- Artist Nina Katchadourian, in a take off on the sometimes serendipitous placement of books on bookshelves, has created micro-stories told only in the words on the spines of books.
- At the site of UK bookstore Any Amount of Books (which also runs the blog Bookride), one can view “The Incredible Bookman,” a bookshelf that takes the form of a human, one who is perhaps charged with enticing you to read more books.
- The Guild of Book Workers is a 100 year old organization created to “establish and maintain a feeling of kinship and mutual interest among workers in the several hand book crafts.”
“Why are they still bothering with paperbacks?” This came from a coffee-shop acquaintance when he heard my book was soon to come out in paperback, nine months after its hardcover release. “Anyone who wants it half price already bought it on ebook, or Amazon.”
Interestingly, his point wasn’t the usual hardcovers-are-dead-long-live-the-hardcover knell. To his mind, what was the use of a second, cheaper paper version anymore, when anyone who wanted it cheaply had already been able to get it in so many different ways?
I would have taken issue with his foregone conclusion about the domination of ebooks over paper, but I didn’t want to spend my babysitting time down that rabbit hole. But he did get me thinking about the role of the paperback relaunch these days, and how publishers go about getting attention for this third version of a novel — fourth, if you count audiobooks.
I did what I usually do when I’m puzzling through something, which is to go back to my journalism-school days and report on it. Judging by the number of writers who asked me to share what I heard, there are a good number of novelists who don’t quite know what to do with their paperbacks, either.
Here’s what I learned, after a month of talking to editors, literary agents, publishers, and other authors: A paperback isn’t just a cheaper version of the book anymore. It’s a makeover. A facelift. And for some, a second shot.
About ebooks. How much are they really cutting into print, both paperbacks and hardcovers? Putting aside the hype and the crystal ball, how do the numbers really look?
The annual Bookstats Report from the Association of American Publishers (AAP), which collects data from 1,977 publishers, is one of the most reliable measures. In the last full report — which came out July 2012 — ebooks outsold hardcovers for the first time, representing $282.3 million in sales (up 28.1%), compared to adult hardcover ($229.6 million, up 2.7%). But not paperback — which, while down 10.5%, still represented $299.8 million in sales. The next report comes out this July, and it remains to be seen whether ebook sales will exceed paper. Monthly stat-shots put out by the AAP since the last annual report show trade paperbacks up, but the group’s spokesperson cautioned against drawing conclusions from interim reports rather than year-end numbers.
Numbers aside, do we need to defend whether the paperback-following-hardcover still has relevance?
“I think that as opposed to a re-release being less important, it’s more than ever important because it gives a book a second chance with a new cover and lower cost, plus you can use all the great reviews the hardcover got,” says MJ Rose, owner of the book marketing firm Authorbuzz, as well as a bestselling author of novels including The Book of Lost Fragrances. “So many books sell 2,000 or 3,000 copies in hardcover and high-priced ebooks, but take off when they get a second wind from trade paperback and their e-book prices drop.”
What about from readers’ perspectives? Is there something unique about the paperback format that still appeals?
I put the question to booksellers, though of course as bricks-and-mortar sellers, it’s natural that they would have a bias toward paper. Yet the question isn’t paper versus digital: it’s whether they are observing interest in a paper book can be renewed after it has already been out for nine months to a year, and already available at the lower price, electronically.
“Many people still want the portability of a lighter paper copy,” said Deb Sundin, manager of Wellesley Books in Wellesley, MA. “They come in before vacation and ask, ‘What’s new in paper?’ ”
“Not everyone e-reads,” says Nathan Dunbar, a manager at Barnes & Noble in Skokie, IL. “Many customers tell us they’ll wait for the paperback savings. Also, more customers will casually pick up the paperback over hardcover.”
Then there’s the issue of what a new cover can do. “For a lot of customers the paperback is like they’re seeing it for the first time,” says Mary Cotton, owner of Newtonville Books in Newtonvillle, MA. “It gives me an excuse to point it out to people again as something fresh and new, especially if it has a new cover.”
A look at a paperback’s redesign tells you a thing or two about the publisher’s mindset: namely, whether or not the house believes the book has reached its intended audience, and whether there’s another audience yet to reach. Beyond that, it’s anyone’s Rorschach. Hardcovers with muted illustrations morph into pop art, and vice versa. Geometric-patterned book covers are redesigned with nature imagery; nature imagery in hardcover becomes photography of women and children in the paperback. Meg Wolitzer, on a panel about the positioning of women authors at the recent AWP conference, drew knowing laughter for a reference to the ubiquitous covers with girls in a field or women in water. Whether or not publishers want to scream book club, they at least want to whisper it.
“It seems that almost every book these days gets a new cover for the paperback. It’s almost as if they’re doing two different books for two different audiences, with the paperback becoming the ‘book club book,’” says Melanie Benjamin, author of The Aviator’s Wife. Benjamin watched the covers of her previous books, including Mrs. Tom Thumb and Alice I Have Been, change from hardcovers that were “beautiful, and a bit brooding” to versions that were “more colorful, more whimsical.”
A mood makeover is no accident, explains Sarah Knight, a senior editor at Simon & Schuster, and can get a paperback ordered in a store that wouldn’t be inclined to carry its hardcover. “New cover art can re-ignite interest from readers who simply passed the book over in hardcover, and can sometimes help get a book displayed in an account that did not previously order the hardcover because the new art is more in line with its customer base.” Some stores, like the big-boxes and airports, also carry far more paperbacks than hardcovers. Getting into those aisles in paperback can have an astronomical effect on sales.
An unscientific look at recent relaunches shows a wide range of books that got full makeovers: Olive Kitteridge, A Visit From the Goon Squad, The Newlyweds, The Language of Flowers, The Song Remains the Same, The Age of Miracles, Arcadia, and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, as did my own this month (The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.)
Books that stayed almost completely the same, plus or minus a review quote and accent color, include Wild, Beautiful Ruins, The Snow Child, The Weird Sisters, The Paris Wife, Maine, The Marriage Plot, The Art of Fielding, The Tiger’s Wife, Rules of Civility, and The Orchardist.
Most interesting are the books that receive the middle-ground treatment, designers flirting with variations on their iconic themes. The Night Circus, The Invisible Bridge, State of Wonder, The Lifeboat, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Tell the Wolves I’m Home, Tigers in Red Weather, and The Buddha in the Attic are all so similar to the original in theme or execution that they’re like a wink to those in the know — and pique the memory of those who have a memory of wanting to read it the first time around.
Some writers become attached to their hardcovers and resist a new look in paperback. Others know it’s their greatest chance of coming out of the gate a second time — same race, fresh horse.
When Jenna Blum’s first novel, Those Who Save Us, came out in hardcover in 2004, Houghton Mifflin put train tracks and barbed wire on the cover. Gorgeous, haunting, and appropriate for a WWII novel, but not exactly “reader-friendly,” Blum recalls being told by one bookseller. The following year, the paperback cover — a girl in a bright red coat in front of a European bakery — telegraphed the novel’s Holocaust-era content without frightening readers away.
“The paperback cover helped save the book from the remainder bins, I suspect,” Blum says.
Armed with her paperback, Jenna went everywhere she was invited, which ended up tallying more than 800 book clubs. Three years later, her book hit the New York Times bestseller list.
“Often the hardcover is the friends-and-family edition, because that’s who buys it, in addition to collectors,” she says. “It’s imperative that a paperback give the novel a second lease on life if the hardcover didn’t reach all its intended audience, and unless you are Gillian Flynn, it probably won’t.”
There’s no hard-and-fast rule about when the paperback should ride in for that second lease. A year to paperback used to be standard, but now a paperback can release earlier — to capitalize on a moderately successful book before it’s forgotten — or later, if a hardcover is still turning a strong profit.
At issue: the moment to reissue, and the message to send.
“Some books slow down at a point, and the paperback is a great opportunity to repromote and reimagine,” says Sheila O’Shea, associate publisher for Broadway and Hogarth paperbacks at the Crown Publishing Group (including, I should add, mine). “The design of a paperback is fascinating, because you have to get it right in a different way than the hardcover. If it’s a book that relates specifically to females you want that accessibility at the table — women drawn in, wondering, Ooh, what’s that about.”
The opportunity to alter the message isn’t just for cover design, but the entire repackaging of the book — display text, reviews put on the jacket, synopses used online, and more. In this way, the paperback is not unlike the movie trailer which, when focus-grouped, can be reshaped to spotlight romantic undertones or a happy ending.
“Often by the time the paperback rolls around, both the author and publicist will have realized where the missed opportunities were for the hardcover, and have a chance to correct that,” says Simon & Schuster’s Sarah Knight. “Once your book has been focus-grouped on the biggest stage — hardcover publication — you get a sense of the qualities that resonate most with people, and maybe those were not the qualities you originally emphasized in hardcover. So you alter the flap copy, you change the cover art to reflect the best response from the ideal readership, and in many cases, the author can prepare original material to speak to that audience.”
Enter programs like P.S. (Harper Collins) and Extra Libris (Crown Trade and Hogarth), with new material in the back such as author interviews, essays, and suggested reading lists.
“We started Extra Libris last spring to create more value in the paperback, to give the author another opportunity to speak to readers. We had been doing research with booksellers and our reps and book club aficionados asking, What would you want in paperbacks? And it’s always extra content,” says Crown’s O’Shea. “Readers are accustomed to being close to the content and to the authors. It’s incumbent on us to have this product to continue the conversation.”
Most of a paperback discussion centers on the tools at a publisher’s disposal, because frankly, so much of a book’s success is about what a publisher can do — from ads in trade and mainstream publications, print and online, to talking up the book in a way that pumps enthusiasm for the relaunch. But the most important piece is how, and whether, they get that stack in the store.
My literary agent Julie Barer swears the key to paperback success is physical placement. “A big piece of that is getting stores (including the increasingly important Costco and Target) to take large orders, and do major co-op. I believe one of the most important things that moves books is that big stack in the front of the store,” she says. “A lot of that piece is paid for and lobbied for by the publisher.”
Most publicists’ opportunities for reviews have come and gone with the hardcover, but not all, says Kathleen Zrelak Carter, a partner with the literary PR firm Goldberg McDuffie. “A main factor for us in deciding whether or not to get involved in a paperback relaunch is the off-the-book-page opportunities we can potentially pursue. This ranges from op-ed pieces to essays and guest blog posts,” she says. “It’s important for authors to think about all the angles in their book, their research and inspiration, but also to think about their expertise outside of being a writer, and how that can be utilized to get exposure.”
What else can authors do to support the paperback launch?
Readings have already been done in the towns where they have most connections, and bookstores don’t typically invite authors to come for a paperback relaunch. But many are, however, more than happy to have relaunching authors join forces with an author visiting for a new release, or participate in a panel of authors whose books touch on a common theme.
And just because a bookstore didn’t stock a book in hardcover doesn’t mean it won’t carry the paperback. Having a friend or fellow author bring a paperback to the attention of their local bookseller, talking up its accolades, can make a difference.
I asked folks smarter than I about branding, and they said the most useful thing for authors receiving a paperback makeover is to get on board with the new cover. That means fronting the new look everywhere: the author website, Facebook page, and Twitter. Change the stationery and business cards too if, like I did, you made them all about a cover that is no longer on the shelf.
“Sometimes a writer can feel, ‘But I liked this cover!’” says Crown’s O’Shea. “It’s important to be flexible about the approach, being open to the idea of reimagining your own work for a broader audience, and using the tools available to digitally promote the book with your publisher.”
More bluntly said, You want to sell books? Get in the game. Your hardcover might have come and gone, but in terms of your book’s rollout, it’s not even halftime yet.
“The paperback is truly a new release, and a smart author will treat it as such,” says Randy Susan Meyers, author The Murderer’s Daughters, her new novel The Comfort Of Lies, and co-author of the publishing-advice book What To Do Before Your Book Launch with book marketer and novelist M.J. Rose. “Make new bookmarks, spruce up your website, and introduce yourself to as many libraries as possible. Bookstores will welcome you, especially when you plan engaging multi-author events. There are opportunities for paperbacks that barely exist for hardcovers, including placement in stores such as Target, Costco, Walmart, and a host of others. Don’t let your paperback launch slip by. For me, as for many, it was when my book broke out.”
I happened upon this story about a scheme to smuggle drugs into a Michigan prison using library books. From the Muskegon Chronicle:Inmates at the prison in eastern Montcalm County communicated with somebody on the outside, providing titles to check out from the Madison Square branch library on the southeast side of Grand Rapids. The outsider was to check out the books, cut open the bindings, tuck drugs inside, then reseal them. Then, the accomplice would return the books to the library and contact the inmates, telling them which drug-packed books to request.Luckily the plot was foiled before any books could be mangled in its service.
One might think that physical books are on the verge of extinction, given all the consternation over ebooks of late. There’s a faction in this debate that predicts that physical books will become something of a rarity as the ebook market matures and the technologies involved become ubiquitous.
In a sleek, shiny, distant future, books may feel old and impossibly large, with too much physical mass and all these fussy pages put to use for the simple task of storing a tiny amount of data, data that is not searchable or copy and pasteable or malleable and interactive in the ways we expect of our data. These devices, one imagines, might seem incredibly blunt to our future selves, unitaskers in world where our gadgets and machines can do all.
And yet there is and will always be some beauty in books. And there will always be people who appreciate that beauty. Even if books eventually become the province of collectors and the peculiar few who fetishize them as objects, there will be attractive qualities to them. They are something like snowflakes or at least stamps, so many and so few alike.
Even now, books revel in their oldness. Rough-cut, or deckle-edge pages are popular flourishes on many editions. And beneath dust jackets are canvas covered boards, often with embossed lettering and archaic-looking monograms.
The deckle edge dates back to a time when you used to need a knife to read a book. Those rough edges simulate the look of pages that have been sliced open by the reader. The printing happened on large sheets of paper which were then folded into rectangles the size of the finished pages and bound. The reader then sliced open the folds.*
Paper knives, variants of letter openers, were used for this purpose. Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, which speaks directly to the reader and describes the reader’s experience reading the novel, makes extensive reference to these literary knives:
This volume’s pages are uncut: a first obstacle opposing your impatience. Armed with a good paper knife, you prepare to penetrate its secrets. With a determined slash you cut your way between the title page and the beginning of the first chapter.
Opening a book can already feel like opening a gift. Armed with a knife and freeing the pages and the story hidden beneath the folds, it becomes something more, “a penetration of its secrets” and an act of discovery, shot through with a suggestion of violence and danger or of the painful gestation of the words themselves.
This act of cutting open pages to read a book has been lost (one imagines the paper knife arrangement wouldn’t go over well with the TSA), and right now, all over the world, people are reading their books on screens and the idea of even opening a cover and turning pages may one day seem odd as well.
This idea of the book as an anachronism may explain the persistence of the deckle edge, which is now created not by the reader with a knife but by leaving one edge of the page untrimmed during the printing and binding process.
Peggy Samedi, an associate production manager, told me that at Knopf where she works the deckle edge is part of the publisher’s “house style” along with certain other flourishes and fonts. It is typically used for more literary-oriented books and they see it as “something that harkens back to an older way.” It rises from the idea, she says, that “not everything has to be smooth and slick.”
Nonetheless, the production department at Knopf regularly fields calls from readers who complain about the ragged edges, assuming they are a mistake.
If you look closely at a deckle edge, even if you are looking at two copies of the same book, you’ll see slight variations in the edges. And from title to title and publisher to publisher, the quality and pattern of the edges varies more extensively, from a tight saw-tooth, when looking from the top of the book down the edge of the pages, to a more free-form ragged look. The deckle edge varies, not because it is made by hand, but because the machinery for making books varies slightly from factory to factory.
Perhaps this deckle edge is a way for publishers to prepare for the inevitable. As ebooks and ereaders contrive to make the reading process as simple as pushing a button, physical books will regress to older and older forms, so as to appeal more to the antiquated among us who still prefer them to their digital doppelgangers. Deckle-edges will prevail, uncut pages will re-emerge, embossing will become more elaborate.
In time it will be said, to own a book is to be a purist, and these are the books that purists will prefer.
*A reader wrote in with a correction/clarification to the above:
“There are two kinds of rough edges one can find in older books.
The deckle edge is an artifact of papermaking, in which the paper fiber seeps under the “deckle” (the wooden frame placed on top of a screen used to drain the slurry of fiber and water). Even before machine-made paper, the deckle edge was sometimes trimmed, sometimes not. From what I can tell, there wasn’t a sensibility about it before the advent of machine-made paper.
The separate issue of “unopened” (not “uncut”) pages has to do with the folding of a printed sheet, the signature, into the final book. Printers could, and often did, trim the edges and remove either the folded part of the signature there as well as the deckle edge. Or not. I’ve talked with book historians, and I can’t find a reason why some books had unopened pages and others not.
In any case, it results in two kinds of rough edges. The deckle edge as a result of the artifact of papermaking; and the unopened edge after being cut with a knife, which results from a decision made during binding. You can see the difference in examining a book, as the deckle edge is feathered and soft, while a knife-cut edge is rough and can be jagged. (It also depends on the “grain,” or the predominant direction in which the fibers are oriented, which affects how paper curls or stays straight, too. Books are usually printed with the grain perpendicular to the spine, so the pages don’t curl inward, but that results in a very jagged edge when the pages are cut.)”
[Image credit: Horia Varlan]
When I worked at the bookstore in Los Angeles,we would occasionally get customers who would by books based not on their subject matter or on who wrote them, but by the color of their spines. Somebody would come in looking for light covered spines. Another would peak behind dusk jackets looking for books that conveyed a “vintage look.” More often than not these shoppers were Hollywood set designers, trying to fill the bookshelves that would provide the backdrop for the action in a movie or television show. Ever wonder why movies cost tens of millions of dollars to make? It’s because these guys were paying full price for these books and not picking them up cheap at a Goodwill store. But other people shopped like this to fill their homes because full bookcases look nicer than wallpaper. One celebrity would routinely buy multiple copies of dozens of books, so that his bookshelves would be equally full in each of his multiple homes.According to a Knight-Ridder article, this book decor trend is filtering down to the masses:Perhaps the ultimate signal that books are decor came when a recent Pottery Barn catalog showed an entire bookcase with the books turned backward, annoying mismatched spines facing inward, all in an attempt to achieve a neutral, uniform look.Luckily the article is mostly skeptical of this trend, but it goes on to mention Book Decor, “a California company that sells foreign books by the foot for the express purpose of looking at them rather than reading them. Danish books cost $100 a foot, German are $150 a foot and French are $200.”In a way they’re right. Books look great on the walls, elegant and inviting. A well-stocked library makes an impressive statement about one’s taste, but of course, lest we forget, each of the books is filled with stories. Walking into such a room, one can almost see all the words and characters peaking out from behind the book covers and floating through the ether. It strikes me as insane that anyone would fill shelves with books that they would never be able to read. After all, books are multitaskers of home decor. They look great, but you can read them and share them with friends, too. Try to do that with wallpaper.
In January, I put up some scans of the first round of Penguin Classics Deluxe Editions, for which famous cartoonists provided the cover art. Scott points to a new batch of Deluxe Editions posted at The Fantagraphics Blog. For more on the creation of the art for the Marquis De Sade book (to be released in October), visit Tropical Toxic, the blog of the artist, Tomer Hanuka.Update: A new batch is out.