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.