Saturday, January 24, 2009

Another Person Ignorant of Gresham's Law

In the midst of another one of the tedious "just stop publishing hardcovers, OK?" essays that people halfway connected with the literary world seem required to commit, Pat Holt writes this:
Publishers could print enough sheets to cover a small hardcover printing for the institutional (library, etc.) sale.
No, they couldn't. If there's a cheaper edition, the institutions -- libraries, in particular -- will buy the cheaper edition. (I believe many libraries have rules requiring them to buy the cheaper of two simultaneous editions.) This is what killed the experiments in this direction during the mid-'90s.

You can't go half-and-half. You either publish a hardcover or a paperback. And, if you choose to go to paperback, you're not -- except in a very few extraordinary cases -- going to be able to go back and do a hardcover later.

So: if you do a hardcover first, you can have a second chance with a paperback, and along the way recoup some of your costs -- maybe, if you're lucky, you'll even make some money on that edition. If you do a paperback first, it has to be profitable -- there's no second chance.

Is this really that hard for people to understand?

(I'll avoid Holt's implicit assumption that people would magically buy and read more books if they were published in cheaper editions, as if time and desire come bundled with paperbacks.)

Update: As usual when ranting, I excluded the middle entirely, so, now that my head is a bit calmer, let me back up slightly.

I don't mean to say that original paperback publication is a bad idea -- obviously, it works in a large number of cases.

My point was that Holt's prescription was, essentially, to stop publishing consumer fiction and non-fiction in hardcover unless they were guaranteed bestsellers, and that seemed like a thoroughly dumb idea to me. (It still does.)

I'll answer some of the specific points from comments in comments; I've always thought that it's not fair to stomp on commenting dissention with the heavy boot of the amended original post.


John Klima said...

Every library I've worked at, buys the hardcover, when we're talking about typical bookstore book like Stephen King or Malcolm Gladwell, when available because it will last longer. One library I worked at required the purchase of hardcovers. If something only came out in mass-market original, it wouldn't get purchased unless patrons requested we purchase it.

If we're talking textbooks, or speciality books, like Physician's Desk Reference, where the difference between hardcovers and softcovers can be $100s, well, then we buy the cheaper one. But often in these cases, there isn't two editions to choose between.

Going back to my first point, usually you confront that problem when you're getting books that have been out for a while and have had a hardcover and a paperback release. You almost never see simultaneous editions.

Anonymous said...

I think that Holt implies that more people would buy books if cheaper editions were available because he would buy more books if cheaper editions were available. So would I.

I realize it wouldn't motivate non-readers to become readers and non-book-buyers to become book-buyers.

mirlacca said...

(I'll avoid Holt's implicit assumption that people would magically buy and read more books if they were published in cheaper editions, as if time and desire come bundled with paperbacks.)

But speaking for myself, I would damn well buy more books if they were published in cheaper editions, because THEY COST LESS. Instead I go to the library, which puts no money in the author's pocket, because I can't AFFORD to buy expensive hardbacks.

Anonymous said...

I've always detested mass-market paperbacks, and while I don't mean to suggest that the publishing industry should revolve around me -- I know I'm an outlier -- I would be quite distressed if the books I wanted to buy came to be available exclusively in that form. Unlike many, I'm fairly indifferent on full-size trade paperbacks; they're big enough to read comfortably, and they're cheaper, but they aren't as durable. Choice is good.

Jess Nevins said...

Echoing John's point--most of the libraries I've worked at, public or academic, required us to buy hardcover, and for the same reason John mentioned. This hasn't -always- been true, but in most cases it has been.

Ray said...

I love the self-contradictory bit -

"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.) "

Publishers should stop publishing the expensive format of books, with the higher profit margings, even though you keep buying them?

Mimouille said...

I prefer paperback books, not because of the money (I never count when it comes to books), but as I read in many different places, I find paperback more convenient. In France the issue is not really the same as there are almost no hardcover books, just a "large" edition for new books, and a cheaper "pocket" format for older books, both paperback.

I am not familiar with the publishing business, but I don't fully understand what you are saying (not because its wrong, just because I don't know the business...). But the hardcover does not sell well and is not profitable for the editor, then the paperback has to be profitable enough to compensate for the losses on the hardcover. Does that happen ?

Anonymous said...

There are a lot of books in publishing that never get a hardcover publication. In genre fiction, particularly, the greater portion of authors still start out in mass market paperback, and only when they get an audience large enough that some might buy the more durable hardcover do they get a debut in that format. In self-help, many books are put out in the larger trade paperbacks, and so on. So if hardcovers aren't selling on an author, but the paperbacks are, then the publisher will stop doing hardcovers for that author or type of book, and we have less hardcovers. But since some hardcovers do sell, there is no reason to get rid of all of them, as their existence does not effect paperback sales.

Andrew Wheeler said...

John: It probably hasn't been an issue for public libraries, since simultaneous editions are rare in the trade. But I've been hearing library-sales reps plead with the managers of certain types of products at my current employer for the last two sales conferences -- they say that when there are two ISBNs for the same product, the more expensive one doesn't get any sales at all. (These books are mostly going into university and corporate libraries.)

I may be being pessimistic, but I expect if simultaneous editions were common, that public libraries would also gravitate to the paperback. (Even if the case of heavily circulated books, possibly, because those would then be cheaper to replace, or to discard once they stopped being in huge demand.)

Andrew Wheeler said...

Anonymous: Holt is trying to imply that, I think, but she undermines her own argument by making it clear that she's very willing to buy the books in hardcover herself.

From the point of view of a manufacturer, why deliberately sell the same product at a lower price and margin if the sales are likely to be similar?

Andrew Wheeler said...

Michael: What I was saying -- and probably didn't make clear -- is that it's unlikely that a mid-level hardcover would sell so badly that it didn't cover the costs of its own particular edition. (Printing, publicity, marketing, etc.)

So if the assumption is that these books will have a paperback edition, some of the sunk costs of the book (overhead, advances, etc.) will probably be covered by the hardcover edition, thus making the paperback more likely to bring the book into profit.

(This doesn't apply to the kind of books aimed strongly at the bestseller lists; those have massive marketing/publicity/printing spends, which are entirely lost in all of the many cases when those books aren't successes.)

Anonymous said...

Not only are paperbacks less expensive, but, and this is important if you're a book hoarder (vs. collector), they're lighter and take up less space, easier to fit in your apartment and carry off when you move. In the past I've not only waited for the paperback but waited for the mass market paperback due to considerations like that.

There used to be a couple of authors like Reginald Hill that I would buy straight off without waiting for the paperback, but the only thing like that I can see coming any time soon is Cloud & Ashes. A nice alternative that might make me expand that list would be if the publishers would resurrect the smaller, lighter hardbacks they had before the '50s and '60s.

What burns me are books that take years to get into paperback. In the US we're still waiting for the first domestic paperback edition of Brasyl. Red Spikes has been stuck in hardcover for well over a year. And the last two Peter Watts Rifter books (actually one that was split into two hardcovers by the publisher) have never come out in a paperback edition, many years later now. Is 6-9 months not a reasonable period to expect a paperback within? A similar thing is books that stay in trade paperback forever, like Mists of Avalon (don't know if that finally got a mass market edition or not).

Finally you throw up your hands in disgust and say (as mirlacca says), "Well if they don't want me to buy their product I'll go to the library and read it that way!"

Anonymous said...


I've done a few books in hardcover and trade paper simultaneously in the past, and if I recall, library sales were about equally broken down between the two editions.



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