slowly because it requires actually reading a book. I don’t tend to recommend books to friends that I haven’t read (or that I’ve only just started, unless they’re REALLY phenomenal). I tend to recommend books I’ve finished. Most people do the same. Think about how long it takes for this process to happen, recommendations from reader to reader.
It’s one of the things I try to explain to authors when I sell their books: why it will be 12-18 months before their books publish. It’s because it takes that long to develop internal word-of-mouth. It’s the chain of reading. It starts with me. I read a book, I love it. I “recommend” it (by submitting it) to several editors, who likewise recommend it to their colleagues as a book they’d like to acquire. Someone buys it. Then, once the book is edited, you have to start seeding it within the publisher: editors “recommend” to the publicists and marketing directors, as well as to the sales force. They, in turn, “recommend” it to their contacts: the publicists recommend it to reviewers and periodical editors, marketing and sales recommend it to bookstores. And bookstores ultimately recommend it to their customers, the real world consumers.
in the real world, there’s a lot of competition for the reading time of each one of these people. Just as in the real world, not all books make the cut. Just as in the real world, because of the volume, it takes a lot of time to sift from the top (me) to the bottom (the consumer), somewhere, really, in the 6-9 months range at minimum (the rest of the time it takes to publish have to do with the work we’re doing to put jackets, copy, marketing plans and other such things together).
It’s the same exact thing once readers start their own entirely out-of-our-control process. The first readers recommend to their friends, they recommend on, it magnifies when a great review runs or a couple of bloggers fall in love, etc. etc.
This is why it makes sense to release a less-expensive version late in the game, once you’ve actually built up a natural audience for the book. Just in time, by the way, for them to have the book in the only format that, as you say, “exists” for them: trade paperback. They didn’t need to know about the book as a hardcover, because it wasn’t being marketed to them — it was being marketed to people who are willing to buy hardcovers. And maybe just maybe between positive reviews and great word of mouth, there will be a real audience for the trade paperback by the time it appears.
This is one of the many reasons why, when it works, hard/soft is such an effective system. The double bump — the fact that you remarket a book when it appears in reprint (and this time you get to market the fabulous reviews you hopefully got for the hardcover) — makes a huge difference. One of the troubles with trade paperback original is that you only get the one shot — initial publication. You don’t get to artificially jolt the naturally developing word of mouth with a new marketing effort, because there’s no logical reason to “republish” and “remarket” the book 9-12 months after initial publication.
Does this make sense? Because, as I’ve said before, I think you’re barking up the wrong tree with this trade paperback original crusade. Publishers and authors need the income from hardcover, but they also need the opportunity to republish. TPO sometimes works by getting MORE attention than just another hardcover (which might in that case make up for the lost second opportunity to market the title), but it’s not going to do what you want it to do if generally utilized. It will only make more books disappear and never find their audiences.
By the way, I should add that it is very hard to conceive of publishers’ paying equal advances in trade paperback original as in hardcover. They base advances on speculative profit and loss statements that, among other things, estimate author’ earnings off of sales. Since they pay an average of $3.75 per hardcover and $1 per trade paperback, they would have to predict a sales increase by moving to trade paperback of 3.75 times the anticipated hardcover sales (and that doesn’t even include the royalty earnings from trade paperback reprint) in order to offer an equivalent advance. I’m sorry to say there’s no way you can convince me that moving to trade paperback more generally would increase the sales of literary fiction by more than 275%. So, yes, I’ll continue to look for hardcover deals for my authors, unless a publisher and I conclude together, in a specific case, that there’s an opportunity to reach a more-than-marginally larger audience with a particular book by publishing in trade paperback.
The last thing I’ll say is that literature is forever. We accept this as credo. So why does it matter so much to you that a cheaper format exists initially rather than the more expensive format? Why does it matter if hardcovers don’t exist for you (and other tp readers)? Why does it matter, at all, if the book only “exists” for you 9-12 months after it was originally published? Did it matter that I read it 12 months before that? No, not really. Literature is forever. It is of the same value to you as a reader whenever you read it. Now, 12 months from now, or (hopefully) 100 years from now.
Levi: This makes sense, but do you understand why it is not a very satisfying situation to those of us who feel excluded by it? There is this word of mouth process going on, but only those who can afford more expensive books and live in enough luxury to have room to store bulky hardcovers get to participate in it. How does that make the rest of us feel? All readers want to participate in this “internal word of mouth”, in fact, that’s one reason why it is so offensive to see books in stores that we want to read but won’t. It makes us feel like we have second-place status in the whole food chain.
This reminds me of my quasi-legendary water fountain image, which compared the way books flow from hardcover readers to paperback readers to the way water flows from a “whites only” fountain to a “colored fountain”. Perhaps this is hyperbole, and at least one reader raked me over the coals when I first posted this image. Yet everybody who saw the image understood the connection immediately. Hardcover publishing is offensive. It feels like exclusion.
Let’s agree that re-publication of a book is important. I don’t see why I’m being unreasonable in asking why the industry can’t evolve towards a way to republish books that doesn’t involve alienating and excluding readers in the paperback demographic. For instance, how about “premium edition” republications, as Ron Hogan suggested, enhanced with author interviews and fancy artwork and book club suggestions. Hollywood seems to be very happy with its “two-DVD” sets of popular movies. Why aren’t we seeing more experimentation along these lines?
Finally, you said: “This is one of the many reasons why, when it works, hard/soft is such an effective system”, and this seems to point to a basic disconnect we are having in this discussion. You seem pretty bullish overall on the literary fiction business, but this doesn’t match what I hear from others who write about the industry. Isn’t the rate of success in fiction publishing terribly low? Isn’t it true that the industry chews up and spits out first novelists at an
alarming rate? Isn’t it true, as Sarah Weinman wrote, that literary fiction is largely subsidized by more successful book categories, and that many hardcover novels are “loss leaders”, “prestige publications”?
Simon: I think the “wealthy” vs. “normal” readers distinction in your fountain image is aggressively provocative, and not productively so. It’s demagogic propaganda, even if the image was immediately understood. It’s simply a logical fallacy to presume that a marginally more expensive edition of a book excludes most consumers — most of those consumers are simply choosing not to drink at that fountain.
I guess I just don’t agree with you that it’s offensive to price a consumer product at first high than progressively lower. Tech companies do it all the time. If the poor were literally being denied literacy in favor of the wealthy (wait a second: that IS a real societal problem; maybe we should be arguing about that instead of this!), that would be one thing. I also think that a hardcover that is priced at 30% off of list with free shipping on Amazon is not that expensive a product. What is the real difference, other than the emotional one for you, between a $25 hardcover that Amazon sells you for $17 vs. a $14 paperback that Amazon sells you for $12? Am I really supposd to believe that a $5 real world price difference inspires this degree of outrage, that $5 demonstrates such venal “elitism” that it prompts comparison to segregation in the Jim Crow South? Even at $10 more, at an indie that’s not discounting, hardcover pricing hardly feels like it’s morally equivalent to the comparison you were making.
Maybe, rather than crusading for publishers to stop publishing in hardcover, “paperback” readers should rethink their buying preferences, s
ince the pretty minimally increased cost of a hardcover just isn’t proportionate to their refusal to buy them.
Kassia Krozser runs Booksquare, a book blog
I want to start with an anecdote. Back when I first moved to Los Angeles I had a temp job. In retrospect, sticking with that job would have been a brilliant career move for me. You live, you learn. Anyway, one day, the president of the company — a former and future motion picture studio head — tossed a newspaper clipping on my desk. It was review cut out from a newspaper with a penciled note to “Get this.”
Young, dumb, and, frankly, not planning to stick around, I stared at the clipping with total puzzlement and that’s as far as it went. I could see the release date for the book. How was I to acquire something that wasn’t yet available for purchase? What, just pick up the phone and call the publisher? Just ask for the book?
Yeah, yeah, yeah, you’re laughing. And that’s my point. It is absurdly easy to get books from publishers. I am terrified by my ability to acquire free books. Had I known then what I know now, well, I would have gone in a different direction in my career in the entertainment industry. Sure, the one I chose has stood me well, but, wow, you know, I coulda been a contender.
Or fired. These things happen.
As I’ve read the discussion about the prices of (literary) fiction, I have realized that most of us participating in the discussion, being industry insiders, are a bit divorced from the reality of buying books. We can get free books almost at will. Think about how amazing that is. It is the fantasy of so many people; it’s less thrilling when you live the dream. Levi talked about it, as did Ami Greko. For most of us participating in this forum, it rarely comes down to books vs. food.
Like Ami, I grew up with books. My mother was also my elementary school librarian. Any new title that came into the library was passed by me first. Plus she bought books. My earliest memories of book shopping relate to my mother’s books. She could remember everything she read, but was lousy with cover copy. During her Agatha Christie obsession, my task was to read the back covers and determine if she’d already read that particular book (end result: I’ve never read a single one of Christie’s novels, but I feel like I have). You know how parents pass certain addictions on to their kids? That was mine.
I am struck by how much of this conversation is about books as status symbols. Appearance is very important to a certain strata of the publishing food chain, yet the most important group — the readers — are less tied to class differences. They just want the book at a reasonable price. All those bells and whistles that the industry holds dear are so much noise to consumers. Listen to what the booksellers are saying: customers like trade paperback. They like mass market paperback.
For those who equate hardcover with review love, you are suffering from the disease called Focusing On The Wrong Problem. Setting aside the fact that print reviews are shrinking (this is both a good and bad thing), you neglect to realize who is driving the bus. Possibly there are reviewers who only read and critique hardcover publications. I feel sad for them.
If you’re not getting reviews from traditional publications and readers (I said it before but I’ll say it again: the most important part of the publishing equation) are buying trade paperback and mass market while, to a degree, shunning hardcover, then who is the problem here? Of course, the review thing is pretty much a false argument.
There’s also a buzz factor, also mentioned by Simon Lipskar and Dave Weich. I have read many, many, many comments from readers about hardcover. Fast, voracious readers, as Ami Greko noted, couldn’t compete at hardcover prices. These readers decide to wait for the book to be released in paperback (which, as David Poindexter said, can be a crapshoot if the hardcover numbers aren’t robust). Then, well, stuff happens and the book falls off the radar (you know what they say, so many books, so little time), and you know the rest of this story.
Staggered release windows are great if you can sustain (or regenerate) buzz as the book is released in different formats or price points. The truth of matter is that the trade or mass market release doesn’t excite the media; they’ve been there, done that, and readers are the ones who suffer. How, I wonder, do publishing houses think we, the readers, shop? I buy less than a handful of authors in hardcover. These are authors I know I can trust, books I know I’ll want to reread and/or share. If I’m going to take a chance, I like it to be under twenty dollars.
You can talk all you want about the quality of the hardcover book, but does it really represent something valuable and permanent to the reader? We tend to fetishize books, talk about their incredible value, how they’ll sit on the shelves of your home forever. Uh huh. That’s a romantic’s view. I was somewhat amused by John Freeman’s comment that books “will last a lot longer than your Whitesnake World Tour ’89 tee-shirt.”
I’d say, “Depends on the book.” I’d also note that I know people who wear old concert t-shirts with pride and not a small amount of nostalgia, especially when the concert was one that, literally, rocked their world. Same for books. I don’t know about you, but if I kept every book I’ve ever read, well, there isn’t a house big enough to contain them.
Publishers and authors prefer hardcover. Better margins, higher royalties, respectively. Booksellers and book buyers prefer trade paperbacks. Better value, more portable. The library issue, for the moment, I’m going to set aside because I think there are smart solutions to this problem. I cannot see how going with the current model serves anyone well.
But I’m not wholly convinced that simultaneous release in multiple formats is a workable solution to this issue. Ron Hogan pointed out that the current value added to books happens in paperback. So, people get the privilege of paying more for hardcover while actually getting less? Richard Nash’s idea that value to the consumer be tied to quality caught my attention (and not just because of the smart, realistic price point placed on electronic editions. Talk about dysfunctional pricing models …). Why not create a situation where the customers sees real value at different price points?
Today’s consumers are feeling pretty powerful. Once upon a time, you could tell them to take what you offered or leave it. Now, if you don’t give them what they want, there are plenty of other options, including, as the music industry keeps learning over and over, piracy. Not that most consumers want to go all Jolly Roger on you, but when entertainment media companies make it so darn hard to do the right thing, sometimes searching out stuff on BitTorrent is worth the incredible hassle and risk.
Right now, readers — especially younger readers — feel comfortable with the prices associated with trade paperback originals. They like the format, they like the portability. To me, this says it’s time to figure out how to make the shift in business work for the publishers rather than trying, rather desperately, to maintain the status quo.
Doug Seibold is President of Agate, a successful independent publisher, and has written about book industry issues for Book Standard and All Business
I’d like to stress a key point here. The best way to make money for authors, and for publishers, and for booksellers, is to sell more copies — significantly more — not just to get higher per-unit margins on what might be a low-four-figure total sale.
As always in publishing, it’s instructive to look at real numbers, which Richard Nash so gratifyingly supplied. Yes, a locked-in 1,500-copy hardback sale can do a lot to help a publisher cover its nut on a work of fiction. But for most publishers I know, that number won’t get you all the way there. You have to reach a bigger readership than that, and the numbers Richard goes on to mention come close, in my experience, to reflecting the kind of real sales figures every publisher of debut literary fiction is struggling to exceed.
Everything I’ve ever heard about the sales of literary fiction, going back at least to Elisabeth Sifton’s famous comments on this topic a quarter-century or so ago, point to the reality that most such books — especially most debuts — sell in the low four-figures. Most publishers I know of will lose money publishing a book that sells so few copies. And I would hazard that all fiction writers hope (if not believe with the blind furious faith of the zealot) that their books, whatever the long odds, will surely somehow be among the elect few that break out beyond those numbers.
To my mind, this is the key to publishing TPO, as both Richard and David Poindexter have pointed out. It’s a better way to try to help a new author (or an author, even a highly praised and/or award-winning author, who has never sold in better-than-four-figure numbers) somehow get past these chief liabilities of hardback publishing:
1. High cost (isn’t that where this whole exchange started?).
2. The “Hard-Soft Whammy”. As David so succinctly said “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.”
3. Returns. This is another subject on which I’ve written before. Returns are both the expression and the cause of many varied publishing-industry ills. But their role in complicating hardback publishing today can’t be underestimated. The hard-soft whammy identified above is greatly compounded by the large percentage of returns (upward of 30% of the total copy “sold” for many books, often well more than 50% for particularly unfortunate titles) that afflict less-popular hardbacks. High returns ratios, like poor hardback sales, furnish another reason for bookstore buyers to order fewer paperbacks — and a reason for publishers, discouraged by those poor sales and high returns, not to bring out a paperback edition at all.
The reality is that the long-term life of every novel depends on its being available in paperback. The vagaries of hardback publishing today have evolved such that for most novels, being published in hardback can actually hinder their long-term prospects to stay on bookstore shelves and find wider readerships.
Why is this so? Because the reality is that very few of the thousands and thousands of novels published each year (“literary” and otherwise) find an audience big enough to give any of us invested in it — whether author, agent, publisher, or bookseller — any real financial return on that investment.
Note that this has nothing to do with these books’ relative merits, literary quality, or other virtues. This is just the reality of this particular marketplace. This is a speculative enterprise — for all of us. What the TPO format does is provide a better chance for the majority of books, especially first novels, but really for any books that don’t have the most conspicuous and predictable commercial appeal.
My hope is that the hardback format for most fiction will dwindle away, and the vestigial ways that it signifies “quality” will dwindle with it, and thus stop confusing the sorts of questions we’ve been trying to address here.
Confusing case in point: Danielle Marshall wrote, 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.
I had to shake my head at this. What about Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies (Pulitzer Prize)? Andrea Levy’s Small Island (Orange and Whitbread prizes)? David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (Booker shortlist, global publishing phenomenon)? How many more do we need?
I think it’s unlikely this quality association will fall away for good because everyone wants to get as much as the market will bear for their work, and certain novelists — specifically bestsellers, but really any writers who’ve established a significant enough audience — will probably be able to keep selling hardbacks to those audiences. So this hardback-equals-quality association will continue to trouble those unfortunate people who equate sales figures with literary merit. But to my mind, that’s just another good reason to cut against the hardback grain.
Where do we go from here? My question-and-answer session with Simon Lipskar left me mentally exhausted, and while I find all these contributions interesting and unique I am concerned that we are no closer to a resolution or a consensus than when we began. So, let’s take a break for a few days and then come back next week with a different approach. Mary Delli Santi and I have been working up some financial models, examples and projections that we’d like to present for your review. We want to examine the literary fiction business from a few angles. What does a large corporate publisher’s bottom line look like? What pricing levels are necessary to bring profit? What financial motivations and machinations other than publisher profit keep the literary wheels turning?
Next week we hit the books, people. Till then, let’s close with a comment I received from Lauren Cerand, freelance book publicist and Lux Lotus correspondent, after I asked her to contribute her thoughts for this conversation:
“Thank you for including me in this discussion, Levi. To be honest, I think that many intelligent, nuanced comments have made thus far, and to me, it’s all such an obvious no-brainer on both a professional level (as a publicist) and a personal level (as a reader) that I would like to answer in haiku form:
That hardcover book
In the airport was exey
I bought magazines.”
Once people start responding to your questions in Haiku, that’s a sign that you’ve already reached some kind of epiphany and should probably take a break. We’ll see you next week. Don’t forget to bring your calculators and clap your erasers, my friends, because we’ve got some number crunching to do.