Fall Fiction, Indeed

Preamble: These are my own opinions, not my employer’s. They’re also pretty similar to all the other griping in the industry, but I wanted to add my two cents this week.

Leon Neyfakh’s Observer piece on publishing’s plans for the freakish Fall 09 glut of established writers’ new novels – which includes Vladimir Nabakov, Richard Powers, and Thomas Pynchon – points to another form of fiction: the industry’s belief that putting out literary fiction at hardcover prices will save us. Former Grove/Atlantic editor and current agent Ira Silverberg acts as the voice of reason: “The big question is, will people buy that many books? …All these books are coming out in three months, and there’s overlap in their core audiences. Also, these are hardcover books– at 25 to 30 dollars! That’s tough.” He goes on:

“Look, you want an enthusiastic statement?” Mr. Silverberg said. “I think it’s fantastic that there are so many great writers coming out in those months. I think it speaks to our cultural activity as a people and the fact that these publishers, many of whom are douchebags, have not totally foresaken literary fiction.”

I plan on reading at least four of the books mentioned in the article: Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, Lethem’s Chronic City, Nabokov’s The Original of Laura, and Eggers’ The Wild Things. The first three are by big houses, the fourth by Eggers’ McSweeney’s imprint.

  • If I pay list price (or close to it) at my local independent bookstore, that’s $119.
  • If I buy them from Amazon, it’s $78.50.
  • If I buy the Kindle ebooks it’s $40.

Disregarding all the “smell of books” vs “portability” arguments with the print/ebook dichotomy, this is what the industry’s real problem is. They’re fighting for eyeballs just like everyone else. At a certain point the blockbuster business model makes sense – throwing all your marketing money and resources behind Dan Brown, for instance – but only in the short term. In the long term, you need to follow your fiction readers. In my ideal marketplace, the houses would simultaneously publish hardcover and paperback (like the UK and, increasingly, the music industry), and allow you to read the ebook for a nominal incremental fee. I would pay $2 more to keep reading Lethem on the weekend subway ride into the Lower East Side. I’m certainly not lugging a hardcover around all night.

What about you?

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1 Comment

Filed under ebooks, industry

One response to “Fall Fiction, Indeed

  1. I completely agree with your ideal market place and feel that U.S. publishers should at least make an attempt to adapt this model. However, most publishers might be discouraged from doing so by authors and agents. Publishing both hardcover and paperback at the same time, might boost sales, but the book might not show up on a bestseller list because it is two different ISBNs. Take FSG’s hit last fall, Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, which was released in hardcover simultaneously with a 3 book, paperback set. The total number of sales between the both of them would most likely have put 2666 on the bestseller list as both books were everywhere, but it never reached the bestseller list in the U.S. due to the separate ISBNs counting as two different books.

    2666 might be the exception to the rule in the sense that Bolaño was not alive to state his opinion on simultaneous release. This is what authors and agents will be discussing with publishers. Authors and agents would most likely try to get a deal where they go the traditional route of doing hardcover and then paperback a year later. Granted, this would only be the case for front list titles and some mid list, but with discussions of lowering advances in this rough economy, some authors and agents might take acceptation to releasing paperback and hardcover simultaneously.

    Some publisher’s are having this same discussion in relation to ebooks and hardcovers being released simultaneously. With ebooks constituting 1 to 2% of all book sales, how can ebooks cannibalize hardcovers? If anything, simultaneous releases in any format would promote sales for every book. This is what, in my opinion, boosted sales all around for 2666. Many argue that hardcovers already have a built in audience, and with a book like 2666, which had close to 1,000 pages, the non-hardcover audience would not buy a 1,000 page hardcover despite the good reviews. By releasing the simultaneous paperback set, rather than waiting a year to do so, the paperback audience was able to get in on the Bolaño-mania. This begs the question, what is the goal of the author, to sell books, or be labeled a “bestseller?”

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