Thursday, January 29, 2009

Hating on Hardcovers

I'll admit it: I don't buy many hardcovers. Even as someone who loves books and bookstores and authors, it pains me to part with $27.95 + tax. I know Christopher has a strong stand against most hardcovers. And now I know that the ever- knowledgeable and punchy Pat Holt dislikes them too!

I previously covered Holt's "Things I'd Love to See" 3-part sequel, and now she's added a fourth: "Stop Starting with Hardcovers." In this post, she rails against the old publishing model in which publishers bring out hardcover editions first to get some money to offset printing and to get review attention, and then bring out the more affordable paperback later. Holt points out that this model is particularly hard to maintain in our current ever-shrinking economy, and suggests we change things up:
Publishers could print enough sheets to cover a small hardcover printing for the institutional (library, etc.) sale. They could release the trade paperback with pride as the first and most affordable horse out of the starting gate. The more copies it sold, the more it would become what we used to call permanent backlist (trade talk for a long-term spot in every reader’s heart). As people began to buy the hardcover edition - for gifts, or for their personal libraries (yes, readers still have them) - the title would begin to earn its way into increased hardcover publication.
What I like about Holt is her realism, that she doesn't suggest band-aids or just think aloud, but rather offers thoughtful responses to problems.

I also appreciate her ability to weave some historical context into her arguments. In this case, she mentions that publishers in the 1980s tried out original fiction in paperback editions to start, and they failed, and publishers still recall that failure and cringe at the idea of replicating it. But Holt dismisses their concerns: "As I recall, the experiment was a disaster because the process became so labor intensive (just to build up sales from ones and twos) that publishers decided the whole procedure got too costly. What they missed was that too many houses went after too small an audience at the same time. "

I have been at the meetings where we are all trying to figure out if we should go paperback original to capture a younger audience - students, activists, etc - or hardcover for review attention. Sales reps, without looking at production costs but particularly sensitive to pricing, would cry out for paperback originals, while the business department, looking at little more than our bottom line, would cringe when we presented the margins for paperback originals. But Holt's idea to go back to simultaneous publishing, something done quite commonly at university presses, is a smart one. Also as she points out, what review attention? With the Washington Post Book World the latest casualty in the war on book sections in newspapers, maybe publishers need to worry less about old-fashioned print outlets for reviews and more about bloggers and other online venues.

Soon I'll follow up Christopher's smart post on reading to show that both of us here at SoTB are NOT anti-technology, but would like to see books survive in some form. For now, I'll just side with Pat Holt in saying we need to rethink this hardcover business model. I'm still thinking through how booksellers can weather this change, however. It's hard to make money in a store full of $15 products. See this BusinessWeek article by Stacy Perman - and the accompanying comments - to start your thinking on how indie bookstores can survive. Clearly we need to factor e-books into the equation - again, for a future post. (I have no problem with e-books at all but I have a hard time imagining reading something like Emerson "incidentally," while in line at the grocery store, the way Robert Gray does. More tk.)

Before I sign off, I'd like to link to a nice if quiet behind-the-scenes article from Peter Osnos, the editor of Barack Obama's Dreams From my Father. See the value in editors? Enjoy!

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