Monthly Archives: January 2009

And Then the Husbands Phoned In…

WHEN PAPERBACKS DID THE WORK

Last week’s column about publishing trade paperbacks first and letting them earn their way into hardcover publication (rather than the other way around) brought a delightful and informative email exchange with California writer Lois Levine.

If you read yesterday’s New York Times piece about authors establishing themselves on the Internet by selling enough self-published books to lure New York publishers into offering a contract, here’s how this was done in BC [before computer] times.

The only difference is that Lois and co-author Marian Burros didn’t have a clue to what they were doing, as evidenced by Photo #1.  (Burros went on to write for the old Washington Star and now the New York Times, but that would come much later.)

Self-published edition in mimeo

1) Self-published edition in mimeo

Here’s how the email exchange went after Lois read the column asking publishers to start the publishing process not with hardcovers but with trade paperbacks:

Lois: You are probably not old enough to remember that my first cookbook, “Elegant but Easy,”  was published in paperback by Collier Books (1968). When it became their best-selling book, it  was then brought out in hardcover by Macmillan. It still sells, though Marian Burros and I revised it in 1998 for Simon & Schuster. It has sold more than 500,000 copies. Continue reading

Things I’d Love to See #4

STOP STARTING WITH HARDCOVERS

(I began the series with Three Things I’d Love to See, but in the midst of a failing economy I think there are probably going to be quite a few more – you know, about 16. This one I’ve thought about for years and could easily have made the top three.)

Here’s why I know a book industry era has come to an end: One publisher after another keeps referring to hardcover books as “promotional copies for the paperback edition.”

Yes, hardcover books are selling so poorly that their only use for publishers is to get reviews, book interviews for the author and pave the way for a trade paperback edition that the real audience can afford.

True, the few hardcover books that hit bestseller lists can pay off big time, but these are known commercial hits that are worth giant marketing budgets from the beginning. Or so publishers think.

It’s a much more dangerous risk to try making an unknown author’s book a bestseller, which is why “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle” (before Oprah) was so thrilling: Ecco/Harper knew exactly how to manipulate the formula of big-sprawling-summer-novel+Hamlet gimmick+beautiful-writing+struggling author backstory+DOGS DOGS DOGS = Must Read.

A larger truth, however, is that mid-list and serious literary books by lesser-known authors rarely find their audience in hardcover. Those adventurous readers who watch and clip reviews, look for new voices and love heated book-group discussions most often wait for the paperback, and who can blame them? The cost of a hardcover book after sales tax is about $30. The cost of a trade paperback after sales tax is about $15. Continue reading

Blaming Michael Korda

AN EDITOR RESPONDS

It’s not that I actually blamed MIchel Korda for robbing editors of their power a few columns ago — rather I attributed the former Simon & Schuster editor-in-chief with causing the anti-editor dominoes to start falling in the 1970s.

Korda was the first influential publishing leader to say that editors at mainstream houses should acquire marketing savvy so they’d get out of their ivory towers and stop mumbling about literary values at sales conference. That fatal push into the commercial domain proved their undoing, I felt. Not to mention the loss of literary standards that had once made hardcover books worthy of their price.

But here is a current editor and publisher (quoted last time) and  “a longtime former colleague of Korda’s” who writes in his defense:

“Dear Pat.

“… Michael Korda can probably speak for himself, but my understanding of his feelings on the subject was that Michael wanted editors to reign supreme – so they needed a range of talents in marketing and deal making to make sure their dominion wasn’t overtaken by these other functions. So I think his intent was to protect the editorial position, not debase it. Of course I knew him at a later stage in his career. Perhaps his thinking evolved.” Continue reading

An Editor Responds

DON’T BLAME MARKETING; BLAME LITERARY AGENTS

A veteran editor and publisher from a mainstream publishing house has taken issue with my claim that marketing departments have robbed editors of their power.

Here’s one of two challenges in his letter:

“…You leave out what to me is the key element in weakening the position of editors: (literary) agents. Agents need to prove their worth to a client, especially now at 15%, and one way they do it is by moving authors from house to house, editor to editor. That weakens the ties of editors to their authors, which I think is tremendously important to strengthening an editor’s ability to help a writer through the publication process.

“Ironically you often hear agents say they are closer to the authors than their editors, which of course would be natural if you move an author to a different editor every other book. Then agents often claim that they provide an editorial function. Again, I think this is an effort for them to protect and justify their percentage. In most cases they’ve never worked as professional editors themselves. Continue reading