Written by Literature

Publishing Straight To Paperback

A fascinating piece from Saturday’s Guardian explains how going forward, Picador will be publishing nearly all their literary fiction straight to paperback with an expected £7.99 price point. A limited number of guaranteed sellers will retain their hardback status, and some titles will get published in both formats – one aimed at collectors/fans.
To my mind, it’s a smart idea. I’ve never really understood the way that a book comes out in a format that few will read – reaping all the attendant publicity and reviews at the time – then a year down the line, the cheaper paperback comes out, with only a song and dance really being made if the publisher’s marketing department starts spending on advertising.
It sort of makes sense in cinema where reviews are only really given to titles that make it to the big screen. So even a relatively small film will try for a one-week run in London to garner those national reviews, before quickly turning up on DVD.
It’s not quite that simple with books, where plenty of other factors are in play. I don’t work in publishing, but it seems to me that the book club market is not as big as it once was, and they were an obvious target for hardback buyers. You get guaranteed sales as a publisher, but at lower rates. The reader gets a nice big hardback for their bookshelves.
Then there’s been the emergence of the trade paperback. At first they were bookclub only editions – perhaps from someone like QPD. I certainly picked up a few “hardback” titles in that format through bookclubs faster than if I’d had to wait for the high street paperback. More recently, they tend to be the “airport exclusive” edition, selling at roughly a tenner each and coming out simultaneously with the hardback.
Sometimes these trade paperbacks filter down to bookshops, but often as a stop-gap between hardback and a full paperback. Because, as the article notes, Richard & Judy’s Bookclub demands a paperback, it often comes in the trade paperback form – Arthur and George by Julian Barnes was a good example. Or it just might be a publisher’s exercise to maximise returns (possibly after paying out significantly in an advance). So Derren Brown’s Tricks of the Mind came out in hardback for last Christmas, trade paperback in May for summer reading, and in a mass market edition last month for this Christmas.
The celebrity hardback is probably not going anywhere while publishers continue to pay handsomely (some would say, foolishly) for their largely-ghostwritten memoirs. What we are seeing is an escalation in cover price to allow for half-price deals. £20 or even £25 cover prices are becoming the norm so that you can still clear a tenner or more at retail while offering a massive 50% off (or even more online).
But if literary titles aren’t selling enough, then you’d be foolish not to publish directly to paperback. I’m surprised that Picador aren’t using the trade format and gaining closer to ten pounds a book rather than the £7.99 price point. You rarely see trade paperback titles in 3 For 2 offers, yet £7.99 books are far more ordinarily in these deals.
Where the big changes are going to have to happen is in the literary press. Paperbacks are shoved away at the back in a small half page roundup. Only a handful of higher-profile titles get the full 1000 word treatment – although it seems unlikely that Cormac McCarthy’s next book wouldn’t get this no matter what format it arrived in. It already annoys me that there’s never any rush for editors to tell us when big titles have arrived in paperback. Sometimes to two line pithy reviews come a month after the title has reached shops. They’d never wait that long for a major author in hardback, but then pages will be found for those writers’ reviews to appear. There isn’t an eight book limit because “that’s what our paperback roundup review looks like”.
In summary then, this is a bold move, but a smart one. In any other area of the arts, the reviews appear, and then most people try to see or hear the endeavour being reviewed. The first weekends of a film’s release are when most people watch it; the first weeks of an album’s release are when most people buy it; the early weeks of a new play’s production are, with a few long-running exceptions, when most people go to see it. But in publishing a review comes out, and you might well make a note to check the title out in a year’s time when it reaches your price bracket.
An interesting contrast is the US market, which seems even worse to me than our market. I don’t know what the health of the publishing industry’s like in the US, but the “one year rule” doesn’t necessarily hold true.
What seems to happen is this. The hardback comes out first. Then, sometime down the line, a paperback version of the novel may come out. An exceptional example might be The Da Vinci Code. This came out in hardback in the US in March 2003. The UK hardback came out in July the same year. By March 2004, the book was in paperback in the UK. The US paperback didn’t come out until May last year to tie in with the film – three years after hardback publication.
The average price for US hardback is currently around $26-28, with some titles going for a bit more, and others for a little less. Then, if the book is a “literary” title, it comes out in a larger format trade format. These titles are likely to have a $14-16 price point, which isn’t a great deal less than the hardback price if you think about it – certainly less of a differential than many UK titles.
Finally, there’s the mass market paperback market (which gets a separate bestseller list from the New York Times), where books are around $8-$10. If you wander into the average Barnes & Noble (based on my trip to New York a couple of weeks ago), you’re likely to see many more trade titles than mass market titles. Although genre fiction comes out in the mass market format, and it’s these titles you’ll see in supermarkets and pharmacies, “proper” bookshops relegate these editions. A literary author won’t even see their book come out in this format. At least I know that I’ll be able to eventually read Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach in a “mass market” edition (even though I know it’ll be eight quid for less than 200 pages); in the States, that’s not true. Mass market titles in US bookshops, tend to be hidden away, and are not to be found on the front of shop tables where the bestselling books are displayed.
Now it maybe that the US book market is vibrant and doing very well thank you. But when I see The Kite Runner priced at $15 and convert that to £7.50 at a very good exchange rate, it’s not hard to see that it’s a pricey buy. The UK edition may be £7.99 but I’d expect that US price to be slightly more favourable than that given that weak dollar. And UK booksellers seem to run vastly more titles in 3 For 2 promotions and the like, than their US counterparts. The Kite Runner will show up in UK supermarkets (and will again with the release of the forthcoming film). But that’s much less likely to be the case in the US. Popular fiction doesn’t get much cheaper than £6.99 in the UK, and mass market fiction in the US starts at $7.99 as I say. So US literary purchasers aren’t getting a great deal. So my question is this: are US publishers not attempting to reach the cheaper end of the market, and are they, in doing so, missing out on potential sales?