September 19, 2004
doubt I bought a single new hardcover book for myself (as opposed to for a class) until sometime after I'd turned 30. Being underemployed and unencumbered by children like a lot of people in their 20's, I read a lot, but the only new books I could afford were paperbacks. So I waited for the new novel everyone was talking about to come out in paperback.
In America, important new books are nearly always published in hardcover first; the paperback editions may not appear for another nine months to a year. (In Europe, first-time publication in paperback -- what's called a paperback original -- is more common than not.) Last month, however, Random House published David Mitchell's ''Cloud Atlas'' as a paperback original. Mitchell has a devout following in Britain, and ''Cloud Atlas,'' his third novel, was recently nominated for the Booker Prize. Speculation in the British press promptly declared it to be a favorite. Publishing the novel as a paperback original might seem like an odd strategy when publishers are grabbing every chance to signal the importance of their babies amid the vast clutter of new titles. Yet it makes perfect sense.
''Cloud Atlas'' has an unconventional structure, but it's entertaining. Like the perfect crossword puzzle, it's challenging enough to make you feel smart for figuring it out, but not so difficult that you get discouraged or bored and quit. In some ways, it resembles Mark Danielewski's ''House of Leaves,'' a ghost story bedizened with typographical and visual flourishes, which was a hit when it was published as a paperback original (with a small simultaneous hardcover print run) in 2000.
You can see how both novels might appeal to the same sort of reader. '' 'Cloud Atlas' is the kind of book I can imagine people passing around dorm rooms the way that 'House of Leaves' was passed around,'' David Ebershoff, Mitchell's American editor and the publishing director of Random House's Modern Library division, said in a telephone interview. At St. Mark's Bookshop in the East Village, a store Ebershoff refers to as ''ground zero for 'Cloud Atlas,' '' the co-owner, Terry McCoy, said in a phone interview that he expects Mitchell's novel to be ''a best seller for us.''
From the reader's point of view, the way most books are published makes little sense. Literary fiction and nonfiction by new and emerging writers; books likely to appeal to a younger, more adventurous and less prosperous audience; and other unknown quantities that ask book buyers to take a risk -- all of these are usually published according to the same hardcover now/paperback later pattern, as are new titles from established authors like Philip Roth and Robert Caro.
Riskier books rely heavily on reviews and other media coverage to attract readers, but the reviews appear when the books are new. By the time the books show up as affordable paperbacks, the spotlight has moved on. As Gary Fisketjon, a vice president and editor at large at Alfred A. Knopf, who was the editor of two of the best-known paperback-original successes -- ''Bright Lights, Big City,'' by Jay McInerney, and ''The Sportswriter,'' by Richard Ford -- put it in a telephone interview: ''You're giving people the option of postponing their decision. All the attention comes when nobody wants it. I don't see any other business that works that way.''
Recent studies showing a decline in reading, especially among young people, have many writers and publishers worried, yet few seem likely to ditch what Ebershoff called ''a process from a different era.'' There are powerful incentives to stick with the old way. Authors and their agents and publishers make more money per copy on hardcovers, and even if the cloth edition doesn't sell well, any good reviews it got can be quoted on the cover of the paperback. Although few publishers still believe that paperback originals are overlooked by book review sections, writers often long for the aura of literary seriousness they believe a hardcover confers. ''Sometimes when you suggest going with a paperback original,'' Ebershoff said, ''an author will say, 'Oh, but to hold my hardcover book -- that's my dream!' Then you have to remind them that what they really want is readers.''
The list of paperback-original greats should silence most skeptics. ''Bright Lights, Big City,'' Jay McInerney's 1984 neo-Fitzgeraldian first novel, is the most famous. It was published as part of a Vintage Contemporaries series geared to the young urban hipsters who gobbled up the book. Janet Silver, a vice president and publisher at Houghton Mifflin, the home of Mariner Books, a line of paperback originals, said in a telephone interview that her company deliberately avoids the birds-of-a-feather approach: ''Some readers might stay away from your book because it's been lumped with books they don't like.''
In 1997 Houghton Mifflin kicked off Mariner Books with ''The Blue Flower,'' by Penelope Fitzgerald, the first successful American publication for that decidedly un-downtown English writer who was in her 80's at the time. The novel won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction the following year. Richard Ford's career was also idling until Vintage published ''The Sportswriter,'' his third novel, as a paperback original in 1986. Then there's Jhumpa Lahiri's ''Interpreter of Maladies,'' a Mariner short-story collection that won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize. ''Waiting for the Barbarians,'' by the Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee, was a paperback original, too, which didn't prevent its landing on the cover of this publication in 1982.
What all these very different books have in common isn't a sensibility shared by the authors, but an intrepid disposition on the part of their early readers. People willing to take a chance on an unfamiliar writer, a less popular form like the short-story collection, an offbeat premise or presentation, the third book by an author who may at last be hitting his stride, are the kind who read a lot of books and probably wince at their bookstore receipts once they get home. Why not make it a little easier for them to say, ''What the hell, I'll try it''?