The Folly of “Waiting for the Paperback”


13 May 2010

Today, I step up onto the soap box for a moment — hopefully we can all bear it and emerge the better for it.

The thing about “waiting for the paperback” is that, if you knew what I know about the state of literary fiction in the marketplace right now — “It’s a damn shitty time for literary fiction,” an agent said to me recently — you’d recognize the folly of that position.  (A “hot” writer’s novel — someone who’s everywhere in the press the last few months, who’s work has been critically lauded everywhere you turn — has sold somewhere around 7,000 copies.  That’s not a big number, commercially speaking, in case you were wondering.)

Here’s the zinger, folks: if you “wait for the paperback,” there is a pretty good chance there won’t be one.  And if a publisher decides not to issue a paperback, this becomes an X-mark in the “no publish next novel” column for that writer.

“It’s too expensive” is something that’s begun to grate on my ears as of late.  I hear this most often, about hard covers, from middle class people.  I think to myself, “Seriously?  It’s too expensive?”  I follow the e-book pricing wars — $12.99 vs $9.99 — and I hear readers weigh in on it — educated, middle-class people — and I think, “Seriously?  The three bucks is a deal breaker?”

Let’s talk about what healthy, middle-class people spend three bucks on, without even thinking about it:

a cup of coffee
a protein bar
a transit ticket (instead of, say, walking)
a $10 bottle of wine instead of a $7 bottle of wine
anything at Bed Bath & Beyond (which is overpriced)
one day of heating your house at 71 degrees instead of 69 degrees

Ok — now I’m getting too personal and mean. But let’s move on to what you might spend the 6 bucks you’ll save by “waiting for the paperback” on (I’m not here even going into the support-your-indie-bookstore argument; most hard covers can be purchased at Amazon for $16.50):

two ice cream cones
three Vitamin Waters or bottled waters
a matinee movie
an $11 bottle of wine instead of a $5 bottle of wine
a fruit smoothie
a full tank of the middle-grade gasoline instead of regular
a fast-food meal
pretty much name-brand anything over the generic

We spend money in this way, regularly, without a second thought. But a hard cover is “too expensive”?

At a high-ranking major state university in California, a new policy has been instated, whereby instructors are forbidden from requiring students to purchase hard covers.  Many students are funding their own educations, acquiring debt that will follow them for years into adulthood; I get this.  Still, I question this institutional message about priorities.  Food, shelter, clothing, transportation, health care.  No arguments here.  But what comes next?  And doesn’t it matter?

I am a middle-class person who has, at times, made a decent living and at other times made almost no living at all.  I’ve done this with a partner and alone.  I’m not someone who doesn’t understand that every dollar counts.

And I’m not — let me be clear, since I’m someone who’s just published a novel — arguing for the pity purchase. I’m not saying buy the hard cover of a book you don’t really care about because the writer needs you to. I’m also not trying to convince anyone of the value of literature; I’m addressing this to the people who already claim to value literature. I’m saying, if you know this is a book you want to own, and that this is a writer whose long-term career you want to support, because you believe in the beauty and/or importance of this writer’s work and care about his ability to continue producing it; then buy the hard cover. For God’s sake. “Every vote counts,” I swear it does.


6 Responses to “The Folly of “Waiting for the Paperback””

  1. Danny Says:

    Occasionally it’s the size of the book that makes me want to wait for the paperback. “2666” comes to mind. My hardcover copy of “White Hotel” could probably hold four or five copies of the paperback version, if I hollowed out its pages. I like Modern Library’s format.

    • sonyachung Says:

      Danny, it’s the size of the book that occasionally makes me understand the value of an e-reader! (hauling heavy books, back-pain issues, I know you get my drift) Luckily, I’m usually reading more than one book at a time, so I can keep the heaviest one by the bedside for the most part.

  2. I’ve published 7 novels, most literary, but a trilogy of genre novels for Bantam, and except for the Bantam trilogy, only the most current novel is in trade paperback. I’m just saying, it doesn’t get any better than what you describe here. Sorry.

    • sonyachung Says:

      Thanks for your honest perspective, Donigan — grim as it is. Or maybe not “grim,” just the reality of the work and the journey. Congratulations on your 7 novels, and those to come. Beautiful photos of Uruguay, by the way!

  3. Edan Says:

    Hi, Sonya,
    You make a great argument here for getting that hardcover–and I am a reader who purchases a lot of hardcovers, for full price, at indie bookstores.
    However, I’m in favor of basically doing away with the hardcover practice altogether, in particular for new writers who don’t have a reputation, and who are hurt by piddling hardcover sales. I do love the tradition of them, and I get the 2 marketing premiere thing they offer. But they often aren’t very well made, and in general, I find reading a paperback much more enjoyable, from a tactile sense. Most readers I know rarely purchase hardcovers–they don’t even think to do so. Rather than bemoan those consumers’ unwillingness to pay $5-15 more, I wonder if we might bemoan the industry’s insistence on maintaining this convention. It’s about their profit margin–they make more money off the hardcover. But, who, in the end, is hurt when those books don’t sell? The writer.

    • sonyachung Says:

      Interesting perspective, Edan. I’m a supporter of the hard cover — the tactility, the design, the quality of the paper, etc. I suppose I’m a dinosaur in this sense, a squeak in the wilderness. As an author, I think the solidity and concreteness of the hard cover is meaningful; it hit me at the gut level when I first held it, which surprised me. “Bemoaning” is never particularly productive, I know — I consider this post a momentary lapse into futile complaining and will now try to move forward like a grown up…

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