Knock-offs of "The Da Vinci Code," made-up memoirs and accounts of life with ornery pets are selling tens of thousands of hardcover copies a week. But publishers say there is no harder sell in the world of books these days than literary fiction.
Even critically acclaimed literary novels often have a short shelf life in hardcover, with one-half to three-quarters of the books shipped to stores often being returned to the publisher, unsold.
That has a growing number of publishing companies, from smaller houses like Grove/Atlantic to giants like Random House, 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.
"In the last four or five years, it's gotten hard to publish fiction by lesser-known authors, and even by some better-known authors," said Morgan Entrekin, the publisher of Grove/Atlantic. And when a book fails in hardcover, booksellers often will limit their orders for a paperback edition, making it harder to sell the author's next book. "When you're taking back 50 to 70 percent of the hardcover copies you shipped," Mr. Entrekin said, "the stores ó rightfully so ó are not willing to take another chance."
Mr. Entrekin recently revived a dormant imprint, Black Cat, to highlight his trade paperback originals. Last month, it released "White Ghost Girls," a debut novel by Alice Greenway, in a paperback edition that included flaps on the paper cover and the ragged-edge pages that bespeak "quality fiction." Other publishers, like HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster and Random House, have also been ramping up their efforts.
"It has been more of an evolution than a big jump," said Jane von Mehren, publisher of trade paperbacks at Random House. "Getting somebody to spend $22 on a book by an author who they've never heard of is hard, but getting them to spend $13.95 on a paperback is much easier."
The paperback original is not an entirely new concept, of course. European publishing companies have been doing it for years; in the United States, Beat writers were often published only in paperback in the 1960's. Jay McInerney's "Bright Lights, Big City," the seminal novel of the 1980's, was first released as a paperback in 1984 by Vintage Contemporaries, a Random House imprint. More recently, in 1999, Jhumpa Lahiri's volume of short stories, "Interpreter of Maladies" was released only in paperback by Houghton Mifflin's Mariner Books. It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
Still, the paperback-original format has been used relatively infrequent by publishers ó in part because it is often fought by authors and their agents, who are sometimes unwilling to give up the prestige and higher royalties from hardcover publication, as well as the chance for a second run in stores with a paperback.
Publishers have plowed ahead, however. Harper Perennial, the literary paperback imprint of HarperCollins, is planning to publish 22 paperback originals this year, up from 10 last year.
"We see it as a great opportunity to publish some young debut writers," said Carrie Kania, the publisher of Harper Perennial. She cited as an example Nick Laird, the husband of the British novelist Zadie Smith; his first novel, "Utterly Monkey" was published as a paperback original here in January.
"Part of our strategy was that we believe Nick Laird is going to be a great writer, and we want to build him up," Ms. Kania said. "That is hard to do when there is a lot of hardcover competition."
The economics of the decision to publish in hardcover or paperback are not simple. Publishers generally receive a wholesale price for new books that is about half of the retail cover price, or $13 for a hardcover book with a $26 jacket price. Thirty percent of the publisher's share, or 15 percent of the cover price, goes to the author as royalties, and another 40 percent of the publisher's take goes for the production, distribution, marketing and publicity costs of the book.
That leaves about $3 to $4 a book for the publisher, before accounting for the cost of corporate overhead or the books that will be returned ó on which the publisher earns nothing.
For paperbacks, authors generally earn only 7.5 percent of the cover price as a royalty. But the lower price also means publishers earn far less, about $1 to $2 a book, before returns. 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 ó something they rarely do with hardcover books.
"Book for book, you're obviously going to make more money on a hardcover," said Martin Asher, the editor in chief of Vintage/Anchor Books, part of Random House's Knopf Publishing Group. "But you can usually sell two or more paperbacks for every hardcover, and when you bring in the question of building an audience for a new writer," the scale tips further in the paperback original's favor.
That was the calculation that led Vintage to schedule "Pretty Little Dirty," the debut novel from Amanda Boyden, a New Orleans writer, as a paperback original this year. Billed as "wonderfully dark, humorously heartfelt and deliriously drug-fueled," the novel, released last week, "just struck me as the kind of book that would work in paperback," Mr. Asher said.
The author agreed. In an interview, Ms. Boyden said she had a more lucrative offer from another publisher to print the novel in hardcover. But, she said, "my husband and I were starving graduate students for so long that a good chunk of our bookshelves are taken up by Vintage paperbacks." She continued: "So it was my decision to go with Vintage. And with what I think is the potential audience for this book, it made more sense to come out in paperback right away."
One longtime argument against paperback originals has been that book critics are less likely to review them. Several publishers say that has changed, citing what they described as a watershed event: the Feb. 6, 2005, review of "Death of An Ordinary Man," by Glen Duncan, a paperback original book published by Mr. Entrekin's Black Cat imprint, which was featured on the front page of The New York Times Book Review.
"Historically, getting the books reviewed was a big concern for us," said Ms. Kania of Harper Perennial. "But increasingly, paperback originals are being treated as new books."
Sam Tanenhaus, editor of The Times Book Review, says he believes reviewing paperback originals allows the publication to highlight books from smaller publishing houses. He notes that book galleys ó the prepublication copies that publishers send to reviewers to allow them to get a head start on reading ó always come to the Book Review as paperbacks, and that therefore the editors pay little attention to the format in which the book will be sold.
Mr. Tanenhaus notes that it is not only debut authors whose works are reviewed as paperback originals. An August 2004 review of "Cloud Atlas" drew attention to that book, the British author David Mitchell's third novel, which was published here as a paperback original by Random House.
Ms. von Mehren, the publisher, said that following the article in the Book Review, Mr. Mitchell's novel sold "10 to 20 times better than he ever had here. It really reignited his career." Next month, Random House will publish Mr. Mitchell's next novel, "Black Swan Green." In hardcover.