Things I’d Love to See #4


(I began the series with Three Things I’d Love to See, but in the midst of a failing economy I think there are probably going to be quite a few more – you know, about 16. This one I’ve thought about for years and could easily have made the top three.)

Here’s why I know a book industry era has come to an end: One publisher after another keeps referring to hardcover books as “promotional copies for the paperback edition.”

Yes, hardcover books are selling so poorly that their only use for publishers is to get reviews, book interviews for the author and pave the way for a trade paperback edition that the real audience can afford.

True, the few hardcover books that hit bestseller lists can pay off big time, but these are known commercial hits that are worth giant marketing budgets from the beginning. Or so publishers think.

It’s a much more dangerous risk to try making an unknown author’s book a bestseller, which is why “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle” (before Oprah) was so thrilling: Ecco/Harper knew exactly how to manipulate the formula of big-sprawling-summer-novel+Hamlet gimmick+beautiful-writing+struggling author backstory+DOGS DOGS DOGS = Must Read.

A larger truth, however, is that mid-list and serious literary books by lesser-known authors rarely find their audience in hardcover. Those adventurous readers who watch and clip reviews, look for new voices and love heated book-group discussions most often wait for the paperback, and who can blame them? The cost of a hardcover book after sales tax is about $30. The cost of a trade paperback after sales tax is about $15.

Every few months or so I like to save up $100 and spend it on books that call out to me in an independent bookstore. I never ask myself: Would I like to purchase 3 books for that amount, or 6 books. (Okay, granted, I often end up spending $200 for hardcovers I can’t wait to read but that’s another story.)

Reasons to Stop

What would it take to stop publishing hardcovers right off the bat and start with the trade paperback as the original first edition?

First off, it would save a lot of money at the bindery. Publishers could print enough sheets to cover a small hardcover printing for the institutional (library, etc.) sale. They could release the trade paperback with pride as the first and most affordable horse out of the starting gate. The more copies it sold, the more it would become what we used to call permanent backlist (trade talk for a long-term spot in every reader’s heart). As people began to buy the hardcover edition – for gifts, or for their personal libraries (yes, readers still have them) – the title would begin to earn its way into increased hardcover publication.

Years ago in the 1980s a number of publishers established original fiction lines in trade paperback and tried to market their young, unproven authors to young, adventurous readers. As I recall, the experiment was a disaster because the process became so labor intensive (just to build up sales from ones and twos) that publishers decided the whole procedure got too costly. What they missed was that too many houses went after too small an audience at the same time.

This is the sour taste that’s still in their mouths when publishers look at me aghast and say, “Stop starting with hardcovers?” Why, you can’t reverse the system so abruptly; it would take millions to reeducate the audience, let alone the media; the few book reviewers/interviewers left wouldn’t take the book seriously; booksellers would kill us; Oprah would hate it; agents would leave us, and so on.

In other words, more defenses, but come on. Oprah would love to tell her viewers they can save money on the books she loves from now on. Booksellers I’ve talked to say that if the original trade paperback “turns” twice as fast as the hardcover, no problem. Agents want higher numbers than hardcover sales can produce. Book bloggers are readers and they love trade paperbacks, as much as their audience. And besides: What book reviewers? What media?

How to Start

One way is for publishers to start cutting back on selected hardcovers – and I don’t mean the ones they pile up in stacks at the front door of chain bookstores (and pay through the nose to do it) in the deluded belief that people buy more copies when they see big mountains of the things on the sales floor.

I mean the titles that independent bookstores still buy in twos and threes with little hope of getting them unloaded. I mean the books that publishers know are going to make it or break it in trade paper, not hardcover. I mean keep decreasing the first printing of hardcovers and put whatever promotion you can afford behind the trade paperback. We used to call these “simultaneous” print runs, and with today’s inventory and printing technology, a close watch on sales can cover all the bases.

I think one of the most painful experiences for any customer today is to walk around the New Release table and drool over unknown new hardcovers that just aren’t worth the risk.

But one of the flat-out joys for that same customer is to walk around the New Releases in trade paperback and start picking them up with anticipation because for 15 bucks, at least one unknown title that looks promising and special is going home with a very excited reader.

P.S. I just want to add that I’m a big fan of hardcover books in the old way, which is to say that even when trade paperbacks caught on, hardcover books were cherished for their durability and permanence, gave the publisher some security with automatic library sales and made a statement about posterity just by being bound.

That statement to prospective authors was this: You can write a very good piece in a newspaper or a very good article in a magazine. But when you write a full-length book with sewn signatures and (sometimes even leather) bindings, not to mention expensive jackets just to keep the dust off, you are writing for the ages, and you better be great.