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Eye on Industry

 

 

The New
Divide

 

 

 

I came very close to being born a dinosaur. This isn’t a reference to the guy with the nickname “Velociraptor” who tried to woo my mother when she was single. That’s a story for another day. What I’m talking about is the way I entered the publishing field. I was an English major. I wanted to pursue a career in the book world. Because the jobs market was awful, I cast a very wide net. I could have wound up at a textbook publisher. I could have wound up at a travel books publisher. I did wind up at Bantam Books, where I stayed for fourteen years. But the next most likely scenario would have been getting a job at a trade hardcover house. Had that happened, there’s the real chance that I would have been a “hardcover person” rather than a “paperback person,” and there’s an equally real chance that I would have grown up in the business with antiquated notions that caused me to be marginalized when paperback publishers redefined the industry in the late eighties.

Back then, there was a notable divide in the way hardcover publishers and paperback publishers saw the world, even when they were both focusing on fiction. Hardcover publishers tended to be book-centric, concentrating on the individual title in front of them, while paperback publishers tended to be author-centric, concentrating on the author’s overall career since backlist was such a vital profit center for paperback houses.

Hardcover publishers courted reviewers and independent bookstores and shied from packaging tricks.

Paperback publishers courted wholesalers and chain bookstores and considered no packaging trick beneath them. Hardcover publishers platformed books and sold paperback rights. Paperback publishers distributed in mass.

Eventually, the paperback publishers became hard/soft publishers, and the business shifted in their direction.

Plenty of hardcover publishers resisted this, but they were dinosaurs and the asteroid was entering the atmosphere. The most evolved of the hardcover publishers became effective hard/soft publishers themselves, and the entire model for the industry changed. Most of you probably don’t remember a time when you shared 50% of your paperback royalties with your hardcover publisher.

This came to mind recently because I was having lunch with an editor friend. She grew up on the hardcover side and had evolved into a great hard/soft publisher. Of course, minutes after we sat down we started talking about e-books. All lunch conversations between two people in the book industry must turn to ebooks within the first ten minutes as per the dictates of the Association of American Publishers. We talked about the ubiquity of sub-$2.99 titles in the market and the effect this was having on consumer expectations, at which point, she said, “Well, that’s not the sort of thing we should be doing, is it?”

For a moment, I felt myself transported back to the mid-eighties when I would meet up with a hardcover friend and he/she would dismiss genre paperback publishing. I quickly started to give this further thought, though. Was it the sort of thing we should be doing, her at her Big Six house and me as either a writer or as an indie publisher? Were there appreciable differences between this type of publishing and the type of publishing we knew how to do? If we didn’t do it, was there an asteroid whistling in our direction (yes, I realize this metaphor doesn’t hold up, but give me some leeway here)?

Or was there a new divide that we needed to acknowledge and avoid getting caught between?    

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