the axe for the frozen sea inside us
March 22, 2006 7:59 PM   Subscribe

Literary novels going straight to paperback. Because, you know, nobody reads them.
posted by The Jesse Helms (44 comments total)

 
Thank God. I hate waiting for all the books I want to read to come out on paperback before I can justify buying them.
posted by maxreax at 8:12 PM on March 22, 2006


same here. What a crock the whole hardback thing is! I end up buying books in paperback from Australia or the UK because they come out in paperback in half the time.
posted by small_ruminant at 8:53 PM on March 22, 2006


Gimme paperback or trade paperback. Hardback's too unweildy to read in the bathtub.
posted by orthogonality at 8:57 PM on March 22, 2006


Just to prevent this from being a chorus of agreement, I don't buy anything but hardcover and the occasional trade paperback. Mass market paperbacks are disposable trash.
posted by Justinian at 9:02 PM on March 22, 2006


Apparently, nobody read Gawker today.
posted by Heminator at 9:07 PM on March 22, 2006


It's true--if hardcovers were cheaper, especially for first books and unknown authors, sales would be better. Meanwhile the price of trade paperbacks keeps going up too.

Hem, i think the fact that it's not just niche or "risky" books that are being published this way is something new, no?
posted by amberglow at 9:25 PM on March 22, 2006


This is the perfect cue for some insider to spill the beans on the state of book sales. AFAICT, sales tallies are a guarded secret in the publishing industry. How many novels are published in the US, each year? How many sell more than 50,000 copies? 10,000? 1,000? ....etc. What's the sales dropoff curve like?
posted by Gyan at 9:35 PM on March 22, 2006


Does anyone actually like hardbacks? They're expensive and too cumbersome to schlep around. I don't think I've ever bought a hardback book (except those required by professors).

Hardbacks could die out tomorrow and I'd be fine with that.
posted by zardoz at 9:50 PM on March 22, 2006


I'm passingly curious how book sales have changed over the last 10 years, since the internet took off. I personally don't spend any where close to as much time reading printed material now. It amazes me to recall the days when I wasn't happy without a book to read.
posted by Goofyy at 10:01 PM on March 22, 2006


Zardoz: Paperbacks tend to be made of low quality paper. Combined with the glued binding, they don't last so well. Some people like to keep books 'forever' (myself). I do agree they can be a PITA. Sometimes I buy paperbacks for treasured hardcover books I own. Then I can read the paperback and even give it away when the occasion arises.

Come to think of it, the fact that paperbacks are so much easier to give away could ultimately reduce sales, if people are more casual about passing them around/trading or giving them away, than they would with hardcovers.
posted by Goofyy at 10:05 PM on March 22, 2006


My problem is when you cough up the cash for the hardcover of a book you love, and the spine splits the first time you read it, because even hardcovers are cheaply made these days. (But then I read mostly ebooks on my pocket pc these days.)
posted by markr at 10:09 PM on March 22, 2006


I've never had the spline split the first time I read a hardcover book. Actually, I've never had the spline split on a hardcover book at all!
posted by Justinian at 10:11 PM on March 22, 2006


Does anyone actually like hardbacks?

Yes. I love a book with a bit of heft. I love a book where I don't have to worry that the cover will get folded over if I lay it down sloppily. I love the way they look on my shelves, all different heights, not like MMPBs.

I love hardbacks. No, wait, that's not right. I covet them.

If you took away my supply of new hardbacks, I would pursue you in my giant flying head and when I finally caught you I would vomit guns upon you until you were mush.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:24 PM on March 22, 2006


The unit cost of hardback and paper back are not hugely different.

Hardback is effectively a marketing tool. Which ensures that a book gets two "bites" at the market. The hardback hopefully garners critical praise and prizes which translate to bookseller and market recognition and therefore sales.

Of course, in most cases this doesn't happen, but that's the theory.
posted by johnny novak at 12:10 AM on March 23, 2006


Well, why don't they publish hardbacks as a second run more often then? For those paperbacks which prove successful?
posted by Laotic at 1:05 AM on March 23, 2006


That used to be the theory, anyways. Seems everyone's cottoned on to what johnny novak is saying. The unit cost is high enough vs. trade paper and the aversion to the higher retail price great enough that it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to do hardcovers for many novels. Things like french flaps and improved paper stock and coatings mean that the perceived difference in quality between a trade paperback and a hardcover is shrinking rapidly. Basically, the only people who buy hardcovers these days are book fetishists, and while they make up a sizable portion of the reading market, they by no means support it alone.

This is the perfect cue for some insider to spill the beans on the state of book sales.

If there's a lack of published information, I'll bet at least part of the problem is simply that the information doesn't exist. Only recently have retailers in the States begun using point-of-sale tracking systems for sales data, and the Canadian market is just beginning to implement point-of-sale systems in places outside the big-box bookstores.

As for general trends, presumably the stats would be available in documents like annual reports delivered by the Association of American Publishers. Those documents come at a price, though (and a fairly steep one at that). From what I remember, though, the gross sales curve is a long tail curve, like you'd expect from just about any creative industry; a scant few books sell massive numbers, and the vast majority sell next to none. In Canada, I believe the average fiction book sells about 1000 copies, with bestsellers starting at 2500-5000; the American market is an order of magnitude bigger, though sales won't necessarily increase in the same way.
posted by chrominance at 1:06 AM on March 23, 2006


I think we can all agree it's not the height, it's the girth that matters.
posted by orthogonality at 1:08 AM on March 23, 2006


incidentally, this is exactly what Random have done with my first book. Given the nature of the book I think this was absolutely the right decision.
posted by johnny novak at 1:52 AM on March 23, 2006


90% paperback owner here. I treat them well, my copy of Infinite Jest looks like the day I bought it, not a single crease along the spine.

My problem with trade paperbacks is how large they are getting. I hate how publishers try to disguise that they're raising prices by making the book larger twice as thick. For example, Johnathan Franzen's first two novels are available as trade paperbacks at around $13 for 500 pages, and The Corrections costs $26 and is twice as big but is roughly the same length. They just use thicker paper, more whitespace and a font that isn't even that much bigger. I'd rather pay whatever the full price is and not be punished with the extra weight.
posted by bobo123 at 2:01 AM on March 23, 2006


Apart from the cost, I've got a space issue, so I tend to avoid hardbacks. I also refuse to buy gluebound hardbacks (increasingly prevalent in the UK) because I think they're a rip off, and don't last very well compared to sewn bindings in hardbacks.

Binding quality might be a particular problem for the UK however (certainly in my experience US paperback can be of much higher quality than British ones).
posted by drill_here_fore_seismics at 2:01 AM on March 23, 2006


I hate that trade paperback seems to be the paperback of choice for many novels these days. I do most of my reading in bed, so the nice small mass market paperback makes it easy to read on my side in bed. Hardcovers are just too unwieldy to read in bed (although I have to admit, I did buy Stephenson's System of the World trilogy in hardcover because it is so pretty, and it just feels RIGHT to have it in hardcover), not to mention if you want to schlep them around on the train.
posted by antifuse at 2:05 AM on March 23, 2006


Justinian: really? Doesn't happen all the time, but I've got a few large hardbacks (typically the 700+ page ones) where at some stage they've been opened a touch too far or something, and the glue that is all that binds the pages in the spine splits. Annoying. The hardcover itself is still fine.
posted by markr at 2:59 AM on March 23, 2006


Hey, look! It's a New York Times story I read eight hours ago. Thanks for reminding me about it. You should do that with all the NYT stories.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 3:03 AM on March 23, 2006


Hey, look! it's an interesting story from the New York Times I never would have read because I live in a different country on another continent. Thanks for telling me about it. You should do that with all the (good) NYT stories.
posted by brilliantmistake at 3:30 AM on March 23, 2006


Yeah, while you're at it, I think it'd be good to post stories from the front page of the Oslo paper, too. Norwegians are interesting. In fact, what'd really be cool is if MeFi were a news aggregator. And with a login, I could choose what news stories I want to track from what sources I like, big and small, and maybe include some securities quotes and the local weather for Albuquerque. Because metafilter isn't just best of the web, it's my eye on what goes on in the world around us. Because I'm a lazy fuck.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 3:50 AM on March 23, 2006


US paperback can be of much higher quality than British ones

US trade paperbacks, perhaps. US mass market paperbacks on the other hand, tend to be grossly inferior and tend to fall apart after a read or two.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 3:57 AM on March 23, 2006


There's a lovely snobbish line in a chick lit novel I read recently in which a mother-in-law is held up for cheerful contempt for giving a new hardback Len Deighton as an expensive Christmas present.

(I guess the US equivalent would be a hardback Tom Clancy or similar).

So there's still a lingering social class perception about a hardback being a "proper" book, because of its packaging, never mind the quality of the writing.
posted by Jody Tresidder at 5:09 AM on March 23, 2006


Well, if nothing else, this is a sign of the impermanence of literature. If I look through my bookshelves for paperbacks published in the late 70's/early 80's, they pages are all getting a golden brown, despite them being fairly well cared for and not exposed to the weather. The acid in the paper is eating them up from the inside. In another 50 years, they'll probably be nothing but dust covers and dust. Ashes to ashes, pulp to pulp.
posted by crunchland at 5:21 AM on March 23, 2006


I like hardbacks because they're hefty, pretty and they last well. I like paperbacks becuse they're portable. I'm a poor student though, so I pretty much only buy paperbacks unless I have to; I might ask for a hardback as a present. If I were having a book published, I wouldn't mind which form the publisher used.

The Jesse Helms, I appreciated this FPP! Ta.
posted by Drexen at 5:32 AM on March 23, 2006


My problem with trade paperbacks is how large they are getting. I hate how publishers try to disguise that they're raising prices by making the book larger twice as thick.

Amen. I treasure my paperbacks from the '50s and '60s (and buy more when I see them for sale cheap) because they're actual pocket books: they fit in your pocket. You could carry a scholarly work on, say, the Russian theater—one that today would cost $25 in paperback and weigh half a ton—in your pocket, pull it out and flip through it with one hand while holding your coffee with another, toss it to a friend. Paperbacks are great, small (and cheap) ones even better.

By the way, almost all books are "paperbacks" in France, with or without shiny flexible dust jackets. Doesn't seem to affect the importance they accord them.
posted by languagehat at 5:50 AM on March 23, 2006


I have a couple of books in trade paperback, and they are in good shape - even the ones that I bought used. My major problem with paperbacks is that I don't want to let people borrow them, as I'm never convinced they'll be as careful with them as I would be. When I buy a new book, I'm always a bit worried that someone will see it on the table and just start flipping through it without carefully breaking in the spine first.

For books that I know I want to keep forever, I do prefer hardcover. Of course these are books like Hemingway, Kipling, Tolkein, Steinbeck, etc. - well-known authors and generally well-known books. I'm not taking a risk here; I know that I am picking up something that I will treasure. I do buy hardcovers of authors that I am not familiar with if the novel looks interesting, but I often buy these used or off of the sale table.

So long as the trade paperback is a fairly nice quality binding, I'll pick it up: My centennial copy of Moby Dick is a trade, and I am about as pleased with it as I would be with a hardcover. It's true, I'm a sucker for the rough cut pages...
posted by caution live frogs at 6:13 AM on March 23, 2006


I buy used paperbacks from a local bookstore. They cost about half of the cover price if they are in good condition, less if they are in crappy condition. When I spend three-fifty on a book I can read it on the bus and not feel bad when I spill coffee all over it before I dog-ear the page to save my place. I can tear the copyright page out to write down a phone number or email address. And if someone wants to read my soggy, tore-up book I can lend it to them and never be concerned that I get it back. I can buy ten used paperbacks for the price of one hardcover. Hardcover books are great for reading while sitting by the fireplace in an overstuffed burgundy-colored leather chair while sipping a snifter of brandy and enjoying a meerschaum, but I only have a half-hour or so per week to read like that. The rest of my reading is done on the bus, or on a bench between classes.
posted by Cookiebastard at 6:17 AM on March 23, 2006


By the way, almost all books are "paperbacks" in France, with or without shiny flexible dust jackets. Doesn't seem to affect the importance they accord them.
posted by languagehat

Ah, but isn't there a super snob aspect to French philosophy paperbacks, languagehat?

They sell 'em in drugstores, after all - as if a portable volume of fine thought is a daily essential. I've never worked out if this is a slight affectation - or simply a nod to French public exams which still, I think, have a mandatory philosophy paper.
posted by Jody Tresidder at 6:36 AM on March 23, 2006


(author hat)

Hardcovers do a number of things.

For publishers, they serve as profit centers (as noted, publishers make rather more on hardcovers), but they also serve as signals to industry press and to booksellers that the book in question is one the publisher expects to have a robust sales life across the various iterations (hard cover, mass market paperback, trade paperback, etc). Hardcovers are in fact more likely to be reviewed than paperback originals, so releasing a hardcover allows the publisher to collect (hopefully positive) reviews that it will then put on the paperback covers to sell more in that format.

For authors, well, hardcovers make us feel pretty -- hardcovers are generally printed with an eye toward longevity, and that gives us the illusion that our books will be around even after we croak. Also, on a purely financial level, advances for books in hardcover tend to be higher than advances for books in paperback, and the royalties are also commensurately larger, both as a percentage and in terms of real money. It also means that there's an additional revenue stream, as some people who buy hardcovers won't buy paperbacks (and vice-versa).

For readers it provides collectors (either of books or of a particular author) a generally higher-quality, longer-lasting format. Many people do prefer hardcovers for reasons ranging from "feels more like a book" to "looks better in my bookshelf," and are willing to pay a premium for that advantage, whatever advantage it may be.

Personally speaking as an author I've had books originally published in hardcover and paperback, and I do notice people treat them differently. I make a habit of donating a copy of each new book I write to my local library; of my two most recent books, one was a paperback and one was a hardcover. The (new) head librarian was happy to see the paperback, but when I delivered the hardcover, the first words out of her mouth were "wow, this one's in hardcover." This is partly a library thing (their books get a lot of wear and tear), but it was also her signaling that hardcover bias. I've noticed a similar bias in others who aren't librarians.

I don't know if the format has any impact on sheer number of sales, to tell you the truth. The largest-selling book I have is a paperback original, for example. On the other hand, I strongly suspect that a hardcover release of my first novel made a difference to its overall sales, because it helped the book get reviews and attention, and that strategy from my publisher has had distinct dividends. One hates to say "it depends on the book," but, well. There it is.

(/author hat)
posted by jscalzi at 6:57 AM on March 23, 2006


Does anyone actually like hardbacks? They're expensive and too cumbersome to schlep around. I don't think I've ever bought a hardback book (except those required by professors).

Love 'em. I love their durability, their weight, and their size. I get a sense of survivability from a hardcover, which I don't get from a paperback. The pages are often thicker, and thus less susceptable to tears, rips, bends, etc.
posted by Atreides at 7:00 AM on March 23, 2006


Hardbacks are sexy.
posted by JanetLand at 7:29 AM on March 23, 2006


It's good that used MMPB's are cheap, so that you can get more books. But:

When I spend three-fifty on a book I can read it on the bus and not feel bad when I spill coffee all over it

No, you can't. You should feel terrible about ruining a book like that. It doesn't matter whether you paid $150 for a first edition or $0.10 from a junk store. You've still ruined a book, which is a sin.

before I dog-ear the page to save my place

I used to do that. *twitch* I've repented of that sin.

I can tear the copyright page out to write down a phone number or email address.

Sure. You could also tear off your child's arm or rip the skin from the author's back to jot down a note, which wouldn't be much worse. I mean, it's... it's... it's a *cue holy music* book.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:31 AM on March 23, 2006


ROU_Xenophobe: there are very few of us, but we know who we are.
/me Goes to back to erasing notes made by other people in library books.
posted by signal at 7:49 AM on March 23, 2006


I mean, it's... it's... it's a *cue holy music* book.

The yellow highlighter is a sin before G*d. I'd organize rallies outside of Staples, but since they put the posters up, the police get there too quickly for me to chain myself to the door handles.
posted by bonehead at 8:48 AM on March 23, 2006


ROU_Xenophobe, My kids are running out of limbs to tear off to write email addresses and grocery lists on.

;)
posted by Cookiebastard at 9:58 AM on March 23, 2006


Well, why don't they publish hardbacks as a second run more often then? For those paperbacks which prove successful?

They do this with paperback originals that sell well enough--go back and do a hardcover version. If the book is right for a paperback original, I don't see the downside for anyone.

I love all books--hardcover, trade, mass, library binding, you name it. I'll buy a book in hardcover if I simply can't wait to read it, and I don't have anyone to borrow it from. Otherwise I'll probably wait for the paperback. My opinion is a little skewed, though, since I work in publishing and therefore get most of my books free or half price. I consequently have way more books than I could ever keep up with reading, let alone reread hardly anything.

Sure, in a perfect world we would all have sturdy long-lasting hardcover versions of all our favorites, no matter how obscure. That's not how it works. From a publisher's point of view, that's obviously financially impossible. And returns are so, so painful. It breaks my heart to think of the books that get sent back to warehouses to just sit there. From the authors', well, I'd think having two to three times as many people read your novel would be a bigger ego boost than a hardcover. "Prestige" is a slippery thing--how prestigious is it if your publisher is passing on your second book, no matter what format your first one was in?
posted by lampoil at 10:01 AM on March 23, 2006


As library staff, may I note that hardcovers last a lot longer on a public library shelf, and can get a lot more circs before falling apart than most paperbacks.

I personally get hardcovers of books I'll read again and again when possible, and paperbacks of things I'll only read once. There is nothing like being surrounded by shelves of hardcover books.

But, I'm one of those book fetishists.
posted by QIbHom at 10:20 AM on March 23, 2006


20-30 dollars for a hardcover of an author you've never heard of is a lot of money--way too much for most readers and most people in general--and the book could suck.
posted by amberglow at 2:56 PM on March 23, 2006


ROU_Xenophone : No, you can't. You should feel terrible about ruining a book like that. It doesn't matter whether you paid $150 for a first edition or $0.10 from a junk store. You've still ruined a book, which is a sin.

Oh, come on. I love books, but really - if I spill coffee on a cheap copy then all I've ruined is paper. a) The Book, the text that transcends paper, lives on, and b) The copy itself likely still lives on, now with battle scars! Dog-ears are nothing to me, and scribbled notes provide useful insight or, at least, a glance at the activites and handwriting of some anonymous person who liked the same book.

My favourite of the books I own is a paperback War And Peace, lugged across three different deserts and up the Skeleton Coast, half disintegrating, and soaked with red dust. For me, that book has stories in it other than Tolstoy's. I'll take that over a shiny, crisp new hardback any day!
posted by Drexen at 6:27 AM on March 24, 2006


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