PBO Prejudice

By John Gilstrap

“The only bad news is that it will be published as a paperback original.” That’s what my agent told me when she called a year ago to reveal the otherwise wonderful news about my new contract with Pinnacle to launch the Jonathan Grave thriller series. (No Mercy arrives in bookstores on July 7.) My previous agent once told me that it is better not to be published at all than to be published as a paperback original.

The paperback stigma undeniably exists. Several people in my day-job office have complimented the stunning cover for No Mercy only then to offer condolences on the soft cover. “Maybe next time,” one of them said. This from people who religiously wait for the paperback reprints of their favorite authors’ novels to be released before they buy.

More evidence: At hardcover signings, fans occasionally ask sheepishly if I would be willing to sign my books in paperback. That they would think even to ask the question is troubling. That some authors in fact do refuse to sign paperback reprints is infuriating.

No Mercy is my sixth book, yet my first PBO. In the eyes of many, many hardcover authors who sell a fraction of the books I sell, this is clear evidence that my career is moving backward. I fight the urge to explain that it’s a strategic move that will make Jonathan Grave available not just in bookstores, but also in grocery stores and Wal-Marts and airports and corner bodegas because there’s no way to articulate the strategy without sounding defensive.

Here it is for the record and from the author’s mouth: I’m thrilled (albeit a little nervous) to be launching the Jonathan Grave series in mass market paperback. With a terrific cover (which it has) and terrific placement (B&N took a big position in the book), it makes sense to me that people will more readily lay down $6.99 to take a chance on a new character than they would $25.99. A good product that costs less should resonate at least as well as a good product that costs four times as much. Right? Granted, nothing in this business actually makes sense, but it sure seems reasonable to me.

Will the book be reviewed? Lord I hope so. (David J. Montgomery, listen up: Not only are there ARCs, but the ARCs are gorgeous!) It won’t be reviewed in the prestigious dailies of course because, well, they don’t review paperbacks. Publishers Weekly—THE trade magazine of the industry—may deign to review it, but only as one of a couple of mass market paperbacks. I don’t think they even did that until a few years ago.

That leaves me dependent upon online outlets, newsletters and word of mouth to get the word out about my book. There, too, I think the stigma thrives. A completely unscientific survey leads me to believe that even on amazon.com—the ultimate in populist literary criticism—PBOs get way less attention than their hardcover or reprint brethren.

Here’s the harm, then, in ITW’s decision to eliminate the PBO category from awards consideration: They deprived five books and their authors of their deserved high profile. It’s worse, in fact, than Michelle pointed out in her terrific post yesterday. Out of ten nominations between two categories (Best Novel and Best First Novel), not one was a mass market paperback original.

(By way of full disclosure, when I wrote a see-I-told-you-so email to the powers that be at ITW, I was told unofficially that the no-PBO experiment had been deemed a failure and that the decision would be reversed.)

Looking to the future, I think the debate should sidestep the question of whether PBO prejudice is real or even justifiable. It is real, and it doesn’t make a lot of sense. The operative question is what are we going to do about it? What is, needn’t be.

So how do we start changing things?

27 thoughts on “PBO Prejudice

  1. Interesting. I think that it is a perception, perhaps forced on us by high brow folks in the publishing industry.
    Kind of like telling a woman that if her bag is not a Coach, it is not a real purse.

    I do know though that nearly all of my reading friends, and myself included, almost exclusively buy paperbacks, especially with fiction. Because we can afford to buy many, even a book or two a week.

  2. I don’t know your work, and I don’t know publishing, but it seems to me paperback originals could go a long way toward dragging the business out of its panic in these economic hard times. Within the world of crime fiction, one would think that Hard Case Crime and numberous fine trade paperback imprints would have erased the stigma.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    “Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home”

  3. I actually prefer paperback for reasons you, Basil, and Peter mention. It’s a great way to get people to try a character. I have no reviewing prejudice against PBOs, but clearly one does exist. Best of luck, John.

  4. Tell it, brother! I have never understood the publishing industry’s insistence on bringing out a new writer (or new series) in the most expensive format, therefore cutting down on the number of people willing to shell out their hard earned shekels to try it. So you won’t get newspaper reviews? Have you noticed that there are fewer and fewer newspaper reviewers these days? Have you noticed that reviews don’t seem to matter a pitcher of warm spit to the great mass of bookbuyers out there?

    It’s one of those subjects where they’ll nod their heads and tell you, “yes, this makes no sense, but it’s the way we do it.” Argh…

  5. I don’t buy hardcover books unless they are in a crate at a ‘collectors store’. I’ve never dreamed about my book coming out in hardcover. I was over the moon when RH said it would be mass market paperback. There’s no extra chapters or words in a hardcover. No secret twist in the middle. No secret ‘contact-the-author phone number. Same words but cheaper. Look at where we are economically at the moment.We’re fortunate to be pushing mass market paperbacks out the door. Little hope in hardcovers for thriller-writers. Sure, may be a market in literary fiction or collectables, but, readers want thrillers to take on public transport, plane, beach, picnic etc. Hardcovers are done and dusted.


  6. Great post, John.

    I would be thrilled to be published in paperback. Many people, especially these days, don’t have the money to shell out for a hardcover. I rarely buy hardcovers unless it’s a friend, or something I just can’t wait to read.

    PBOs might not get all the reviews, but I’d rather have a book in Walmart and Target, where the real exposure is.

  7. My dad’s favorite saying: “In every crisis, there is a hidden opportunity.” Perhaps in the current economic meltdown, we of the paperback original and mass market paperback will benefit because we’re already in the market place at a strategic price point. Maybe we’ll even get reviewed!

  8. I don’t know if you consider the Sun-Times a prestigious paper (probably not), but I do review PBOs, both trade and mm. I consider ’em right along with everything else.

    Make sure your publicist sends me one! The gorgeouser, the better. 🙂

    (I think bringing out a new author in PBO can be a great move, assuming the other factors are in place.)

  9. Interesting that the ITW has acknowledged that eliminating the PBO category was a failure; the same thing happened when they cut best first last year. And you’re right John, the bias clearly exists, and the fact that not a single mmp was a nominee even though that’s the initial format of so many thrillers is a travesty.
    I think that particularly in this economic climate, mass market is the way to go.

  10. I don’t buy hardcover books often. I’ll wait until they come out in paper.

    It’s just makes sense. For example, Tuesday my 17 year old daughter managed to pick up 3 paperbacks for the cost of 1 hardcover. One is in a series she’s reading. The other two “sounded interesting” when she read the backcover.

  11. John~

    I don’t deny what you and Michelle say about the prejudice – I know it exists. And, like you say, it exists not only within publishing circles but with readers as well. But having a PBO category is a little too “affirmative action” for me. It smacks of, “You couldn’t get on the list on your “own merit” so we are creating this other list for you wanna-be’s.”

    Not true of course. And completely unfair that the playing field may be right now, I still would like to address that underlying issue of prejudice. But we find ourselves in a Yossarian Moment of wanting to show that PBO’s are just as good as hard covers but we can’t do that without distinguishing them from hardcovers thus perpetuating the prejudice that they are inferior to hardcovers.

    This stuff gives me a headache. I’m gonna have a beer now….

  12. On the other hand, hardcovers do have one redeeming quality not afforded paper backs that all thriller writers should be aware of.

    As I recently discovered during a particularly hairy event in my comfy chair, they make much better weapons. When used with a downward spine stroke a hardback can deliver a potentially deadly blow whereas a paperback tends to “accordian” on impact thereby dissipating the inertial force of the blow. This is especially true of the larger paperbacks. The pocket sized paperbacks simply don’t have the mass to deliver significant interia.

    So you see, there’s a silver lining in every cloud.

  13. I was all set to express my appreciation that someone agrees with me about bringing out new writers and characters in paperback, then go on to show why. Had notes and everything.

    Then I read the comments and saw that eveyone else thinks so, too.

    So I must be right. 🙂

    Great post, John. I have time budgeted over the weekend to search Writers Market for a publisher, and MMP pubs will be on the list.

  14. ITW never eliminated the Best First Novel category. It’s always been there. Nor has there been any public comment (or private comment that’s reached my ears) about the most recent changes being a mistake.

    I know this is a delicate subject, but I’ll sally forth anyway — it’s not beyond plausibility to speculate that the reason no PBOs were shortlisted was because the judges didn’t believe they were the best books of the year.

    I think we have to agree that it’s at least a possibility, and not automatically the result of bias, snobbery or conspiracy.

    There will never be a list that pleases everyone, and probably not even a majority of people. That’s why I think awards are more trouble than they’re worth.

    They are fun to argue about, though. 🙂

  15. If it makes you feel better, Mr. Gilstrap, everything I NOW buy new (wasn’t always this way, sorry) is mmpb. The reason is that the back of my classroom has shelves on which I keep as many novels as I can to get kids READING. I don’t care what it is, as long as they are reading more.

    I’ve even put some of my personalized, autographed copies of mmpb’s, by authors who’ve given them to me, out on the shelves (including Ms. Gagnon’s BONE YARD and JT Ellison’s JUDAS KISS) and here’s why: I can always get another book signed, but the more people that read that copy, the more likely they are to find books like it and read/buy them. So NO MERCY will wind up on those shelves at some point (after I’ve bought and read it), and my students will undoubtedly pick it up. So at least I can try to help you guys in mmpb maybe outsell some of those award winners….

  16. Thanks, everyone, for the input.

    David, the Sun-Times is indeed a prestigious paper, and I in no way intended to impugn its quality. In my pique of hyperbole, I clearly cast too large a net. I apologize.

    My issue with the ITW awards has little to do with the awards themselves. I think they’re a great idea. I was a preliminary-round judge for the current awards, and I saw no collusion or prejudice built into the system. I fully expect and believe that the list of nominees accurately reflects the votes of the judges. It’s not an empirical process, but it certainly seemed like a fair one.

    Let’s all agree that it’s preposterous to think that there even is such a thing as a “best” work of art in any form. There’s too much subjectivity for “best” to have any meaning. The awards process is really about publicity and peer recognition. And therein lies my objection to the elimination of the PBO category.

    Among the stated objectives of ITW is the promotion of the thriller genre and its authors. It used to be that we’d all gather once a year to celebrate the talent of 15 nominated authors in three categories. This year, we’ll gather to celebrate the talent of 9nominated authors in two categories. I just don’t see how cutting the honorees by over a third serves the stated goals of the organization. If anything, we should be debating the wisdom of ADDING categories.

    As for the decision to reinstate the PBO category, I stand by my sources. Quoting the email I received, “[I]t was an experiment that didn’t work out, and . . . the award for mass market paperbacks will return.”


  17. JAke, that’s a wonderful thing you’re doing. I agree completely, anything that gets kids reading is good. They’ll find and grow into their own tastes eventually, given the opportunity. Getting them to read in the first place is the key element.

  18. John, I was just busting your chops about the Sun-Times being prestigious or not. I didn’t think you were impugning anyone. So no need to apologize. And you’re right, of course — most papers don’t review them. I think tha’s a mistake. There are a couple of legitimate reasons for it, but I also think there are exceptions that merit consideration.

    I haven’t heard anything about it, but I think ITW probably should bring back the PBO category, because removing it has just served to alienate some folks, without much upside.

    One thing that I will say to ITW’s credit is that they try to be responsive to the members and when they make missteps, they try to fix them. So if the consensus of the membership is that this was a mistake, I’d wager they’ll change course.

  19. My first book came out in hardcover and sole forty-some thousand copies, and the paperback sole 20 times that. When I put out INSIDE OUT, eight years after my first book, the strategy was to reintroduce me in mass market as nobody remembered me. I have been in mass market ever since, and there is stigma of sorts, and I don’t do signings, and it is ego smashing, but I do get them reviewed.

    I think it is something we’ll see more and more as publishers are less and less likely to launch in hardcover due to the investment. Do I mind? Yes and no, but I honestly don’t think it matters as much as it seems like it does. Lots of great authors started out as Paperback writers, and some were no published in HC until they were long dead. The plain fact is that it is far better to be published, than not. The rest I can easily live with.

  20. Sad to say, I know for a fact that best first novel was eliminated last year, and for that year only (it was the only year I would have been eligible). The ITW is usually great about responding to criticism, and so after the uproar they included the category again this year ( but got rid of PBO). So hopefully this is just another blip.

    And you’re right about the subjectivity issue, john. It comes down to apples vs. oranges much of the time. I’m glad they’re reinstating it, why not recognize as many books as possible.

  21. Honestly? I think people in this economy will be more likely to plunk down $6.99 for a paperback than $25 for a hardcover. I’m thrilled to have my new series debuting in paperback in July. Despite the “review” issue, and there are ways around that to get the word out, paperbacks are good.

  22. ITW has given a Best First Novel award each year the awards have been extant. Last year’s winner (for 2007 books) was Joe Hill’s excellent HEART-SHAPED BOX.

    The other books on the shortlist were:

    Interred With Their Bones by Jennifer Lee Carrell
    Big City, Bad Blood by Sean Chercover
    From the Depths by Gerry Doyle
    Volk’s Game by Brent Ghelfi

    (Full disclosure: I was one of the judges.)

  23. On the review question… Within another couple years there won’t be any more newspaper reviews anyway, so this won’t be an issue.

    For a lot of books, especially new writers, coming out in paperback just makes sense.

  24. David-

    I went back and checked, and you’re right: there was a Best First category last year. But here’s the best example yet of PBO prejudice: every paperback, debuts included, were lumped into the PBO category, So JT Ellison’s debut, mine, Jason Pinter’s, etc etc etc ere not eligible for Best First.

    This year, paperback debuts were eligible.

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