3.25.2006

I Can't Afford Hardovers...


Hi Miss Snark -- I hope you don't mind a respectful question regarding the recent NY Times article about Morgan Entrekin and paperback originals. This article suggests that the demand for hardcover books originates not so much with publishers as with agents and authors (which I read as "agents", because I am guessing most authors defer to their representatives on issues like this).

I just posted a rather strongly worded piece on LitKicks calling for the industry to find a better way to price new books.

I thought it might be nice to follow this up by asking an agent if my ideas and arguments are way off base. Thanks for your time, and thanks as always for your excellent site.

Snark on ...



Well, I'm sorry to be the one to break the bad news but the publishing industry is interested in making money. A sad revelation I know, but since you heard it here first, feel free to blame me as the bearer of bad news.

The publishing industry will sell continue to sell hardcovers to libraries and other people willing to shell out the bucks for them as long as they can make money doing so. "It's not affordable for me" is close to irrelevant in their calculations.


Yes, I push for hardcover editions cause it's good for library sales, and national reviews. Yes, I like trade paper originals to build genre writers. Howver, for literary fiction, I know my market is librarians who read LJ, Kirkus and PW and will buy a hardcover book, not a guy in Brooklyn thumbing through the inventory at Brownstone Books thinking "do I want to buy this" no matter how nice he is.

The thing you want to rant about is the returns policy. That's 25% of the cost of a new hardcover book. It's absolutely disingenuous for publishers to blame agents and authors for unaffordable hardcovers when they refuse to change this outmoded and insane returns policy.

40 comments:

jta said...

Yes. Bookbuyers long ago learned to play the system, probably as soon as it was instituted. My library (blush)is at least half remaindered hardbacks bought when they were still shockingly fresh. Just wait a tick, buy it for peanuts. Stoopit.

I.J.Parker said...

Right on, Miss Snark.

Speaking as an author: yes, I prefer hard cover. It looks better, lasts longer, and gets reviewed in national papers. But readers don't like spending money on books. My hardcovers (like most) sold at $ 25.00. Readers, who don't balk at movie costs or music CDs or tickets for concerts and ball games, like their reading free (i.e. libray books) or nearly free (used books, bargain books, paper backs, or if really hard-pressed, trade paperbacks.) It's clearly a matter of priorities for them. Very little value attaches to books.

And that is the reason many writers cannot keep a foot in the door long enough to get a series going and readers complain loudly when their favorite series ends abruptly.

lady t said...

I read that NYT article too and I wonder why nobody has yet mentioned the triple play for pay release of books that's being going on for the last few years.

It used to be that after a hardcover run,a book would either be in mass market(mainstream and genre titles)or trade paperback(literary fiction and most nonfiction). One or the other was the way of it.

Nowadays,a hardcover can begat a mass market which begats a trade or a paperback orginal trade can begat a mass market and on some occasions,become a hardcover. As the shampoo ads use to say,and so on and so on.....

Basically,a publisher can sell the same book (not counting large print or foreign language editions)three times over! In some ways,this works out for the reader,since even a trade edition is abit pricey for some folks but on the other hand,it clutters up the marketplace,leaving little room on the shelves for newer books to get noticed.

Anonymous said...

Interesting! I recently had this conversation with my agent because one of the publishers she queried asked if we'd consider trade paperback format. That led to a discussion of libraries wanting hardcover, where books are reviewed, etc.

So, why couldn't a publisher print a smaller hardcover run for libraries and trade paperback for everyone else (assuming the economics are there to support the shorter hardcover run)?

anon-y-mouse

Anonymous said...

Do agents typically send work to these paperback-original imprints only after they've exhausted the bigger opportunities, as I assume that these imprints would offer a much smaller advance? Do paperback originals ever make back enough to give the writer royalties?

C.E. Petit said...

Two general comments:

* It's all Ed Meese's fault. Really. If he and his cronies under the Reagan Administration had not gutted antitrust law, one could sue the now-oligolpolistic distributors and major book chains for antitrust violations based on the returns system. However, the litigation strategy of the Reagan Administration resulted in overturning several key Supreme Court cases that would have allowed such a suit; it is now impossible. And, without a lawsuit, the system simply isn't going to change.

* For amusement, perhaps Miss Snark will consider commenting on cost/sales projections (some call them "profit & loss sheets," but if one believes the publishers—I don't, but that's another long story itself—most books aren't profitable) and how they affect author compensation and contract terms. (Hint: There's an irony built into this suggestion that I'm sure both Miss Snark and Killer Yapp will catch onto rather quickly.)

What this really adds up to—in the same way as most royalty statements add up to less than 100%—is this: Because authors are commercial entities and not employees, they can't unionize or bargain collectively for better terms. That's what really drives the system: The publishers know that they'll never have to tolerate a unified front among the authors, because it would be illegal. Rather ironic that the publishers can rely on antitrust law, eh?

EHsquared said...

As a former reference library assistant and a child raised in a house of books, I prefer hardcover. My husband hates that I would spend that much money when the paperback will appear soon. But I would. Especially on a series. I hate mismatched series. AND as much as I love libraries, I need to own my book so that I can read it whenever I want to - and what's on my shelves is also an expression of who I am. I guess I'm a target audience but when you grow up with almost every book in every room (EVERY room) hardcover, you tend to prefer it. It's part of our bygone days, huh?

In a perfect world, according to both my husband and I would, a home would have two libraries - hardcovers well preserved and then a paperback addition for reading.

Am I an ideal model, or what?

Kendall said...

U.K., publishers come out with HC & TPB (or HC & TPB & MM?) at the same time. No idea why it works, or if they're shooting themselves in the foot without realizing it. (I hear book trade problems in the U.K., are the bookstore chains' faults, much like in the USA.)

The original poster really can't wait to read book X? Self control! If you wait for things to come out in TPB or MM, then your reading is just as staggered & frequent as ever; instead of reading X, you would be reading T. Books U through V, coming out in TPB or MM, keep you busy till book X comes out. ;-) (And New York has only one library? How about inter-library loans?) BUT...

...Amazon.com discounts, chains discounting bestsellers, Borders Rewards (just formalizing prior coupon-y things they've done), book clubs, sales, etc. -- no one should complain about paying cover price for a new HC, sorry. One can support the author (& sales numbers) without paying full HC price! Sorry, pet peeve of mine -- so few people shop smartly, esp. for books.

If you don't care about supporting the author & letting publishers see your purchase (evil you ;-), then it's amazing how quickly & cheaply you can buy a HC used, frequently. But I couldn't find a two-year-old "book 2 in a series" -- out of print, while first & other books in series were in print! -- and I SCOURED stores & web, finding only $80 copies of this MM SF book! Since then, I try to buy new (with exceptions)...but I have so many books to read that I don't have to torture myself with HC v. waiting unless I really want to. Anyway, shop well, & you can still save a lot of money; people on budgets, with kids, etc. should figure this out.

Heck, put books on your wishlist for birthdays, Christmas, anniversaries, Valentine's Day, etc. ;-)

Re. returns, a famous fantasy author (who I believe also reviews) -- maybe Elizabeth Hand??? -- was asked what one thing she'd change about publishing, if she could. She replied "The returns system." She said that while she didn't have the solution, she was sure that with all the brialliant minds in publishing, a better way could be found.

Anyway, sorry to ramble on and not sound sympathetic to the original question, but you have to decide how important it is to you, "shop smart," and be patient. Good luck, you can do it! ;-)

donning flame-retardant jacket

Elektra said...

I'm the other way--I absolutely hate hardcover. It's bulky, so you can't hold it open with one hand, and they almost always come with those annoying dust jackets that never stay on.

BuffySquirrel said...

I rarely buy books in hardback except as gifts. The story will be the same in paperback, so why not wait? But then I can see a computer game released at about £40 and happily wait and wait and wait until it's £5. I don't feel this great need to have things NOW. Except chocolate.

Hardbacks are more durable, but a lot less comfortable for reading in bed :).

Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...

I said this before somewhere on this blog, but here it is again:

I buy more books in a month than most people do in a lifetime. It’s my business. I seldom buy or sell “trade paper.” I buy hardbacks. They’re my preference for my own library (probably about 12,000 books in that) and for my business. Hardbacks endure. They have a feel, an appearance, and an elusive quality that appeals to me and most collectors and readers. They are expensive new.

So, do what I do. I scout the thrift stores and yard sales. You’d be surprised what turns up. An example is Custer's Life on the Plains as a second edition (1878) from the Goodwill Store. Look that one up girl, and tell me it isn’t worth your time to check out the thrift stores. Contemporary fiction shows up by the box load. Most of it is junk from my perspective. But, I bought for my own enjoyment most of Weiss and Hickman’s Death Gate Series as hardbacks in Fine (never read) condition for seventy cents each. And my apologies to David Eddings, but I’ve yet to buy one of his books from a new-book store. Yet, all my copies are in very good to fine condition still in DJ and first editions with the exception of my first of Pawn of Prophecy. That was issued as a Trade Paper. My copy of that is lightly read and came from the Goodwill for fifty cents.

I know authors do not get royalties from the after-market sale. But, as a want-to-be author (when I’m not so discouraged over it I could scream) I wouldn’t mind if a book of mine found many repeat buyers in the after market. Each after market sale generates a potential new book buyer. The after market is free advertising.

Publishers are in business to make money. I understand the motive. I love books. But I sell them to make money. Cash. Dollars. I don’t buy what won’t sell, unless I want to read it myself. Publishers are motivated by the need for profit. No profit, no books.

BuffySquirrel said...

My friends would like me to point out that I should have written "Except chocolate--and rejections."

Lauren said...

I sense I might just be tossing a lighted match on the wood pile, but here goes.

I love hardcovers. I strongly prefer hardcovers. I will track down out of print hardcovers using ABE, AddALL, Powell's and the Tattered Cover before I'll buy a trade paperback (mass market paperbacks don't exist in my world). I like their strength, quality and beauty. I admire fantastic cover art. (In fact, I am a volunteer book design judge.)

But what will probably drive many authors--and no doubt Miss Snark--to drink is that I don't like paying high retail prices. While I do shop in independent bookstores, I am a major fan of remainder dealers , especially Edward R. Hamilton. (I never buy from Amazon or eBay.) ERH is where I get the majority of my new books. And why not? I am not giving up hardcovers, and price is a consideration. If publishers ever come up with a way to lower prices of hardcovers without lowering quality, then I'll reverse that buying habit and spend more at local independent bookstores. In the meantime, though, click ... click ... click ...

kaolin fire said...

Librarians read LiveJournal!?

Oh, wait. _That_ LJ. ;)

Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...

Dear Lauren,

Add bookfinder.com to your book search list. If I'm searching, I always try that first, then addall. Check ABE separately. An addall or bookfinder search will often miss things on ABE. I don't know why.

I do buy, and occasionally sell, on ebay. Great finds and bargains are on ebay. One must exercise due care. Really check on the condition. Ask questions. And check out the feedback! And never believe what the seller says.

I don't mean that most sellers lie. I mean they don't know what they're saying. I found a near fine first of Man in Lower Ten for a friend. We got it off ebay for 1.75 and postage. Because of the Howard Chandler Christy illustrations, this tends to be on the more expensive side as a true first edition. (35.00-125.00 unless signed, then it's a bazillion bucks! well about 200-500)

While this book sat neglected, five others all described as first editions drew bids. They were Grossett reprints with pastedown illustrated covers. Nice, but not first editions. We picked the cherry and felt sorry for those bidding on the Grossett reprints.

In my long-winded way, I'm saying ebay is great if you are careful.

Oh, and to those who were upset that I killed my blog: Sorry! Ok, don't beat me. I'll bring it back in a few days! Ok? Better?

Elektra said...

I know what you mean, Sha'el. I was looking for a nice, old copy of jane Eyre on eBay a while ago, and came across three or four people who were listing their as second edition (which is a mistake people unfamiliar with the book might make--there's a forward that says something like "for this, the second edition of my book"--people don't realze that the forward has been included in all reprintings SINCE the second edition)

Anyway, I E-mailed the sellers to tell them, "your listing is incorrect, here's why" (in all the cases it was really easy to tell--the second edition was still printed under Bronte's pseudonym, Currer Bell, and all the ebay books had 'Charlotte Bronte' printed on the cover').

Only one person actually changed their listing--all the others continued displaying information they knew to be false, in hopes of getting a better price.

Elektra said...

Oh, and J.K. Rowling had a thing with eBay, too. She contacted them and told them that most of the 'signed' HP books were forged. They didn't do a thing about it.

December Quinn said...

Elektra said...
I'm the other way--I absolutely hate hardcover. It's bulky, so you can't hold it open with one hand, and they almost always come with those annoying dust jackets that never stay on.



OK, seriously Elektra, this is getting spooky. I hate hardcovers for those same reasons, and almost never buy them.
They're heavy. I'm usually reading one-handed because I'm eating, or smoking (outside), or wrestling with a small child, or in bed. Holding a HC one-handed makes my fingers hurt.

I hate the dust jackets, and I hate even more when I take them off the book and they get damaged.

They're hard to read in the tub, they don't fit in my pockets or purse (the inner pockets of my jacket-obviously no book fits in my jeans pockets), and when a todler picks one up to hit you in the face with, it hurts a lot more than a paperback.

But they do smell good.

Elektra said...

Perhaps we were twins seperated at birth. Or dopplegangers, though I don't think we can both be those. It'll just have to be whichever one of us is evilest :)

Anonymous said...

My publisher switched to digital something or other around the same time I was signed. I'm clueless as to the details, but the end result is that they can print short runs, and then print more as demand requires. Since returns aren't an issue, my hardcover books are listed at $9.95, whereas similar, traditionally printed books go for $12.95 or more. I think everyone benifits: the customer gets a more reasonable price, the sellers can use that price as a marketing plus, the publishers don't have to worry so much about returns, and I reach more readers. As for the royalties? I'm collecting them on almost every sale, instead of getting screwed with discounts and over-runs.
Is this similar to Miss Snark's utopian vision?

Debra Kemp said...

>>Anonymous said...
My publisher switched to digital something or other around the same time I was signed. I'm clueless as to the details, but the end result is that they can print short runs, and then print more as demand requires. Since returns aren't an issue, my hardcover books are listed at $9.95, whereas similar, traditionally printed books go for $12.95 or more. I think everyone benifits: the customer gets a more reasonable price, the sellers can use that price as a marketing plus, the publishers don't have to worry so much about returns, and I reach more readers. As for the royalties? I'm collecting them on almost every sale, instead of getting screwed with discounts and over-runs.
Is this similar to Miss Snark's utopian vision?

3/25/2006 <<

An example of POD working for the publisher and author? Heaven forfend. The publishing industry will never withstand such blasphemy.

blaironaleash said...

' But readers don't like spending money on books.'

Readers will spend almost anything on books they really care about. If Elaine Dundy wrote a sequel to The Dud Avocado or Joss Whedon penned 'Angel - the Fifth Season Rewrite Novelisation Minus Creepy Right-Wing Torture and Murder Justifications'I would be there at the crack of dawn at the bookshop, credit card in hand and not even asking the price. Just gimme gimme gimme!

Free market, supply and demand, if you want people to shell out write a better more addictive book.

The Gambino Crime Family said...

I don't know. Wouldn't a no-returns policy hurt the first-time and less-than-mainstream author? I mean, if I ran a bookstore (and didn't have a bottomless pocket), I'd tend towards novels which I knew I could sell. Sure, it would be nice to support literary fiction but not if I went out of business doing so...

Anonymous said...

I know a little bit about the digital model in printing vs. the so-called traditional model. I'm only talking recent, not going back to Gutenberg, so fear not.

Briefly, the printer would take a photo of each page in the book (prepress stage, more complicated, but you get the gist) and place this image on a plate (assuming B&W) multiple times and then print x thousand of that page, where x is probably a minimum of 5 or 10 thousand. The process would be repeated for each page in the book. If the printer had the capability to perfect (two sides at once), then they wouldn't have to wait for the sheets to dry in order to print the second side. If the plates are full color, then the page photo is multiplied by four, one each for cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. These printers are capable of very long runs, in the hundreds of thousands, so the longer the run, the cheaper it becomes to print a single book.

The digital model is different and can be broken down into two different technologies--ink (Heidelberg, e.g.) or toner (Xerox, e.g.). With both, the prepress step is greatly shortened because the page image is digitized directly to plate.

In the ink scenario, the pages are still printed separately and require collation in the finishing step, much like the non-digital presses. This model allows for shorter runs, but still wants volume for cost effectiveness.

In the toner scenario, the pages are imaged to plates also, but the difference is, these plates live only as long as the length of the belt on which they're imaged (by a laser). A single sheet of paper is fed through and receives an electrostatic charge from the image on the belt (plate) as it moves through the machine. Each page can be different or the same, depending on how the person running the machine sets it up. A run of one will cost the same to produce as a run of thousands, so it's cost effective for very short runs (the cost keeps coming down, but the break even is probably around 2000 units). One advantage is you can print a complete book in a single run, and the finishing step is simplified.

I believe most printers are converting over to digital ink presses, where they still have to produce 2000+ units for a cost effective run, but will realize greater profit for this type of printing. Many will probably also have the toner technology to compete with the quick printers who are taking that piece of the market (one to one printing).

I hope I wasn't too technical.

anon-y-mouse

Bernita said...

Dear me, I can't afford a new Mercedes.
Wait, there are cheaper cars out there that I can purchase.

BuffySquirrel said...

READ books; sniff FLOWERS. Gottit?

:D

Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...

I would like to see a discussion of "returns policy." I'm totally uninformed on this. I sell used and atiquarian. If I buy it, it's mine even if I can't sell it.

I'd like to know more.

Anonymous said...

Thanks to the other anonymous for explaining the digital printing process. I'd like to add that the quality of books printed this way is excellent. My books include full color photos, actually taken on (brace yourself) FILM, and the images are rival those in expensive art books.

I agree with the gambino crime family about a no-returns policy hurting any writers not on the NYT list or backed by the mob. This is just my impression, but I think that POD results in fewer returns because there is no bulk printing discount to pass along to buyers, so they have no motivation to order more copies than they think they'll actually sell.

jta said...

Sha'el, see "Glorified Printers," Snarkives, 8.08.2005, post and comment.

Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...

I admit to sniffing books. It's a nasty addiction!

Ok, so I check them out for mold. If they stink, I put them next to a negative ion generator. It kills the mold, gets rid of nasty tobacco odors and such.

Some books just smell nice. Who knows what deeply seated psychological problems lurk in a bookseller’s psyche?

Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...

Thanks JTA. I read the post.

No, the returns policy makes no sense. I haven't a clue what one would use to replace it.

When the profits fade, I imagine the industry will find a new model.

jta said...

But it's a good bet, Anon, that more would sell at 25% less, off the top, not considering other possible discounts. New and unknown writers would presumably be in even better shape, because their lower advances, and less lavish editions, etc, bracket them nicely down the price scale.

I'd buy a title on spec for $9-12.95 if it looked good, but at $18-25.95 I have to pretty much know what I'm getting.

Plus, if booksellers had to invest fully in the titles they carry, they might stick with titles a bit longer than they do now, especially lesser known work, which now gets a quick sniff of the rarified air and then the bum's rush back to the loading dock.

Amra Pajalic said...

I completely agree with Elektra and December Quinn. I only buy paperbacks and even when I borrow from the library I only get hardback when there's no other choice. Because of the way I read I need it to be portable.

And I just don't understand the whole thing about collecting books that are not to be read. It just seems a waste of a good book. There's nothing sadder to me than the thought of beautifully preserved books lined a bookshelf for their aesthetic (or possible investment) purposes.

Anonymous said...

As far as buying books (or taking them out of the library) goes, I will only insist on hard cover for reference books. I prefer papberback, especially the trade paperback, for traveling, but will take hard cover if I have no other choice. Otherwise, I don't care.

Now, when it comes to reference books, what I'd really like to have is a combination of hardcover and electronic. I prefer keyword search to index lookup. I've also downloaded somebooks which are in the public domain, and then printed off a copy and had it GBC bound at Staples so I could carry it with me when I travel.

I bought the Hardcover version of The American Heritage Dictionary, Fourth Edition and it came with a CD which I installed. Now, I can look up those words when I'm writing without having to lug the nine pound dictionary out. I'm thinking for certain reference books, the best format is electronic.

anon-y-mouse

Debra Kemp said...

Speaking as a reader--a book is a book. If it's something I want to read (fiction or non), the format doesn't bloody matter--I'll buy the electronic version, the hardcover, the pb, the trade pb--so long as it's in Enlglish! I usually draw the line on audio books, though. That's one concept I can't quite get.

Levi said...

Miss Snark -- I wrote the original question, and I enjoyed your answer and the other highly varied responses here. Yes, I do understand that there are economic realities at work here. However, media industries do occasionally re-invent their pricing structure, and I am sure the current two-tier (or, actually, as another poster suggested, three-tier) price model is not the only one that can thrive. In fact it seems antiquated, since it doesn't seem to please a lot of consumers. That's all I'm saying ...

Also, to the person who gently chides me for my impatience to read new books -- well, I run a literary website, and so it's more about staying current (my original complaint was also somewhat facetious in that I am sometimes blessed with free hardcover review copies that show up in the mail, but I left out that point because it didn't help my argument).

Thanks, everybody, for making this an interesting discussion.

Anonymous said...

jta, I agree with you about the lower cost. I've read the Snarkives on POD, plus minor research elsewhere, and I must confess to having been a modern jackass on this subject. I don't know shit. I can't understand it, try as I might. I still like it, though.

jta said...

I just bought "Cell," Stephen King, for $14.95, at Costco. Cover price is $26.95. They must have had a thousand stacked up, right on the aisle. Yet I feel a bit ripped-off.

According to Publishing Contrarian, the rate of returns is 50-65% (which may reflect UK numbers, but who cares--it's all the same bottom line) so assuming they could drop the price, say, 30%--which would be a minimal cut--I could have gotten my nice signature-sewn hardback for about $!0 in a sane world. And that would be about right. SK wouldn't be hurt, Scribners would accomplish the same profit much more efficiently, (less shipping, bookkeeping, damage, shrinkage, etc etc) and I'd feel like less of a mark for buying the book.

I do like reading King's books, because I like to watch him doing the things he does, and does so well, but there's a limit beyond which one feels a fool.

Demand printing may have drawbacks (fewer remainders is the one that strikes at my heart) but it could usher in a change in the pub industry analogous to the introduction of antibiotics in medicine, a change that makes the enterprise a vibrant success, rather than a holding action. We need it. We need books, and if publishing doesn't change, it's going to die. Smell the coffee?

Anonymous said...

My wife only reads hard cover, brand spankin' new Sandra Brown novels. And I mean that is all she will read. For years I have tried to convince her that she could bye many more books with the money she would save if she would just buy paperbacks or used books. I have also spent a lifetime trying to convince her that there is an infinite number of worlds out there. What is she going to do when she runs out of Sandra Brown books!!

Anonymous said...

I usually draw the line on audio books, though. That's one concept I can't quite get. --debra kemp

As someone who had to spend many hours trapped behind the wheel driving to see clients from one end of the state to the other, I love audio books. Then, I had less time to curl up with a good book, and that was the only way I could fit my 'reading' in. I think there should be more audio books.