Wanting to Be Paperback Writers … and Publishers

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Paperback originals -- they are prominent on the Book Sense Bestseller and 76 lists, on the pages of distinguished book reviews, most certainly in shoppers’ hands, and in the beach bags and suitcases of those planning their summer reading. Have they always been there, or are we seeing a burgeoning new sales and marketing idea? Some of the major publishers of these paperback originals discussed with BTW what types of authors are appropriate for this format and why.

Cited repeatedly as suitable for paperback originals are authors representing new voices, "edgy" writers, poets and playwrights, and writers appealing to young markets with books about music, film, and entertainment. Books originally published in paperback on the current July/August 76 are Housewrights by Art Corriveau, from Penguin, and Notable American Women by Ben Marcus, from Vintage. Emily Barr’s Backpack, from Dutton/Plume, is on the Summer Paperback 76.

Russell Perrault, vice president and director of publicity for Vintage Books, a division of Random House, talked to BTW about Notable American Women and why its author was a prime candidate for an original paperback publication. He explained: "We’ve been tending toward a younger market -- writers of experimental fiction, for example. Authors (and agents) have been hesitant about [publishing in paperback original] because those books were very rarely reviewed. This has been less and less of a problem. An example is Ben Marcus -- I never say this -- but with this book, there isn’t anything we did wrong. His book got the attention a new book by Phillip Roth might have gotten. Everyone, including the directors of sales, marketing, and publicity were excited about it. It was reviewed across the country, prime placement, and a tour. Had it been published by a hardcover house -- it would have been one of several books that season. For Vintage, it was in a very special position."

Reports of a (Longer) Happy Shelf Life

Marcus’ first book, The Age of Wire and String, was published by Knopf and went out of print. In 1998, it was reissued in paper by Dalkey Archive Press. Chad Post, editor and director of sales and marketing for the nonprofit Dalkey, told BTW that the small house has made it its mission to "keep in print as many of the great experimental books of the last 100 years as possible," including many books that were out of print in America when Dalkey first published them.

Post continued: "The Age of Wire and String has sold very steadily. Sales have jumped with the release of Marcus’ new book, and it’s taught at certain universities. Commercial houses, of course, have much higher sales requirements. With a hardcover book, if it doesn’t sell right off the bat, bookstores will return them to the publisher within six months. Too much cost is tied up in excess stock of the hardcover. Also it requires much more shelf space, and booksellers expect the paperback release within a year so they are hesitant to reorder or special order the hardcover. A paperback original can stay around much longer."

Jennifer Hart, vice president, associate publisher for Perennial and Quill, talked to BTW about the benefits of publishing several new books in paperback original. She noted: "We’ve always published a certain number of nonfiction, self-help, and resource books as paperback originals, but this summer we have a concentrated number of original paperback fiction titles. They include Elizabeth Evan’s book of short stories, Suicide’s Girlfriend; Denis Johnson’s book of plays, Shoppers; and Russell Rowland’s first novel, In Open Spaces. All three are very distinct works and each benefit from the format in different ways. Denis Johnson obviously has an avid following. By publishing his book of plays in paperback we’re hoping to win over any fans who are used to reading his fiction and poetry, but for whom his drama would be something new. Also, the drama section is primarily a paperback section in bookstores. [With] In Open Spaces, we feel we’re giving booksellers an easier title to handsell and eliminating any consumer objection that the hardcover price would be a lot to pay for someone they haven’t heard of. This has been borne out with In Open Spaces hitting the San Francisco Chronicle bestseller list.

"Our original paperback book for the fall, The Torn Skirt, by Rebecca Godfrey, is a good example. It was an immediate bestseller when it was published last year in Canada and is a very edgy, coming-of-age novel, about a teenage girl. Given the age of the protagonist, the paperback format seemed like a natural. Part of our marketing campaign will be promoting it to teens and online, and offering a paperback to this demographic makes a lot of sense. We’ve had a lot of enthusiastic response from booksellers to this title in particular being an original paperback."

Editor-in-chief of Plume/Penguin Putnam, Trena Keating, spoke about the success of paperback original publishing. She explained: "Plume was one of the leaders in fiction and nonfiction paperback original publishing, and over the past two years we’ve increased the number of titles in our program. Bookstore browsers are more willing to take a chance on a new voice in paperback with a package that speaks directly to the market, so it’s a great way to launch a writer’s career. For example, we published Emily Barr’s Backpack in January and have shipped three times as many copies as we believe we would have with a traditional hardcover publication."

At Grove/Atlantic Press, Chief Operating Officer and Associate Publisher Eric Price agreed that, previously, review attention has been of great concern to publishers. That appears to be changing, even with literary fiction, and Grove/Atlantic is offering a number of paperback originals in its fall list. He told BTW: "Sometimes it makes sense with the author in some categories. It used to be simultaneous [hardcover and paperback] publication -- particularly poetry and drama. These books mainly sold in small quantities to libraries. [Simultaneous publication] is a tremendous expense because it requires two separate mechanicals."

Things are changing, said Price. "Currently, we’ve seen poetry in paper being reviewed as seriously as hardcover." According to Price, books directed at the younger market are now increasingly going directly to paper. Among Grove/Atlantic titles, he cited This Is Reggae Music by Lloyd Bradley, on its second printing, and Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey by Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton.

Price explained, "Our theory is that we want to price it around the same as a CD. We’re in competition with music, tapes, and DVDs. Our September release, The Answer Is Never: A Skateboarder’s History of the World by Jocko Weyland, is youth oriented, so publishing it straight to paper is great."

Putting Up Resistance to Paper?

Perennial’s Hart told BTW: "They [authors and agents] often have a lot of questions, but once we review our publishing and marketing plans they understand, and are often excited, by the opportunities the format allows. All of these books get marketing support and are published as though they are hardcovers -- in that they’re sent out for review coverage, author tours are set up, etc. You may have noticed more and more paperback originals getting reviews in places like the New York Times; reviewers aren’t overlooking these books just because they’re in paperback. To them, it’s a new book and that’s what matters."

For politically provocative author Caryl Phillips (A New World Order: Essaid, Vintage) giving readings in the United Kingdom convinced him of the efficacy of publishing only in paper. According to Perrault at Vintage, "When [Phillips] did readings in the U.K. and students couldn’t afford to buy his books in hardcover, he realized that in a paperback many of them would have bought copies. When he returned to the United States, he was happy about publishing in paper. The more people see them out there, the more we can expect them to get attention."

"Would You Like That in Paper or Cloth?"

Most publishers contacted believe that other than those "carriage trade stores," retailers prefer paper. Hart said, "We have heard from retailers that, especially for new authors, they like the idea of having a less expensive book to handsell to their customers, feeling that they have a better shot at someone taking a chance on someone new at a paperback price point. And, from our end, these are books that we felt would benefit, each for different reasons, from the format."

Carl Lennertz, senior marketing consultant for Book Sense, has witnessed cycles of paperback publishing. He shares this long view with BTW: "I worked on the launch of Vintage Contemporaries, and then, as now, it was a response to the difficulty of getting some new authors, usually younger ones, going in hardcover. Some worked, especially Richard Russo’s first books and McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, and, of course, some didn’t. Like all things, the need has come around again, for some of the same reasons, exacerbated this time by higher hardcover prices and diminishing review space. It’s a good thing to do, though I do worry that the sources of the problem aren’t being addressed. But all in all, it is exciting to see such new talent get a chance to sell better early on." -- Nomi Schwartz