Even Book Size is Relative (& Relevant)

I had an email from a concerned reader through my Goodreads page. Polly is a bookseller with a valid worry:

Hello there, so sorry to bother you, but I just had to voice my concerns over the recent transition of “Into the Wilderness” from a mass market paperback into trade paperback format.

I’ve been a small bookstore owner for 22 years and have sold a lot of your books, because frankly, I love them (it’s easy to sell something you love!). I keep the full set available at all times on my shelves and recommend them often. So when I attempted to reorder “Into the Wilderness” a few weeks ago from Ingram, I was informed it is now only available in a $16.00 trade paperback. I doubt very seriously it will keep a place on my shelves, especially now that the first book does not match the other books in the series in size, and it is a considerable increase in price for the first book – the one that gets the reader hooked on the series. I expect this is a publisher decision, but I’m so disappointed to see this wonderful series disappear from my shelves.

Polly’s impressions and experiences are to be taken very seriously, as she is at the heart of the business, but (and you knew this was coming) I have no control over the format of the novels.

The increased cost is the biggest issue, of course. I haven’t seen any figures from the industry, so I can’t speak to trends more generally and I don’t know where ITW fits into the larger scheme of things. I do know that sixteen bucks is a chunk of money to pay for a novel. The long-term result is going to be some combination of 1) fewer sales of new books and 2) increased sales of used books.  The other complicating factor has to do with ebooks. The whole Wilderness series sells really well on Kindle, but I’m not sure how that’s relevant to the changed format for ITW.

And again, there’s nothing I can do about any of it.

I will say that I really like the cover art for the trade paper edition of ITW, far better than I liked the original. I would hope it would draw in potential readers. Is it possible that a person would decide to buy ITW in trade paper and then give up on the series because of the change in format — that is, the difference in size and how that looks on the shelf? Anything is possible, I guess. Can I do anything about it? Not a thing, of course. People are by definition idiosyncratic, and make decisions based on all kinds of things that can’t be anticipated or controlled.  Given the current state of flux in the industry, very little can be predicted. The only thing I can do is strive to write a really good story. And that’s what I’m doing.

never buy a pig in a poke: the bookish adaptation

I love all things electronic, but when it comes to buying and selling books on the internet I see room for improvement. To be fair, that improvement is coming along nicely. In most areas.

Don't make Jane angry. You wouldn't like her when she's angry.

Don’t make Jane angry. You wouldn’t like her when she’s angry.

I’ll demonstrate with (what else?) Pride & Prejudice. There must be a couple hundred editions of P&P in English alone. Poorly done editions, leather-bound editions (and sometimes those two things aren’t mutually exclusive), editions on paper so cheap it makes your fingers itch just to turn the page, critical editions (put together by academics with special care to detail and authenticity), abbreviated and illustrated and annotated editions. Most people don’t realize how different editions can be, or that one might be better than another. If you’ve read one copy of Pride & Prejudice you’ve read them all, is the general belief. This is a widely held misconception, and one that technology is not doing anything to rectify. Just the opposite. Continue reading…

the author as a local business, and fair play

I live in a small town that is big on supporting local businesses. And we do. For example: our milk comes from a farm just a few miles away (glass bottles!) and we buy local produce and eggs. There’s profit for both sides in this kind of relationship. We get better quality food; the farmers make a living at what they like to do.

But say I go to the farmer’s market tomorrow because I want to make a big mixed salad for dinner. Once I’m there, going from stand to stand, all I find is cauliflower, brussel sprouts and cotton candy. I ask about tomatoes, romaine lettuce, fresh corn, peas, beans. Nowhere in the market can I find these things. I turn to leave, headed for the grocery store when the farmers call out to me: wait! Support local businesses!

I will support local businesses as long as it is mutually beneficial to do so. This doesn’t shake down to money: I am willing to pay more for high quality, especially organic, food. But I’m not willing to be bullied. I’m not a capitalist pig because I won’t settle for brussel sprouts and cotton candy.

Where am I going with this, you’re wondering.

If you look back a few posts ago, you’ll see that more than half of the bookstores contacted by my readers were not stocking any copies of TTTT and had no plans to do so. Almost all of them offered to special order a copy. In most cases that requires prepayment.

So I’ve been thinking about this for days, looking at it from all directions. The fact is, if people don’t see a book or hear about it and go looking for it, that book will not sell. It’s not enough to make sure that your target readers know about your new book: they have to be able to find it, too. No matter how interesting a book may sound, if a person asks in three bookstores and none of them stock it, that’s pretty much the end of the line. The potential reader goes away thinking. Huh, maybe not such a good book afterall, if nobody’s stocking it.

So this problem which plagues most midlist authors can be summarized:

1. lack of publisher marketing effort (making people aware of the book through publicity and marketing);
2. lack of bookstore support (making the book available and easy to find).

I am abstracting away from aestetic questions for the moment, please note.

Here’s a fact: Brick-n-mortar bookstores (small and large) aren’t big on midlist authors. One more fact: Pretty much any on-line bookstore will sell you any book in print (including Tied to the Tracks ) without delay. There’s no talk of special ordering, no hoops to jump through. The on-line booksellers are there 24/7; there are no clerks to do deal with (friendly or judgemental); they’ve got everything, or immediate access to everything. Obscure cookbooks, no problem. Biography of a Brazilian soccer player, no problem. And pretty much every midlist author is sitting on that virtual shelf making googly eyes at you. You pop that book into your shopping cart and in a couple days, it will show up at your door.

The brick-n-mortar stores can’t compete with this, but of course they still want your business. There is no argument for mutual benefit — or at least, not any compelling argument. This is where they appeal to your sense of community and loyalty. They ask you to buy locally, because they want to survive.

I want to survive too. And so I am going to come out and be straightforward about this. If you want to read my books (and I hope you do), don’t bother with the brick-n-mortar stores. If you want to read more of my stories and you’re willing to back that up by buying a book now and then, please do so through an on-line bookseller. Amazon or Borders or Powells (an independent, by the way), Barnes & Nobel, anybody who has a decent on-line interface.

As an author I ask you to support on-line booksellers, because at this juncture, it looks as though the on-line booksellers are the only ones consistently supporting midlist authors. Like me.

book love

Talking about used books with Rachel reminded me of a phenomenon which interests me greatly, in part because I participate to a limited degree. There’s a species of book collector who specializes in one book or set of books alone, but tries to find as many editions as possible. I’m not talking here about somebody who’s obsessed with Catcher in the Rye and has an apartment filled with thumbed paperbacks of the same edition. I’m referring to people who collect Alice in Wonderland or the works of Jane Austen or the Oz books. Because these are well loved books and out of print, any old publisher can come along and put together a new edition. Mostly what you get are very cheap efforts (you know that table at Barnes & Noble that proclaims Classics! Get your Classics, Three for Twelve Dollars! — poor paper, worse binding, and the damn thing will fall apart on you probably before you make it to the middle) but many publishers do try to put together an attractive new edition in the hopes that they’ll catch the eye of the casual reader who decides that they really should have a copy of Sense and Sensibiity on their shelves, and isn’t that a nice picture on the cover? This is from an on-line auction, a lot of three different editions of Alice in Wonderland up for grabs:

Alice in Wonderland

THREE COLLECTIBLE BOOKS by Lewis Carroll, “Alice in Wonderland”: the first illus. by W.H. Walker with 8 in color, 42 in black & white, London: John Lane The Bodley Head, illus. blue cloth cover, dust jacket. Second, illus. by Harry Riley, first edition thus, London: Arthur Barry, 1945, dust jacket; third, 28 illus. & colored frontispiece by Thomas Maybank, London & N.Y.

I’m not talking here about true first editions for the simple reason that if you could find (for example) a first edition of Pride and Prejudice from the year 1813, you’d pay a minimum of $15,000 for it. This is more about the book itself, its design, the cover art, the workmanship that went into making a package for a particular well loved novel.

Someone gave me an edition of Sense and Sensibility (or maybe it was Persuasion; I can’t find it just now, of course, although when I went off searching I found a few other books that had been eluding me. I’m convinced that my books hold meetings in the middle of the night to predict which one I’ll need next and thus, whose turn it is to hide)… but the point is, this particular edition, paperback, really struck me for its artwork: a close up, detailed painting of the sweep of a highly embroidered skirt. When I do run across this book, I always think I have to look to see what publisher put it out and go see if the other Austen books are done in the same style.

I don’t read these editions I collect for their physical selves; when I do sit down to re-read, I always go back to the same hardcover critical edition, which is full of bits of paper and stcky notes.

Enough, I think, of obsessing about books, for the moment.