In an upcoming catalog, I'll be listing a debut novel I have quietly and ecstatically been working on for almost two years. We've done tons of re-writing and fine-tuning and the thing rocks.
Normally in the past (at least at my company), no questions would be asked--the novel would have debuted as a hardcover, with the plan to convert to paperback after a year of sales (unless things really took off). But there's compression in the industry all around us--consumers are buying fewer books, the chains are stocking fewer books, and everyone is tightening their belts in general. In this strange and rapidly evolving book climate, should we maybe be considering skipping the hardcover altogether?
I've been fretting about this a lot, because I want the best for my author. I want to believe she has strong backlist potential and this book will be a classic or a bestseller or both. But alas, I can't actually inflict my opinion on anyone--I can only be really enthusiastic and hope other people will find my enthusiasm catching. But is enthusiasm enough to sell a hardcover book?
In an interesting coincidence that I think can only happen when you're at your most confused and lost, I was quietly panicking about this cataloging decision a couple of weeks ago on my way to a book people event. The book I was reading at that moment--I was about halfway through--was Alice Mattison's Nothing Is Quite Forgotten in Brooklyn, which a friend at Harper had recommended to me. I'd never read anything by Alice before, but was enjoying what I'd read so far.
When I got to the event, I looked around the room for a familiar face. I only saw one, but I couldn't pin how I knew her. Then I realized I'd been staring at her picture in the author bio of the book I was just reading. I walked up to her and said, "Sorry, but are you Alice?"
"I am," she said.
"I'm half a fan," I told her. I pulled out my very coincidental book and showed her how far I'd gotten.
"Don't decide you're a fan until you've read the whole thing," she warned me. "The second half might all be downhill." I liked her immediately. (I loved the second half, by the way--my review is here if you're curious.)
Poor Alice, who was at the event with a number of other writers to talk about other issues, was really kind and let me bend her ear for a long, long time with my worries about the paperback or hardcover problem. Nothing Is Quite Forgotten in Brooklyn was published by HarperPerennial as a trade paper original, despite (or unrelated to) the fact that Alice's previous book, The Book Borrower, was a bestseller. But her paperback original debut couldn't have been timed better--her book hit shelves in September 2008, one of the darkest months in publishing history, ever. How many people picked up her paperback that would never have sprung for a hardcover? (I, for one. Not that I'm sure I should count. But since I liked Nothing Is Quite Forgotten in Brooklyn so much, I've also now bought two of her other books.) Her publication story was kind of perfect for me at that moment.
Unfortunately, I can't see into the future, and there are a number of concerns and allegiances at stake no matter which way we end up deciding to go. So let's lay out some of the issues in point and counterpoint.
*Frequently, authors are upset by the idea that their books aren't going into hardcover. It just doesn't look or feel as nice. Then, their agents get upset because they think you're not giving the author star treatment. This becomes a serious author relations issue. Everyone WANTS their book to be a hardcover, after all.
Alas: Not everyone wants to BUY a hardcover book. I, for one, only buy a hardcover when I'm supporting a friend who's been published. When buying books for myself, it's always, always paperback, always (after all, I make $0.50 a week).
I asked Alice Mattison whether she was pleased or upset when she first learned that Nothing Is Quite Forgotten in Brooklyn was going to be a paperback original. "I was upset," she told me.* "I hadn't known about this kind of publication and it seemed not quite legitimate. When my agent first told me about the offer, I was afraid there would be no reviews and no library sales. Right from the start, though, I had to admit that I myself buy few hardcover books, and that I often read intriguing reviews and think, 'Gotta get that--when it comes out in paperback.'" I know what she means--I feel the same way about most books, if I'm being honest. Sadly, in our current climate, a lot of books won't even be made into paperbacks if they flounder as hardcovers; your day may never come.
"When my last few hardcover books came out," Alice continued, "I noticed that after a reading, audience members were more likely to buy a paperback or two than the new book, which was much more expensive. After I'd thought about it, I began to feel hopeful about a paperback original. At the start of my career I had hardcover books with poor sales that never made it to paperback, and that was infinitely more frustrating, I assure you."
*But what about the opportunity cost? If the book breaks out, you would be giving up thousands (or more) dollars in hardcover sales. Think of Kite Runner and how long that was in hardcover!!!
Alas: no one can MAKE a book break out. They can only pray. And unfortunately, in this economic climate I'm not sure how hard you'd have to pray to even have a shot.
Furthermore, bookstores (especially the national accounts) have what they call a model. Basically, they make a "model" number that they'll carry of your book, based on how many copies you've already sold. Oh, you're a debut novelist and you haven't sold anything? Yeah, they'll take a really, really small number (and a much smaller number of your hardcover than of your paperback original). This is a self-perpetuating downward spiral, unfortunately--if your book has a limited presence in bookstores, it's going to catch fewer eyes, and it's going to sell fewer copies. So maybe, just maybe, would it be better to have, say, three paperbacks present in a store than one hardcover, turned spine out?
And yet further problems. That "model" that the chains make of your book--your paperback model next year would be based off your hardcover performance this year. In this climate, when no one's buying books, never mind hardcover books. If your book only sells 500 copies in hardcover, they might actually decline to even carry it in paperback. Then that might be the end of your career.
For Alice, the paperback original experiment couldn't have been timed better. "Since my book came out just as the economy crashed, I 'm delighted that it's a paperback original, and I make sure to tell everybody," she said. "It has certainly sold better than it would have in hardcover, and I'm grateful that I don't have to try and push a hardcover book right now."
*From the publisher's perspective, though, the bottom line isn't met by retail sales; it's often met by library sales. Library sales are nearly three times as profitable in hardcover as in paperback, and normally we count on library sales to pay for the print run and the ongoing backlist-ability. How much money are we giving up with a pb original? And will libraries even want it?
Alas: libraries, too, are striking their budgets. And honestly fiction is never their favorite choice. Will the library sales alone be enough to make up for all the copies you won't sell into the stores because you're not in paperback? But on the other hand, if you can't count on a hardcover library sale, can your publishing company even afford to print your book? Yikes, conundrum.
Although some of her other misgivings about the paperback original v. hardcover tradeoff have been allayed, Alice Mattison admits that she's still not sure how the library sale has gone for Nothing Is Quite Forgotten in Brooklyn. But even if we knew, would we be able to pinpoint whether or not retail sales made up for it? It's hard to say. My mind conks out at that level of data.
*The age-old review concern--historically, it's been said (has it been proved?) that paperback originals get less (or little, or no) press attention compared to cloth debuts. After all, if a book is a paperback debut, it basically looks like the publishing company isn't taking it seriously. And if your book gets no review attention, it doesn't matter how cheap it is, no one will find it, right?
I conferred with my publicist on this--she says it doesn't actually matter, although there will always be people who revive this argument no matter how much you try to kick it to death. HarperPerennial (Alice's publisher), for example, debuts tons of paperback originals, and they still get major review coverage.
Alice admits that she was worried about what would happen with her review coverage on this book, and she's a perfect test-case. She's a bestselling author who has previously been heavily reviewed in all the big venues; if she didn't get coverage, we'd know for sure that paperback originals are mistreated. But it didn't work out that way. "The New York Times Book Review reviewed the book two days before publication, so that was decidedly pleasant," Alice told me. "There have been other reviews, one of which was syndicated and picked up by newspapers across the country. In all there have not been as many reviews as my earlier books have sometimes received, but I keep hearing about book editors laid off, book sections in newspapers cut. My guess is that if in the end there are fewer reviews altogether, it won't be because it's a paperback original but for a combination of other reasons."
As it is, we don't really have substantive proof that paperback originals, especially debuts, are NOT mistreated, though. One example I might offer to make us feel a little more optimistic is Sloane Crosley's I Was Told There'd Be Cake, which has sold at least 85,000 copies in trade paperback original since August 2008, and which has been reviewed every which where. Of course, hers was a collection of literary essays and not a novel. But a literary debut nonetheless. Would I have bought her book if it had been a hardcover? Unlikely.
In terms of my author, I can't actually make this decision. Ultimately, it falls on Robert the Publisher. Inside, I have a nagging feeling that the thing that's best for the author, for the longevity of her career and for her breakout potential, is a paperback original. I maybe-not-so-secretly believe that all publishing is or should be moving in a paperback (and electronic!) direction (after all, I repeat, I never buy hardcover books for myself!). But Robert needs to make his bottom line, and it's still to be decided whether our publishing model has been able to evolve quickly enough in this very difficult moment to even break even with a paperback.
Right now, I'm keeping my fingers crossed for a sign from above. Although our catalogs are due in a hot minute, there is a little time before we have to make the ultimate decision.
This is an issue, though, that is going to come up with more and more frequency among soon-to-be-published debut novelists. So it might be a conversation relevant in a lot of our lives. (Fingers crossed, again.)