Trade paperback original

Friday April 04, 2008 @ 02:45 PM (UTC)

Being the slothful sort of person I am, I’m still working through a copy of Poets & Writers Magazine that my fairy godsister Jeannine gave me way back in December. It’s the January/February 2008 issue, for the record. I initially began reading it front-to-back (for the thoroughness), but set it aside after finding it to read a little doomy. USPS rate hikes doom small litmags to early graves! Historical fiction loved only for being nonfiction’s stepsister! Novel crushed under the wheel of Memoirmobile! At any rate, I closed its pages and planned a less thorough perusal centered on the main article, which promised to unlock the secrets of Literary Agents.

Over the last few days, I have read all about Literary Agents, and, as is my wont, continued to turn pages. Soon I found myself reading, with great interest, an article called “Paperback Writer: Do I want to be one?” by Steve Almond. It was about the TPO trend — the Trade Paperback Original.

Those of us who read a lot of comic books tend to think of TPBs as big convenient bindings of delicious CB continuity, unburdened of ads and flimsiness. However, this is only a niche truth. In the greater publishing world, a trade paperback is a fancy paperback, printed on good paper with a larger (and these days, often more texturally intriguing) cover than its “Mass Market Paperback” brethren.

A hardback, a mass-market paperback, and two tradepaper titles
Figure 1. spokesmodel Qubit poses with examples. Left to right: old-school mass market paperback by Roger Zelazny; my first tradepaper novel purchase (memorable by dint of sticker shock); a comic book industry TPB by the almighty Whedon; and a hardback for comparison. Hardback selected for textural richness.

Thank you, Qubit. For some time it’s been obvious that tradepaper is getting better play in publishing than it used to. Only the most popular literary titles ever make it to mass-market editions these days, which I thought was a calculated effort to make more money: why put out a $7 edition when you can put out a $12 one? However, I may have been a bit naive.

In Almond’s article, he discusses publishers’ new habit of putting out books in tradepaper first, without recourse to hardcover. Apparently, many authors worry about this, since it does cut costs for the publisher and thus is seen as a vote of no-confidence in the title. However, advantages emerge: many more people buy copies at readings when the book is affordable (some even buy multiple copies; ) bookstores hang onto a paperback “six months, versus maybe three months for a hardback” says author Rishi Reddi.

And then we got to the line that really prompted this blog post: “The author of six novels and three story collections, [Jim] Shepard was told by Random House…his 2004 story collection Love and Hydrogen would be published by Vintage as a TPO to woo younger readers.” We then pass onto more negatives, more authors feeling slighted and a probably legendary tendency for big reviewers not to review TPOs. But to me, this line was important. I remember, though I didn’t understand the larger industry context at the time, arguing with fellow readers over whether hardbacks or TPBs were a more pleasant reading experience. I like TPBs; the increased cover size means a thinner volume, more convenient for my omnipresent messenger bag than a mass-market paperback. They are lighter than hardbacks, and less likely to have embossed letters which show wear. I even like the way they sit on my shelf, the sleek way the Harvest Book editions of Virginia Woolf cozy up to each other in matching harmony. That elegant look may even tempt me to buy a TPB of a P.K. Dick or a Woolf book when a cheaper edition is available, so that it will match my other volumes.

TPBs are cheaper than hardbacks. As a student-author-barista, I’m not a particularly hardy hybrid; I seldom plunk down hardcover price for a book I need for school, let alone one I want on a whim or at a reading. Mom says she saw a new hardcover for $36 the other day, which is a whole lot of bubble gum any way you chew. There is a possibility that the insertion of TPBs into the cycle is driving or enabling the rise in HB prices, but that doesn’t change the practicalities on the ground. Even at the more reasonable price point of $22.95 for Murakami’s After Dark in hardback, I’m waiting for the $13.95 paperback release in late April. After all, to a struggling grad student with access to the Powell’s used books inventory, $9 is another book; maybe more than one.

I don’t think I’m the only one for whom this is true, and I think that young people — more likely to be carrying books around every day, to be students with long reading lists or generally cash-strapped — deserve more than a line of consideration in this discussion. The author descends at the end of the article into depressing doomsay: “As Americans become increasingly frantic, impatient and screen-addicted, the printed word becomes that much tougher to sell.” Auditors who tell him after readings that they really want to buy a book but can’t afford hardcover “do have enough money, of course. But they simply don’t view a book — even a book by an author they happen to like — as being worth more than fifteen bucks.”

Young people, college students, artsy Portland hipsters with bad day jobs…they have many decades of book-buying ahead of them. You want them to buy books. You want them to read more. You want them to read you. TPBs tend to be beautiful; in my experience, as beautiful and sensuously pleasing as hardbacks, if not more. If you want people to keep buying the printed word, this is a good thing to do: make the physical object pleasing. Price it reasonably. We don’t just want to buy books cheap; we want cheap books so we can buy more books.

I would love to hear others’ feelings as readers (or as writers) about TPBs versus other formats of book. As I’ve indicated, I have a real fondness for them. How about you?


Why you’d ever want to read my random ramblings I don’t know, but since you made the mistake of inviting it, I’ll oblige.

I have much fewer experiences with TPBs. Some of my college texts came in such, and were far more handy. Some of the authors I read today have such available, and I happily take them up. I can also absolutely agree that when it comes to beauty, convenience (mostly, exceptions bellow), tactile comfort, and therefore value, I generally prefer the TPBs. (Tactile comfort enhancements include firmer cover sheeting, usually better perfect-binding, though sadly rarely a better binding method, and better ink / paper matching for less ink bleed from moistened hands.)

On the other hand, as I do most of my reading at home, hardcovers in my opinion:
1) Look nicer on the shelf,
2) Stack better in the ubiquitous leaving spots of my apartment, which leads to fewer wakings when the piles collapse, and
3) Hold form better when left cracked open for reading while doing something else, or by piles of bookmarks for later detail comparison.

As for the question of dollar-value, I fear your assessment is too nuanced. Very few, if any, of the people I’ve met are truly unconcerned with costs. Some happily pay more to get things early, or to meet other goals, but most pay attention to cost. Since the vast majority of my personal purchases of written words nowadays are for (hopefully) joyful consumption or news-gathering, and being that I’m frugal, I happily purchase the hardcovers displaced by TPBs or MMPBs. I think this is true of many readers, especially those buying items they’ll likely read once and shelve or hand to friends, or trade for discounts at used book stores.

Regardless, let me know which format your publishers put your work out as, and I will purchase it. Even if I have to borrow to do so.

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