Publishing Literary Fiction in Paperback

Submitted by Margaret Doyle, Port Gamble Publishing
I’ve had many great moments in publishing in 2006, and I’ve found it modestly but pervasively gratifying to see a growing appreciation for a book’s first issue to be in paperback.

In 2004, when I was making decisions about publishing the novel, The Fisherman’s Quilt, I thought about my own book-buying habits, and about the demographics of what I saw as Quilt’s readership: Boomer women who’d raised a family.

I was reluctant to pay over $20 for a hardcover book, and invariably “waited it out” until a book was available in paperback. So I decided to go with a paperback or softcover for the first printing of The Fisherman’s Quilt.

It was uncomfortable therefore to read Stephen Rea’s column in Pacific NW Booksellers’ January 2006 newsletter, disdaining first edition paperbacks, with his comments: “None of us are fooled by the phrase ‘paperback original.’ We all read that as ‘See, we paid this author a pretty good amount of money in the form of an advance, and the book wasn’t very good, so we knew we’d never recoup that cash by throwing more of it into a hard cover edition.’”

His assumption was a first edition paperback meant the publisher didn’t have the confidence in the book to issue it as hardcover first.

I want Port Gamble Publishing’s books to be read by as wide an audience as possible. Now that I know more, I will price PGPub’s books at even lower prices than Quilt, ($18.95 for 289 pages) and continue to issue them in paperback to keep the price affordable to the reader.

Since Rea’s column was written, the readers of Pages voted 47% in favor of printing literary fiction in trade paperback only. In its Sept/Oct issue, Pages published such opinions as “It [publishing trade paperback] will spark sales and more people will read these books.”

The New York Times reported on March 22, 2006, that “a growing number of publishing companies, from smaller houses like Grove/Atlantic to giants like Random House, [are] adopting a different business model, offering books by lesser-known authors only as ‘paperback originals,’ forgoing the higher profits afforded by publishing a book in hardcover for a chance at attracting more buyers and a more sustained shelf life.” (“Straight to Paperback: Literary Novels” by Edward Wyatt)

As reported in the Times, some notable literary works were first issued as trade paperbacks. Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City (1984) was first released as a softcover by Vintage Contemporaries. More recently, in 1999, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, a trade paperback from Houghton Mifflin’s Mariner Books, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Harper Perennial, the literary paperback imprint of HarperCollins, will more than double the number of paperback originals issued, 22 this year as opposed to 10 last year.

Harper’s reasoning, as reported by Wyatt in his article, was “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.”

In response to the article, one New York Times reader wrote back: “Where’s the incentive to pay more? I buy a hardcover only if it’s a book I can’t live without, which usually means I’ve read the paperback.”

I always strive to make Port Gamble’s books absolutely flawless in text, rights, and design. And I respect the pocketbooks of my readers, not asking them to do something I wouldn’t do, namely spend more than $20 for a new book.

Books are physical objects and should be as beautiful and representative of the work inside as possible, but hardback issue for inflated profit or to satisfy someone’s vanity is not as important as making the book accessible to the reader who, we hope, will curl up with our books on their living room sofa, or throw them in a bag or on the car seat as they start on a trip, for the pleasure of reading.

This is a publishing decision I am proud of.