Just as in amour, First comes love, then comes marriage, in publishing literary fiction and nonfiction, first comes the hardcover, then comes the paperback. Recently, however, a surge in trade paperback originals has rewritten the old rules. Paperbacks are increasing in number and gaining legitimacy. "Paperback originals are more and more of a viable alternative," said Marty Asher, executive vice-president and editor-in-chief of Vintage/Anchor. Of the 230 or so paperbacks Vintage and Anchor publish yearly, about one quarter are originals.
"The impetus for more paperbacks is definitely coming from accounts," said Marcia Burch, vice-president and director of publicity at Simon & Schuster trade paperbacks. Paperback is often a better launching pad for new authors and a safer bet for projected mid-list books than hardcover, she told PW.
However publishers determine whether a book will debut in paperback or hardcover, the appeal to consumers is obvious. Basically, it's the price, stupid. "We really want to support new fiction," said Kendra Smith, a Borders spokesperson, "but it's a risk for a customer to purchase books in hardcover, so the $12 or $13 price point for a paperback makes it much more accessible." Robert Fader, buyer for Posman's Books at Grand Central station in New York, added, "I'd never spend $25 on a book I'd never heard of. Paperbacks have more of a chance." Mary Gay Shipley, owner of That Bookstore in Blytheville, Ark., reported that book club members buy paperback originals to keep their costs low. Shipley has also noticed greater support from publishers. "I really appreciate that publishers are sending paperback authors on tour now," she said.
Publishers, in turn, are having an easier time garnering coverage for paperback originals. "From a publicity standpoint, paperback originals don't suffer," said Lizz Pawlson, publicity manager for Perennial and Quill. "New information is new information." Dr. Brad Sachs, author of The Good Enough Child (Quill, June) recently scored a Today appearance. Last year, Norwegian Wood (Vintage) by Haruki Murakami was reviewed in both Newsweek and Time. The Nature of Water and Air (Scribner, Apr.) by Regina McBride received an In Brief review in the New York Times.
"There are reasons, but there is no rhyme," said Chip Fleischer, publisher of Steerforth Press, about the choice to go paperback from the start. "The biggest benefit is that it gives a book a long time to hit its stride." Steerforth published Richard Horan's novel Goose Music in paperback in April, but the book really began to build momentum this summer. It was recently nominated for the Great Lakes Booksellers Association Fiction Prize. An initial printing of 5,000 has sold , and a second printing is in the works. "The economics are tough, though," said Fleischer. "Prepress costs are the same with paperback and hardcover, so it depends how you envision a book selling over time."
Sometimes the economics of paperback publishing make particular sense for a small press. Since 1996, Dalkey Archive Press has published solely paperbacks. "Stores told us that original paperbacks do better because they have a longer shelf life," said Dalkey publisher John O'Brien. While previously the press would go with a 1,500-copy print run in hardcover with the hope of moving a book to paperback, now it prints an average of 4,500 to 5,000 copies in paper.
The benefits of paperback publishing are not lost on the big publishers. Last year, in an innovative move, Bantam published Kay Hooper's three suspense novels—Stealing Shadows, Hiding in the Shadows and Out of the Shadows—as mass market originals in September, October and November, respectively. All three were New York Times bestsellers. "It showed what can happen with a mass market original," said Barb Burg, director of publicity for Bantam Dell. In October, Bantam will follow up this successful experiment by publishing two Josie Litton historical romances—Dream of Me and Believe in Me—in a single volume. "That's two full books for a price of $5.99," said Burg.
Because the retail price of paperbacks is about half that of hardcovers, many publishers turn to the format for books geared to a younger audience with less to spend. In August, HarperCollins's paperback imprint Quill will publish 50,000 copies of Yell-Oh Girls, a collection of short pieces by Asian-American teenage girls. "We're following the strategy we took for Ophelia Speaks, which in turn was inspired by a book [Reviving Ophelia] that did well in hardcover, but was really successful in paperback," said Susan Weinberg, editorial director of HarperCollins and paperback imprints Perennial and Quill. Today there are 200,000 copies of Ophelia Speaks in print.
Similarly, Burch of S&S named the September Scribner novel America the Beautiful—the story of a 29-year-old getting over a breakup—by Moon Unit Zappa as a title that exemplifies the nature of paperback originals. "If a book is quirky, it often seems right for the paperback market," she said.
However, Vintage/Anchor's Asher does not necessarily think it is youth, precisely, that defines the paperback audience. He cited an upcoming novel by Ben Marcus, Notable American Women, which he described as "in the Moody/Eggers vein," as an example of good paperback fodder. "It's not so much a book that skews young as a book that is contemporary," said Asher.
The changing rules of hardcover/paperback publishing seem to apply to nonfiction as well. Jane von Mehren, Penguin editor-in-chief and associate publisher, pointed to Jim Trelease's The Read Aloud Handbook, which has sold more than one million copies, as an example. "Nonfiction titles that address a need can be hugely successful," she said. "We've also had success with certain self-help titles, and light reference can work very well." Von Mehren noted that in the latter category, paperbacks like Lynette Padwa's Everything You Pretend to Know and Are Afraid Someone Will Ask You have sold in nontraditional outlets like Starbucks and Urban Outfitters in addition to bookstores.
At Mariner, the paperback arm of Houghton Mifflin, Susan Canavan, manager of trade paperbacks, said, "We do two types of originals: reinventing careers or discovering new writers." A paperback original in the former category was Penelope Fitzgerald's The Blue Flower, the author's 10th book, which since 1997 has sold 125,000 copies, inspiring Mariner to increase its output of originals. Today, two or three original titles debut on each Mariner list.
The success of The Blue Flower confirms other publisher reports that foreign books—both from other English-speaking countries and in translation—perform well as paperback originals because they are likely to sell steadily over time. In December, Riverhead will publish 50,000 copies of the French novella In Our Strange Gardens by Michel Quint as a paperback original with both the English and French texts. "In France, it was a sleeper that sold over 130,000 copies," said Riverhead co-editorial director Julie Grau.
Paperback originals last saw this kind of attention in the '80s, when Vintage Contemporaries published titles like Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City (500,000 copies in print) and Raymond Carver's Cathedral (200,000 copies in print). Gary Fisketjon, now vice-president and editor-at-large of Knopf, headed Vintage Contemporaries from 1984 to 1986. He remains enthusiastic about the impulse to break from the traditional hardcover-to-paperback route. "What other business offers a product and says, if you want, wait a year and pay less?"
The success of Vintage Contemporaries in the '80s still reverberates. Riverhead's Grau said, "I was thinking of the Bright Lights, Big City model when we decided to make Jennifer Belle's first novel, Going Down, a paperback original." Going Down, published in 1996, sold 45,000 copies; Madonna bought movie rights. Belle graduated to hardcover, though, with this year's High Maintenance. Said Grau, "She'd taken a leap as a writer. Also, her second book is about high-priced real estate, which is an upmarket subject." While Belle transitioned from a paperback first novel to a second in hardcover—another sign that the old rules no longer apply—recently several publishers have reissued paperback originals in hardcover. After author Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies, a Mariner paperback original, won a Pulitzer, it was reprinted as a hardcover. Vintage published Richard Ford's The Sportswriter in 1986, but after the author's Independence Day won a Pulitzer, The Sportswriter was issued in hardcover as well. And now that Richard Russo's Empire Falls is a bestseller, Knopf has published a hardcover version of Mohawk, originally a 1986 Vintage paperback.
Vintage/Anchor's Asher, while optimistic about the current publishing climate, takes all these changes in stride. "Twenty years ago, everyone said hardcover publishing was dead," he said. "Ten years ago, everyone said paperback publishing was dead. Now we're saying, let's look at the book and see what works. That's a good place to be."