Thursday, August 16, 2007

Reprints as profitable?!

I'd love to work with paperback reprints, finding lost treasures and bringing them back to life. But with used bookstores and used copies of books so easy to find online, not to mention that nasty programs at B&N wherein they publish cheap paperbacks of public-domain classics and then display them prominently in their stores, I just don't see how it could work well. But sometimes, you see it done well, and you realize it can happen.

I've always admired the titles published by the New York Review of Books, both in terms of the ones they pick to bring and in terms of their aesthetic. They're identifiable, and really nicely designed. I also have long been a fan of David Godine's reissues from the Black Sparrow backlist, which he acquired a few years ago.

So Publisher's Lunch today featured a link to a Wall Street Journal article about this phenomenon. Now because the WSJ often has content online that is not available to the public, I'm copying and pasting the whole thing. This also allows me to give the writer credit, but I still feel like I'm stealing.

Anyhow, here it is:

THE WEEKEND ADVISER
Big Sellers, Decades Later
By ROBERT J. HUGHESAugust
10, 2007; Page W2
Sometimes the second time's the charm in publishing. Two publishers -- Persephone Books and New York Review Books -- are finding unlikely success in the overcrowded book industry by turning out reprints of decades-old titles. Some are even getting noticed by Hollywood.

Author Kate Christensen discusses her new novel about a dead painter and the women who loved him. New York Review Books, an offshoot of the literary magazine, has published more than 200 adult and 30 children's titles, most of them reprints. Out next week from the Manhattan publisher is "Novels in Three Lines" by a turn-of-the-century Parisian anarchist, Félix Fénéon. The book is a collection of short, sometimes epigrammatic lines about incidents from life, which appeared in the French newspaper Le Matin in 1906.

The new volume is translated by Luc Sante, a New York Review of Books contributor whose own works include "Low Life," a study of New York's underclass.

Persephone specializes in novels by women. Among the London company's most popular releases is 1938's "Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day" by Winifred Watson, about a governess sent by an employment agency to the wrong address, where she finds a glamorous nightclub singer and helps her through misadventures. The reprint has sold 22,000 copies -- exceeding the sales of many well-received new novels today. And "Miss Pettigrew" has spurred a film adaptation starring Frances McDormand set to come out next year.

Some publishers find hits reprinting books from years ago. New Persephone titles this summer include Frances Hodgson Burnett's "The Shuttle" from 1907, about American heiresses marrying English aristocrats. Its books are sold through Persephone's Web site and Amazon.com. Next year, it plans to sell a few titles through U.S. bookstores.

Reprint publishers aren't under the same pressure to create instant hits as are publishers of new material, says NYRB publisher Rea Hederman. His books often take a year to gather momentum compared with the month or two that bookstores give a new title before they pull it from shelves. When NYRB last October released "A Savage War of Peace," about France's occupation of Algeria, it didn't take off at first. But what some people see as parallels to Iraq in the 1977 book have since turned it into a hit with American armed services. The title has sold more than 20,000 copies.

Some NYRB books also have attracted filmmakers. Darcy O'Brien's 1978 "A Way of Life Like Any Other," about the son of a fading star, was optioned by Ben Stiller's company. And "Dud Avocado," a 1958 comic novel about Hollywood by Elaine Dundy, is being developed into a film by producer Sara Risher, who is working with longtime rights holder Twentieth Century Fox. "The re-release made me realize it was timeless," Ms. Risher says.

Some independent booksellers embrace NYRB's list. Nancy Olson, owner of Quail Ridge Books & Music in Raleigh, N.C., says her staff recommends John Williams's "Stoner" from 1965, about a farmer who becomes a college professor, and has sold 60 copies so far. "They're not the kind of titles you'll see pushed in big commercial bookstores," she says.

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