Book Pricing for Literary Fiction: The Case for Change

Before we dive into the second phase of our discussion of book pricing practices (and I’ve got some great new contributions queued up for tomorrow), let’s review what seems to be shaping up as our core argument for change. It’s way too early to claim that a consensus has emerged here — far from it — but we have been able to refine the argument and close off some unpromising avenues. Some significant findings:

1) Dual format publishing may be the most attractive option.

As both Richard Nash of Soft Skull and Kelly Nagle of the Hillsborough County Library in Florida have emphasized, library sales alone may be enough to justify the continued value of hardcover publishing. Libraries need sturdy books, and publishers need their instant sales. There are also certain customers who prefer the hardcover format for aesthetic or practical reasons. Dual format publishing (as practiced by MacAdam/Cage and others) also seems to be most in tune for our times, since it allows stores and customers to choose for themselves.

2) Trade paper originals do get reviewed

National Book Critics Circle President John Freeman confirmed what empirical evidence already shows: top review publications are increasingly willing to review trade paper original fiction. “It won’t get reviewed in paperback” no longer makes sense as a primary reason to publish in hardcover.

3) Any argument for change must be based on sound business principles

As literary agent Simon Lipskar has emphasized, you can’t operate a business on any principle other than maximizing profit. Advocates of trade paper original/dual format publishing must make a convincing case that this change will help, not hurt, the industry.

This last point leads to the clearest argument against a widespread industry move away from hardcover-only publishing: more expensive books mean greater profits. As Simon Lipskar says of hardcover publishing: “It’s just good business, pure and simple.”

Accordingly, the case for change rests on whether this assertion is or is not true. Here’s where we’re at so far:


1) Book pricing and format matters greatly to consumers. There is a significant proportion — perhaps even a majority — of book buyers who will not consider buying a book in hardcover or a book that costs more than $20. This segment seems to include younger readers.

2) While other forms of arts/entertainment commerce have recognized the importance of “buzz marketing” and frequently profited from rampant consumer enthusiasm for their products, publishers of literary fiction seem to turn a blind eye to “buzz marketing” when they publish exciting new titles only in hardcover format. The lack of popular word-of-mouth that actually follows the publication of such appealing books as Echo Maker by Richard Powers ($25), Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson ($27) and Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie ($25) seems to confirm this.

3) Despite the claim that hardcover publishing for literary fiction is “good business”, there is overwhelming evidence that literary fiction is a depressed and stagnant market. Book publishers may do well in other categories, but literary fiction remains one of the most disappointing segments of the publishing marketplace in terms of profits and sales.

There is a significant disconnect between Simon’s point that hardcover publishing for literary fiction is good business and conversations like this high-powered symposium in which Sara Nelson of Publisher’s Weekly, Jonathan Burnham of HarperCollins, Morgan Entrekin of Grove/Atlantic, Jonathan Galassi of Farrar Straus and Giroux and Sonny Mehta of Alfred A. Knopf all seem to agree that it’s not.

There is nothing radical in our call for change; we simply want book publishers to adjust their pricing levels to compete with other art forms such as music (a CD costs between $12 and $15) and film (a movie ticket costs between $7.50 and $10.50). We do not believe that an industry-wide move towards affordable first-run books will bring increased profit instantly, but it seems entirely reasonable to expect that it will do so gradually. One thing seems clear: consumers will welcome the change. Isn’t it usually considered good business, especially in a field like arts and entertainment, to avoid choices that alienate large portions of your key customer base?

* * * * *

I’d also like to say a few words about why I am personally so “obsessed” with this topic. Please understand that I did not begin this campaign simply because, as some have suggested, “I want cheaper books”. In fact, like many other bloggers or book critics, I get free review copies in the mail. Almost any new book in the world is available to me for the cost of an email. And even so, because I am generally a bookstore browser and an impulse buyer, I am not even in the segment of book customers who will never buy a hardcover. I buy a couple every year, though I much prefer paperbacks. The last hardcover I bought was On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan. It cost $22 and was well worth it.

I am obsessed with this topic because I don’t like to see the industry in such depressed shape and I don’t like to see readers and writers treated shabbily. What brought me to a boil was when I tried to buy Half of a Yellow Sun, which had just won the prestigious Orange Prize, and discovered that not a single bookstore in midtown Manhattan carried the book, since the stores didn’t want to order more hardcovers and the paperback wouldn’t be ready for another two months. It offends me deeply that Alfred A. Knopf would send out press releases trumpeting their Orange Prize award winner while the book was actually completely unavailable to bookstore customers. This makes it clear how often literary fiction is a Potemkin village. The sad truth is that many publishers, agents and editors seem to be more concerned with winning awards and putting plaques on their walls than with putting books into readers’ hands.

I’d also like to explain why I feel I have the experience to speak about this topic even though I’ve never worked in book publishing. I’ve had an exciting career in technology management for the last 20 years, the majority of it in either finance or arts/entertainment, and I’ve worked closely with budgets, P&L’s and business plans. I’ve become pretty good at telling the difference between a good business model and a rotten one, because I’ve seen plenty of both.

A good business model is a wondrous thing. In the early 1990’s I worked for a small corporate loan research boutique called Loan Pricing Corporation that packaged publicly available financial data into premium reports that brought in eight million dollars of revenue a year. Under the leadership of a brutal but lovable tyrant named Christopher L. Snyder (who eventually sold the company to Reuters) I saw how a hungry, focused group works together to attack and dominate a market segment.

Several years later, I worked for a vibrant dot-com called iVillage during the years when we pulled off the sixth-biggest IPO in Wall Street history. iVillage was famous for its crazed management style, but I had the pleasure of being part of the most high-functioning department in the company, the community team. We initiated and successfully executed several proposals for consumer products and activities that significantly increased traffic and improved the company’s bottom line.

Those were examples of high-functioning teams I’ve had the pleasure of working with, but I’ve also suffered through a few disappointments. From 1995 to 1999 I worked for Time Warner’s legendary fa
ilure, and during this time I was completely disabused of the notion that large media corporations are always smart, or that they always know how to reach customers. This experience gave me a healthy dose of skepticism that certainly informs my ideas about book publishing now.

The worst business practices I ever saw were at A&E Network/History Channel, where I was hired to work on a website redesign in the summer of 2004. I was excited to begin this project (especially since I love the History Channel) but I found myself in the middle of a battle between the tech department and the marketing department that made necessary communication impossible. As far as I could tell, I spent a year helping A&E/History Channel throw two million dollars away. It was a depressing experience, and my happiest day there was the day I left.

All of this left me, I hope, with a pretty good eye for both functional and dysfunctional corporate behavior. The most certain indication of a dysfunctional organization is that it values the appearance of success over the attainment of success. That’s what I see when I see book publishers celebrating awards and positive reviews for books that many readers would like to buy but won’t because the format or the pricing turns them off.

And that’s why I began this discussion, and I’m thrilled that the discussion is getting a positive reaction — both from people who agree with the call for change and people who don’t — so far. Please tune in tomorrow for some more insightful thoughts on the subject from one book critic and industry observer, one author and industry observer, and one satisfied young “paperback writer”.

2 Responses

  1. Better booksI just signed on,
    Better books

    I just signed on, but I believe that the change should be altogether different. Rather than cheaper books, I would like to see more books worth paying for (and less books that aren’t). I find myself buying almost exclusively used books, but not necessarily because they are cheaper. More because they are usually better. Every year, a few books come out worth paying for, the rest aren’t, whether its a 10 dollar paperback or a 25 dollar hardback.

    There are still great companies out there like The Dalkey Archive, who will sell you any 100 books in their catalog for 500 dollars, hardback if they’ve got it. Plus their new releases are usually around 10 bucks or less. I suggest authors who don’t agree with the big world of publishing switch houses.

    I would never walk into a Barnes and Noble. I mean, I would never walk into a Barnes and Noble with, lets say, the new Steven Millhauser book in mind, find it too expensive, then walk out with the new Dan Brown paperback to save 10 bucks. I would prefer books be cheaper, but it does seem to make them less sacred.

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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!