Yes, They Can


Gee, I am still not hearing much enthusiasm from mainstream houses in New York about my idea that book publishers should stop putting out expensive and wasteful hardcover editions at the start of a book’s life and begin with original trade paperbacks instead.

(Here’s how most of the response went: You idiot. Original trade paperbacks are an old and outdated idea. Everybody’s tried it and everybody fails because trade paperbacks don’t get reviewed, don’t make enough profit for booksellers, aren’t taken seriously by TV/radio shows, and are too easily damaged in shipment. Even when they get to bookstores and even when they’re displayed face-up [too rarely!], the covers curl up on the table, so you lose about one out of ten.)

Remember, I’m not talking about established best-sellers that have found an audience willing to pay $30 per copy. I’m talking about books by new authors of midrange or serious literary books who don’t have a marketing budget behind them and can no longer depend on affluent readers who’ll take a chance on unknowns.

A Sales Rep Speaks

So: Do original trade paperbacks ever succeed? Thanks to Lise Solomon, a sales representative for the book distributor Consortium, here is a case in point:

“Last season I sold a first novel (‘Tinkers’ by Paul Harding), which I loved and wanted to make happen in my territory of Northern California. ” ‘Tinkers’ had the help of a Marilynne Robinson blurb on the cover and a great package from the relatively unknown independent publisher, Bellevue Literary Press, which announced the book as a trade paperback original. I had ARCs for key buyers and sold it passionately everywhere I could.

“The buyer at Book Passage in Marin County loved ‘Tinkers’ so much that she asked if there was any way Bellevue could print a hardcover edition for the store’s First Edition Club. The publisher did a short run of 500 copies, which sold out quickly, and ended up printing another 500. Then Powell’s in Portland, Oregon (the Northwest rep loves the book, too) asked about selling its own proprietary hardcover edition, too, and Bellevue printed 750 copies that presold out quickly.

“But most stores responded to the trade paperback. They were willing to bring in 4-12 copies of an unknown author from an unknown press.”

A Classic Case

So here is a classic case of launching a trade paperback from the ground up. The elements are: Passionate sales reps, savvy independent booksellers, a first book that stood up to expectations; and big initial orders (4-12 copies) that, compared to the usual buy for first novels (0-2) involved a risk on everybody’s part.

And if we are to take this story as an omen, it appears the hardcover audience has boiled down to a collectors’ market that bookstores like Powell’s and Book Passage know how to cultivate.

The chain bookstore reaction, I learned later, was typically haphazard, with Borders coming in for a strong order of 1500 copies and Barnes & Noble making almost no buy at all.

Word Began to Spread

Back to Lise’s story: “The publisher got a grant to bring the author (based in Boston) out for four bookstore signings because of the initial enthusiasm and because Book Passage needed its hardcover copies signed.

“Word began to spread. The San Francisco Chronicle reviewed it several weeks ago, as did the Los Angeles Times. The Boston Globe reviewed it last weekend, and rumor has it that it will get a New York Times Book Review soon as well.

“The trade paperback has been selling well because of the reviews and because of some passionate booksellers who wrote shelf talkers well enough that Bellevue sold through the first edition of 5000 paperbacks and 500 hardcovers. Bellevue went back to press for BOTH. Those just landed, and we’ve been out of stock for a few weeks, every rep’s nightmare, but I Bellevue is planning for a third printing since over half of the second printing is already sold.”

Is “Tinkers” a fluke or are original trade paperbacks finding a newly receptive place in the world? Lise Solomon says, are you kidding? “This should be the model!”

Looking at The Numbers

I asked Bellevue Press’s editorial director, Erika Goldman (below right), how many copies of the trade paperback edition have been sold since its January publication. She said, “8,000, and we’re about to go back to press a third time for a total in print of 12,500.”

To put that number in perspective, I remember back in the Big Bubble ’80s when the marketing director of Knopf told my colleague Bill Chleboun and me how dispiriting it was to send out a first printing of 3000-3500 hardcovers for first novels and see most of the copies returned in three months.

Even Knopf with its elegant reputation for discovering gifted authors could not generate enough hardcover sales to keep those books from sinking through the slats. So for Bellevue Press to reach 12,500 in three printings only two months after publication is pretty sensational.

Weaning Off Hardcovers

Could trade paperbacks like “Tinkers” become the norm? Could a publisher just stop publishing hardcovers first, and begin most books’ lives with trade paperback editions?

I admit it’s taken a while to get the ‘hardcovers first’ notion beaten out of me,” said Erika on the phone from her tiny office at Bellevue Literary Press in New York.

A veteran editor from the mainstream (Simon & Schuster, Charles Scribner’s Sons), Erika added, “I was raised with the idea that if you don’t publish a hardcover first, you’re not going to get review attention. But distributing with Consortium has taught me a lot. I asked them point blank if there were any books that should be published hardcover first, and they said, ‘Other than art books, not really.’

“So we had the strange experience at Bellevue Literary Press of doing our first fiction books in hardcover because I was trying to wean myself off an old need. From then on we’ve been focusing on publishing fiction in trade paperback exclusively.”

Erika didn’t have to convince an acqusitions committee or pub board to go along with her. With her assistant editor, she is one of two full-time staff members, having co-founded Bellevue Literary Press with Dr. Jerome Lowenstein (below left), a faculty member at New York University School of Medicine, about three years ago.

Jerome Lowenstein  photo by Paul Steinke

How Bellevue Started

If you’re wondering whether the “Bellevue” of the title refers to the nation’s first public hospital (the one where all the crazies and the killers allegedly used to go), you’re right: Bellevue Hospital, now 271 years old, is both a general hospital whose ER is filled with patients handcuffed to stretchers and a modern medical center affiliated with the NYU School of Medicine.

For many years, third-year medical students at NYU School of Medicine have been required to write essays about their experiences with patients – not clinical experience, mind you (“3 mg Percodan administered 0500 hours”) but personal experience, the kind that inspired philosophic and poetic meditations.

Over the years these writings have been so eloquent that in 2001, The Bellevue Literary Review was created, consisting of student writings and outside submissions. The BLR, which continues to publish poetry, fiction and nonfiction twice a year, in turn generated discussions about whether NYUSM could publish books, and voila, the Bellevue Literary Press was born in 2007.

Most of Bellevue’s 20+ titles are decidedly not about health advice or medical advancements. (“We don’t publish popular reference titles at all,” says Erika, “only narrative nonfiction and fiction.”) Like the BLR pieces, the titles are loosely related to medicine and other sciences. Manuscripts qualify for submission if they “tell us something about the human condition.”

“Tinkers,” for example, is ostensibly about epilepsy and the way it was treated in the 1920s. But the writing is so dense with ideas that epilepsy is only a lens by which Harding examines much larger issues — humanity’s bent for harnessing chaos, for example, and what we learn when order tends to, you know, blow up in our faces. (See complete and better written review next time.)

Drawing the Reader In

With its look-closer illustration of a distant, lone man walking toward a forest in a vast blanket of snow on the front cover (see above) and praise not only from Marilynne Robinson but Barry Unsworth, Elizabeth McCracken and a starred review from Publishers Weekly on the back, “the package draws people in,” Erika Goldman says, “and when they start reading, they can’t leave.”

Using a hardcover to reach those readers, adds Erika, would have been a mistake. “We think it’s more important to get as many readers as possible, and with the price point for the paperback, we can still make the book beautiful.

“Bellevue Press titles don’t have to be hardcovers to be appealing objects as books, and we believe very much in the book as a beautiful object. That doesn’t mean we’re not responding to the whole electronic-download world, because we are. But we also want our physical books to be cherished, and you can do that with a beautiful trade paperback.

Erica Goldman

“So I don’t feel that we’re sacrificing any of our aesthetics by publishing in trade paperback first – I think we’re freeing ourselves up to respond to the market in a way that we can’t as easily when we do hardcover.”

A Loaded Question

I asked Erika this obviously loaded question: “After your many years with mainstream and corporate publishers, do you feel that working out of your tiny office for a tiny independent house has changed the way you think about the book industry?”

“I felt the difference immediately,” she said. “My first BookExpo after the founding of Bellevue Literary Press was like coming home to all the passion and all the quirkiness and all the originality that leads to a lot of unusual titles. For me it’s that counterintuitive energy that book publishing is all about. At BEA it was just so exciting to be in the [small press] aisle rather than running up and down the stodgy, stuffy, uptight, besuited corporate aisles.”

[How I love that word “besuited.”]

Still, I said, Consortium sells a huge number of titles coming from dozens of other presses to quite a number of bookstores. Don’t you worry about Bellevue’s books getting lost in the shuffle?

Erika: “You know what I used to worry about? A lot of jaded people in mainstream publishing who would say, every time you express enthusiasm about your titles, ‘Yeah, well, show me another one. It’s a very different attitude at Consortium, and much more rewarding from my perspective. I’ve never worked with a sales group that’s more service oriented and responsive and impassioned.

“I’ve always been a mid-list editor so I tend to treat every one of my titles as an individual labor of love. Of course I’ve published books for commercial reasons, but for the most part I’ve worked on lists that I’ve crafted and that have been expressive of my sensibilities and vision. Trying to get attention for that part of the list is never easy, but at Consortium, that’s what they’re about. I don’t have to make excuses for it.”

Erika Goldman adds that she’s not a one-person show. “Our wonderful assistant editor, Leslie Hodgkins, manages much of the list, and we have a fabulous consultant, Janna Rademacher, doing publicity and marketing. I’ve felt it was essential to pursue all phases of the publishing process, especially when so much momentum can get word of this trade paperback out to an audience that will take a chance on it.”

Next column: A review of “Tinkers,” a book that will haunt me as long as I live.