In June 2002, Touchstone published Philippa Gregory's fourth historical novel, The Other Boleyn Girl, as a trade paperback original to little fanfare. But what followed was the publishing equivalent of a popular uprising. Based on the true story of Anne Boleyn's older sister—who was also Henry VIII's mistress and bore two of his children—the novel became a word-of-mouth favorite and then a book club mainstay. With only minimal review coverage, it has netted 225,000 copies, after 18 printings in a year and a half.
Though the S&S imprint—which publishes about two hardcovers and 10 paperbacks a month—considered publishing Gregory's next historical novel, The Queen's Fool, in cloth, the house ultimately opted to stick with the paperback format. The results have been even more startling: within three weeks of the February 4 publication of The Queen's Fool, the house has 165,000 copies in print after five printings, and the book hit #29 on the New York Times extended list for March 7—again with no major media attention.
At Borders, Gregory's latest tale—about 14-year-old Jewish girl's close-up view of the battle between Mary and Elizabeth for the Tudor throne—is selling "phenomenally well," said fiction buyer Leah Rex. "We took a very aggressive stance on it, and still had to reorder within days of the on-sale date. It sold more in its first week on sale than The Other Boleyn Girl sold at the peak of its popularity."
Attributing the book's success to the fanbase for The Other Boleyn Girl and the merchandising opportunities that grew out of it, imprint v-p and editor-in-chief Trish Todd said the house was satisfied with the decision to stay in paperback. "Our goal was to get Philippa Gregory on the [bestseller] list, and we thought the book could sell more, and faster, in paperback," she said.
Paper Original: Pro and Con
Though it's much harder to crack the Times bestseller list in paperback than in hardcover, most booksellers agreed that, given its book club potential, paperback is the best fit for The Queen's Fool. At Rainy Day Books in Fairway, Kans., where The Other Boleyn Girl was particularly popular among the 100 book clubs affiliated with the store, owner Vivian Jennings commented, "If you slapped a hardcover in between [Gregory's paperbacks], you'd lose a whole year's momentum. Book clubs almost always stick to paperbacks."
A major disadvantage is that, while paperback original fiction gets somewhat more review attention than it used to, most paper originals still aren't likely to be reviewed unless they have already won significant awards in England or Canada, or the author has some other literary distinction. The Queen's Fool was well reviewed in the U.K. when it was published there in hardcover in 2001, but that wasn't enough to put it on the radar of major newspapers in the U.S., which have mostly ignored it.
Compare that to the attention afforded a similar historical novel published in hardcover, The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant, another British author with a handful of books under her belt but without a strong profile in the U.S. That novel, about an artistically inclined 15-year-old girl in Renaissance Florence, got comparable reviews to Gregory's in the U.K. and became a Canadian bestseller last summer, before Random House published it here on February 17. Reviews in both Time and People, and enough votes to make it a #3 BookSense pick for March/April, have given it a strong start. With a total of 74,000 hardcovers in print after three printings, it popped up on the New York Times list at #15 after its first week on sale.
But as Borders's Rex pointed out, "Gregory has what no amount of book reviews can guarantee—a very strong word-of-mouth reputation."
At this early stage in the publication of the two books, it's difficult to evaluate which strategy has more advantages. On one hand, The Birth of Venus could have a greater long-term upside, if it becomes a bestseller in hardcover and paperback, with the best of both worlds in terms of print coverage and sales. On the other hand, Touchstone has accomplished a great deal for Gregory's paperback with fewer resources: the house distributed about 300 ARCs of The Queen's Fool, compared to the more than 4,000 galleys of The Birth of Venus Random House sent out.
It remains to be seen whether the lack of prepub materials will significantly inhibit Gregory's bestseller potential. At Book Passage in Corte Madera, Calif., co-owner Elaine Petrocelli didn't receive an ARC so the store hasn't alerted book clubs about the February title. Meanwhile, the galley mailing for TheBirth of Venus—along with a relatively low price of $21.95—might help it become a rare hardcover book club selection. After reading Dunant's novel, the book club liaison at Book Passage "wrote a letter to every one of the store's book club members saying, 'I adore this book. I don't normally tell people to read hardbacks, but you should read this,' " said Petrocelli.
Booksellers also remarked that sales of The Queen's Fool might have been stronger out of the gate without the month-and-a-half lag time between its publication and Gregory's eight-city tour. According to Touchstone's Todd, Gregory's appearances, which extend from March 24 through April 8, were arranged after the house learned the English author would be in the United States for another reason. (Dunant will embark on a 12-city tour one week after publication.)
It's often difficult to predict the best moment for a paperback author to make the transition to hardcover. Riverhead publisher Julie Grau learned the hard way that making that move too early can backfire. When Jennifer Belle's paperback debut, Going Down, sold close to 50,000 copies and Madonna bought the movie rights, it seemed natural to put her 2001 follow-up, High Maintenance, into hardcover. The result, recalled Grau, was a "modest but disappointing hardcover performance." But the 2002 paperback of High Maintenance now has more than 200,000 copies in print. "There are several factors involved," noted Grau, "including who the readership is and why they responded to a paperback the first time."
"It's a total seesaw," observed Kathleen Caldwell, events coordinator for Lafayette Bookstore in Lafayette, Calif. "If they put marketing dollars behind a paperback and market it to the right audience, it can be successful right out of the gate, while a hardcover import has to become a handsell favorite. That's the catch-22."
At Touchstone, the question of whether Gregory's next book—to be delivered in March for publication in 2005—will be a paperback or a hardcover has yet to be decided. Todd said, "It's definitely a major conversation that we will have. This book has sold a lot of copies, but you also have to look at what's going on in the market at that specific time, and it's a long way away right now."