Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The literary novelist as paperback writer
By Edward Wyatt The New York Times

Knock-offs of "The Da Vinci Code," made-up memoirs and accounts of life with ornery pets are selling tens of thousands of hardcover copies a week. But publishers say there is no harder sell in the world of books these days than literary fiction.

Even critically acclaimed literary novels often have a short shelf life in hardcover, with one-half to three-quarters of the books shipped to stores often being returned to the publisher unsold.

That has a growing number of publishing companies, from smaller houses like Grove/Atlantic to giants like Random House, adopting a different business model, offering books by lesser- known authors only as "paperback originals," forgoing the higher profit afforded by publishing a book in hardcover for a chance at attracting more buyers and a more sustained shelf life.

"In the last four or five years, it's gotten hard to publish fiction by lesser- known authors, and even by some better-known authors," said Morgan Entrekin, the publisher of Grove/Atlantic.

And when a book fails in hardcover, booksellers often will limit their orders for a paperback edition, making it harder to sell the author's next book.

"When you're taking back 50 to 70 percent of the hardcover copies you shipped," Entrekin said, "the stores - rightfully so - are not willing to take another chance."

Entrekin recently revived a dormant imprint, Black Cat, to highlight his trade paperback originals. Last month, Black Cat released "White Ghost Girls," a debut novel by Alice Greenway, in a paperback edition that included flaps on the paper cover and the ragged-edge pages that bespeak "quality fiction." Other publishers, like HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster and Random House, have also been ramping up their efforts.

"It has been more of an evolution than a big jump," said Jane von Mehren, publisher of trade paperbacks at Random House. "Getting somebody to spend $22 on a book by an author who they've never heard of is hard, but getting them to spend $13.95 on a paperback is much easier."

The paperback original is not an entirely new concept. European publishing companies have been doing it for years; in the United States, the so-called Beat Generation writers were often published only in paperback in the early 1960s. More recently, in 1999, Jhumpa Lahiri's volume of short stories, "Interpreter of Maladies," was released only in paperback by Houghton Mifflin's Mariner Books. It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Still, the paperback-original format has been used relatively infrequently by publishers, in part because it is often fought by authors and their agents, who are sometimes unwilling to give up the prestige and higher royalties from hardcover publication, as well as the chance for a second release in stores with a paperback edition.

Publishers have plowed ahead, however. Harper Perennial, the literary paperback imprint of HarperCollins, is planning to publish 22 paperback originals this year, up from 10 last year.

"We see it as a great opportunity to publish some young debut writers," said Carrie Kania, publisher of Harper Perennial.

She cited as an example Nick Laird, the husband of the British novelist Zadie Smith; his first novel, "Utterly Monkey," was published as a paperback original in January.

"Part of our strategy was that we believe Nick Laird is going to be a great writer, and we want to build him up," Kania said. "That is hard to do when there is a lot of hardcover competition."

The economics of the decision to publish in hardcover or paperback are not simple.

Publishers generally receive a wholesale price for new books that is about half the retail cover price. Thirty percent of the publisher's share, or 15 percent of the cover price, goes to the author as royalties, and 40 percent of the publisher's take goes for the production, distribution, marketing and publicity costs of the book.

On a typical hardcover priced at $26, that would leave a little less than $4 a copy for the publisher, before accounting for the cost of corporate overhead or the books that will be returned - on which the publisher earns nothing.

For paperbacks, authors generally earn only 7.5 percent of the cover price as a royalty. But the lower price also means publishers earn far less, about $1 to $2 a book before returns. The advantage of paperback is that if a book proves to be even a modest seller, booksellers are less likely to return all of their copies, figuring they can stock a small number permanently on their shelves - something they rarely do with hardcover books.

"Book for book, you're obviously going to make more money on a hardcover," said Martin Asher, editor in chief of Vintage/Anchor Books, part of Random House's Knopf Publishing Group.

"But you can usually sell two or more paperbacks for every hardcover, and when you bring in the question of building an audience for a new writer," the scale tips further in the paperback original's favor.

One longtime argument against paperback originals has been that book critics are less likely to review them. Several publishers say that has changed, citing what they described as a watershed event: the review on Feb. 6, 2005, of "Death of an Ordinary Man," by Glen Duncan, a paperback original book published by Entrekin's Black Cat imprint, that was featured on the front page of The New York Times Book Review.

"Historically, getting the books reviewed was a big concern for us," Kania of Harper Perennial said. "But increasingly, paperback originals are being treated as new books."

The literary novelist as paperback writer - Technology - International Herald Tribune

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