PBO Prejudice

By John Gilstrap
http://www.johngilstrap.com

“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 My previous agent once told me that it is better not to be published at all than to be published as a paperback original.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?

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