Summer Reading Starts Now- Where’s My Paperback?

Like a couple of million other Americans, I’ve already read Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones -so the fact that it will not be appearing in paperback this summer makes no difference to my reading plans. But those who have been waiting for the paperback version of the novel, in which a murdered 14-year-old girl tells her story from heaven, may need to amend theirs. Sebold’s publisher, Little, Brown and Company, has delayed paperback publication indefinitely-or at least until the phenomenally successful title starts losing its grip on the hardcover best-seller lists.

Here’s how the publishing timeline usually works: Now that most publishers have paperback imprints in house, they usually buy both hardcover and paperback rights to every book, publish the hardcover, then release the paperback version of that book the following year, same season. Sometimes, a publisher might wait to put out the paperback so that it coincides with, say, Black History Month, or Mother’s Day or some other holiday, or they might delay it for a few months until the author’s next title in hardcover is ready.

But when you’ve got a blockbuster like The Lovely Bones -or, in previous years, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil , Tuesdays with Morrie and The Bridges of Madison County -all bets are off. These are the books that a lot of people are actually waiting to go out and buy in the cheaper paperback version, but they often take months or even years to appear.

Even in flusher times than these, you can see why publishers, agents and authors like it that way. As a general rule, publishers make a net profit of around $7 on every $24-ish hardcover title sold, but on trade paperbacks (the slightly larger type of softcover that doesn’t fit in the old-fashioned airport-shop paperback rack), they take in only a little more than $2. The standard author contract calls for a higher royalty percentage on hardcover than paperbacks, too. It is, in other words, a win-win situation-except for the poor reader who’s waiting to buy into the conversation at a lower price. With blockbusters, the publishers’ thinking is clear. “Why release a paperback that will compete with your own hardcover edition that’s still selling?” one agent asked rhetorically, and then added: “Everybody should have such problems.”

Still, it’s strange that publishers so often miss the boat on getting their paperbacks out there at the right moment. Everybody agrees that publishing is a business that lives and dies by its backlist-older books that have already lived past the publicist-prodded early months of hardcover. Vintage paperbacks, for instance, are the life’s blood of the Knopf group; their titles sell for years and years and virtually subsidize the showy, literary hardcover line. But I remember a few years back, when, well after the hardcover of Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius had become a hit for Simon & Schuster, the company sold the paperback rights to Vintage. S&S made a boatload of money on the substantial six-figure sale (under the standard author’s contract, 50 percent of that goes into the publisher’s coffers, while the other half is applied to-and, in Mr. Eggers’ case, surely overflowed out of-the author’s advance). Why didn’t S&S itself put the book out in paperback? Maybe because the house thought the book had “peaked” (it hadn’t) or because executives were tired of dealing with the notoriously perfectionistic author (who hadn’t?), or because the cash in hand from Vintage seemed too substantial, too tangible to resist.

More often than you’d think, publishers simply miscalculate. Take, for example, what happened with Alice Sebold’s first book, the memoir Lucky , which Scribner published in 1999. While well reviewed (once by this author) and beloved by a coterie of publishing types, it apparently didn’t sell well enough to inspire the house to republish it the following year in paperback. Cut to February 2000: Agent Henry Dunow was shopping around the partial manuscript of The Lovely Bones : Not only did Little, Brown pre-empt an auction by offering to buy it and another still-unwritten novel, the house also offered to purchase the paperback rights to Lucky . They would, they said, make “best efforts” to release Lucky in paperback. So Scribner, apparently uninterested in the future of Lucky , let it go cheap. The price Little, Brown paid for the Lucky paperback rights: an astonishingly low $2,500.

Of course, not even those close to the publication of The Lovely Bones could have imagined that the novel would be so extraordinarily successful. Even fewer would have predicted that Ms. Sebold’s first book would ride The Lovely Bones ‘ coattails to a 34-week run (so far) on the paperback best-seller list. But the Sebold story should serve as an object lesson in Paperback Publishing 101: Unless the book was a total critical and commercial bomb in hardcover-and maybe even then-you oughta hold onto the paperback rights. You never know when you might need them.

Just make sure your readers are willing to wait.

Sara Nelson’s So Many Books, So Little Time will be published by Putnam in October.