Things I Worry about Seeing #1


I may end up posing quite a number of Things I’d Love to See in the publishing industry, but a recent email from an editor in New York points out what a tangled knot mainstream publishing has become — too tangled, it seems, to make any substantive changes.

The editor’s message responds to a recent column about publishers ending the tradition of publishing a book in hardcover first, then waiting a year for the trade paperback (if any). I proposed that publishers start with the cheaper but still beautiful trade paperback edition first. Especially for books by unknown or midlist authors, the already wasteful practice of publishing hardcovers seems senseless.

And now that money is short, readers are far more likely to take a chance on trade paperbacks; book reviewers who used to require hardcovers (honestly! I haven’t heard that one in 20 years) have been overtaken by bloggers who LOVE paperbacks; and since even publishers dismiss hardcovers as “promotional copies for the trade paperback,” my thought is: Just reverse the process.

Here’s what the editor from mainstream house has to say about that: “If you want to push the idea of trade paper originals, perhaps you could examine how authors expectations’ for an advance would have to adjust, and perhaps how publishers might also try more dynamic royalty approaches rather than the industry standard royalty, which is 7.5% for tradepaper.”

Well, okay! I thought. A few adjustments on either side (author/publisher), and off we go.

But no. It’s not that agents and authors I talked to don’t love the idea – they do. Rather the old suspicions that have been built into an adversarial relationship for centuries come crawling to the fore.

“I’d be fine with it [the idea of publishing trade paperback editions first],” said one agent. “If the publisher offers a bigger advance because after all, the author is taking the risk so the publisher can save money; and if the publisher supports a real marketing campaign that explains to reviewers and booksellers and interviewers why choosing a trade paperback format does not mean the book is substandard (because everybody thinks hardcovers are top of the line), and if the publisher sends the author out on both real and virtual book tours to make it clear the trade paperback form is better when it’s the first off the press, then we’d consider it.”

Yikes. Well, let’s go back to the publishing side. When I asked the editor to give me an example of “more dynamic royalty approaches” the response was, “I don’t really have any answers.” And then came the usual criticism:

The argument for the trade-paperback-only is an old one, and it always starts from the consumers’ point a view. Which isn’t a bad place to start! It doesn’t overcome the structural problems: reviewers favor hardcovers, and some review organs have ruled out paperbacks altogether. Bookstores also tend to favor hardcover display space over paperbacks (note which format comes first as you walk into the store). And the financial model that authors and agents and publishers are used to argues against it: the royalties generate more slowly; the costs are amortized more slowly.”

Well, the booksellers I talked to agree only this far: Everybody makes more money from hardcovers, when they sell. If the books just sit there because nobody knows about them or about the author, no matter how hard the bookstore’s staff gets behind them, sales are hardly going to be brisk.

Of course we display hardcovers at the front of the store!” a bookseller said impatiently. “They’re the newest books from the publisher. Then you go to the reprints.”

So here is my problem. Until publishers make an orchestrated and committed (and hyped) effort to change, and appeal to colleagues (not adversaries) in the book trade to change, too, nothing is going to happen.

(I know the old argument: Joining together to create industry-wide change could be called collusion and we’d all be sued! Okay, so don’t join together. Somebody make a decision. It would take only one of the big houses to start the ball rolling before the other houses would follow. We know this because the model is so familiar: Whenever some new thing, like say, books with “YOU” in the title, or dogs in the text or vampires on the cover, hits a nerve, then they all do it. That’s the way things work in publishing.)

I’m hardly the first to say that resistance to change is going to be the doom of mainstream publishing. But I admit it’s just beginning to sink in that Internet publishing has taken off so fast that New York publishers may have only five or six years before the empire really starts to crumble.

Of course they’re all making concessions to new ways of publishing on the Internet, but in terms of setting out those “dynamic new approaches” that are needed right now – come on, it’s the Obama era, for crying out loud – I worry that a new kind of paralysis is setting in.