Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Book Sense 101: Wishful Thinking or “Of course this is not out in paperback yet! Gawd!"

As a bookseller I get asked a lot of questions. A lot of questions.

“When’s the next Patterson book going to be out?”

“Do you have a date for the next Harry Potter?”

“What do you mean you don’t have it in stock?”

“I have to walk a block to get this book?”

Most of the questions are reasonable (we all want our favorite author to produce now, now, NOW), some are plaintive (it’s just one frickin’ block people and we’re a small store, what do you expect?), but I find there’s one question that comes up more often than all the rest:

“Is this out in paperback yet?”

Inevitably when this is asked the customer is holding up a book that just came out. I had people asking me for the paperback version of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince on the day of its release!

Just in case you’re wondering the answer to that is a big ol’ fat NO.

Of course it’s not in paperback yet; it just came out! Doesn’t everyone know this?

Apparently not, so in the interest of educating the public and ridding this question from your lexicon, I hereby call to order the first class of Book Sense 101, an ongoing series in which I teach you how not to piss off your local bookseller.

Everyone ready?

Okay. Shut up, sit down, and pull out your notebooks. There will be a quiz after this lecture and if I ever catch you asking a bookseller this question during the first week of a book’s release again it will be demerits all around.

Got your pencils, pens, gel rollers, or laptops ready?


Here’s the lowdown. It usually takes eight to twelve months for a book to make the transition from hardback to paperback (whether that paperback is a mass market or a trade is up to whoever owns the printing rights). The reason for this is to let public anticipation drive sales for the hardback and for the hardback’s reviews and public interest to drive sales for the paperback.

It used to be that reviewers would only review hardbacks—it was prestige thing—so if you wanted your novel or nonfiction work reviewed by the New York Times, etc, publishing in hardback was your only option. At the time, due to the cost of Smythe bindings (when a book is bound together using thread instead of glue. It’s incredibly durable, and the preferred binding for any book meant to lie flat) as well as additional costs incurred by deckled edges and gilt, hardbound book production produced little to no profit for the publisher. The sales and the reviews of the book were all to drive sales of the paperback, which, with its lower production costs, had a higher profit margin. The success of well-reviewed and bestselling hardback book meant a better chance of the company selling off subsidiary rights (movie, play, international rights) to regain lost revenue.

Nowadays publishing companies don’t sink as much money into book production and the creation of a quality, long lasting hardbacks. The book is bound with glue, not sown, the cover is created from cardboard and not covered with cloth (the cover is not to be confused with the dust jacket—the paper with the title and picture on it that protects the book), gilt and embossing are rarely used, and page paper quality itself is much lower (which is why you may have hardbacks that have yellowed pages).* This doesn’t mean that the cost the consumer pays has gone down at all, simply that the publishers have found a way to turn a profit on a hardback.

And since they are now turning a profit, there is no reason to put out the paperback sooner.

The eight to twelve month rule is a pretty hard and fast rule that falls more in the twelve month range than the eight most of the time. Sometimes a book will take longer to come out (Harry Potter hardbacks have been traditionally released in the summer, but the paperbacks aren’t released until around November: fifteen to sixteen months after the original release), but rarely does the paperback release appear before the eighth month mark. The instances where the paperback version was released early usually can be traced to marketing (both Franken and Moore’s publishing companies released their books to paperback early to coincide with the election in 2004), or to a deal/experiment with the author (Nora Roberts has negotiated a quick turn around—between four to six months—for some of her J.D. Robb books, and Mary Janice Davidson’s last in hardback will be out in paperback next month I believe).

So, armed with this knowledge, next time you are in a bookstore and you see a hardbound title you’ve never seen before by your favorite, Oh-My-God-I-Could-Just-Have-His-Or-Her-Babies author stop and look at the copyright page. If it just gives a year but no date, saunter up to your nearest bookseller and ask when it was released.

When it was released people, not when the paperback is going to be out!!

Your bookseller will either tell you the date off the top of their head while trying not to look pained because “it totally came out yesterday, you idiot, haven’t you been reading the paper?” or they will go check their almighty computer. If the date is before the eight month mark then you can make the reasonable assumption that it is not out in paperback yet. Also booksellers rarely, if ever, leave the hardback on the shelf after the paperback has been released because the demand for the hardback becomes almost non-existant.

At this point it is perfectly acceptable to say, “So I’ve got X (fill in the blank with however many months your excellent subtraction skills have deduced for you) months ‘til this is out in paperback, huh?”

The bookseller will either respond, or if knowledgeable, reveal whether or not the book is one of the exception books.

It is not acceptable to say to the bookseller, “Gee, guess this is not out in paperback then, huh?” followed by a big wink and a cheesy grin because chances are you are going to really weird that poor person out. She or he will be telling tales about you in the backroom for months.

“And then he winked at me! Winked! Like this was a total aside to the audience in a movie, and I barely stopped myself from saying, ‘No shit, asshole!’ Hello!”

Trust me; you don’t want to be backroom fodder. Booksellers are merciless. Being asked the same question over and over again five million times will make even the nicest person turn.

So to recap:

It’s an eight to twelve month turn over to paperback unless otherwise specified.

The otherwise specified is usually caused by a big event (like an election), or by a deal/experiment by the author (the best place to find out about these things is directly from the publisher or the author).

Don’t try to be cute, it’s only annoying and you will be made fun of For-Ev-Er (can you hear that kid from the Sandlot in your head? Because you should). For-Ev-Er, people.

You can only be cute if you are drop-dead gorgeous because yes, we do judge books by their covers, but that’s a lesson for another day.

Class dismissed!

*Those of you who’ve invested in the hardback Harry Potter books as part of your collection will soon be discovering this. Scholastic, in an effort to boost profit for their shareholders and cut costs, produced some of the cheapest hardbacks known to man. Seriously. I would say that their not worth the paper their printed on, but their printed on really cheap paper, so let me instead state that their not worth the paper your money is printed on.

And that’s sad.


Anonymous said...

Scholastic, in an effort to boost profit for their shareholders and cut costs, produced some of the cheapest hardbacks known to man.

Geez, is nothing sacred? When you buy a hardback, it sure would be nice to get a hardback.

Bookseller Chick said...

Nope, Mr. Evans, nothing is what it seems anymore.

If you have the stomach for it (and I've noticed that a lot of people don't, so don't feel bad) go pick up a bargain book from B&N or Borders. You know the ones I'm talking about: the Patterson or Clancy hardbacks for only 4.99. Take it home, get out a razor blade or exacto knife and cut along the inside seem so you can see the binding of the spine. While you're at it, consider how the paper feels to your fingertips. Better quality paper is being used in the nice Trades than what is used in the hardbacks. It sickens me.

Yet I still buy hardbacks. I have no self control.

The best thing you can do is store your books in a room with indirect lighting and a controlled temp.