Does Literary Fiction Suffer From Dysfunctional Pricing (Introduction)

A year and a half ago I wrote my first post about book pricing for literary fiction, complaining that our publishing economy is mired in a creaky business model — hardcover-only first releases — that doesn’t seem to work well for any parties concerned. The fact that most fiction readers intensely dislike the tradition of hardcover-only releases seems like an obvious big flaw in the sales model to me, and at the time I wrote this first post I felt the case against hardcover-first publishing for literary fiction was simple and clear.

It wasn’t. My inital post got a variety of responses, including some helpful ones from industry professionals who tried to explain why the system does make sense. These responses inspired me to write further posts about the subject. I learned a lot from the continuing responses and gradually refined my positions in an almost ridiculously long series of posts on the same topic over the last year and a half.

Here’s the conclusion I’ve come to: we don’t know for sure if hardcover novels represent the stodgy past or not, but we do know for sure that the subject strikes a nerve. Several people have become angry at me during online or real-world arguments about book pricing (many of them industry professionals who feel I am disrespectful towards the subtleties of their difficult jobs). I’ve had to endure being called foolish by many people who don’t think I should shoot my mouth off about a subject I admittedly know little about. I’ve become angry myself at some responses I’ve heard, and I’ve also become angry at myself when more knowledgeable people have corrected me on various points during the course of this 18-month conversation. I’ve also learned that everybody has something to say about hardcover-first publishing, and the opinions are all over the map.

Who knew that product pricing could be such a fascinating subject? But this issue touches on questions of class and privilege, of commercialism and integrity, of tradition versus change. Hardcover book publishing is a 553-year-old tradition, and the modern practice retains deep tangled roots that spread to touch every life form in the literary fiction ecosystem. It’s certainly not just an issue for book publishers to think about. Literary agents play a big role in the determination of how a book will be packaged, for instance. Publishers are also beholden to the needs and whims of booksellers, distributors, book buyers, librarians and (not insignificantly) book review publications. Then, of course, there are the two parties whose voices are not heard enough in this discussion: writers and readers. It’s impossible to get to the bottom of whether or not literary fiction suffers from dysfunctional pricing without considering the vantage point of every one of these stakeholder roles.

Here at LitKicks, we will spend the months of September and October discussing publishing practices for literary fiction. This time around, though, my voice will be only one of many that you’ll hear on the subject. I’ve begun talking to well-placed folks who work in various publishing-related fields, and we’re going to be hearing directly from book publishers, agents, novelists, booksellers, distributors, publicists, librarians and review editors. Along with the “primary sources”, I’ll be inviting several critics and bloggers to contribute their thoughts with each week’s update. We also want to hear directly from you, so please feel free to post your own comments on the points raised with each new posting.

One difference between this conversation and other online roundtables I’ve seen is that this conversation will have a steady pace over a life span of two months. I plan to post one or two updates a week, and each week I will contact a new set of participants to respond to the previous set of posted comments. By the end, who knows where we’ll be?

Perhaps I’m motivated, in beginning this project, by a desire to prove that slow, thoughtful and intelligent conversations are possible on the internet. I really have high hopes for this project! Please check back here Monday, where we’ll be hearing from the first set of “primary sources” — one publisher, one soon-to-be first-novelist and one literary agent — in the kickoff post.

5 Responses

  1. Sounds greatThis is a worthy
    Sounds great

    This is a worthy project, I’m anxious to read comments and opinions (and some facts) and of course to shoot off my own mouth on occasion.

    I try to get hardcovers of books I re-read over the years; for example, On the Road, Tropic, Down and Out in Paris and London. The paperbacks fall apart.

  2. Good way to do it!I look
    Good way to do it!

    I look forward to this discussion. I have to say that from an aesthetic point of view, there is nothing like a nice hardbound. But some of the best books I have ever read I have read first in paperback. I had Ken Kesey sign my paperback version of Sometimes a Great Notion, and the next day the cover fell off! What’s worse is my wife wanted me to throw it away!

  3. Looking forward to this
    Looking forward to this discussion!

    This is a great idea. I’ve quoted your post on my blog with a link and invitation to join in this discussion.

  4. Let the duel beginAs danjazz
    Let the duel begin

    As danjazz and dr placebo said, paperback books fall apart. After they fall apart they are consigned to the dump. Not ecologically sound.

    I’m sure the majority of readers have reservations tossing a hardbound book into the bin. Where would used book stores be without hardbound books? Sure there are some used paperback books stores, but really, that’s chancy… possibly missing pages, torn pages, etc..

    Take Easton Press and QPB (Quality Paperback Books) – which holds it value over time?

    I shall stay tuned to your upcoming discussions. I’m sure the differences are, as you put it, all over the board. The ultimate question is “who will win the argument?” Let’s see…

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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!