Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Filet Mignon vs. Big Mac and Fries
(Sometimes They're Equally Delicious)

No, this post isn't about fast food. It's about the dichotomy between different book formats, the stigmas attached to each, and what drives a reader to buy one over the other. I'm going to talk about it in terms of debut authors, since buying a book from a first-time novelist is very much akin to a blind date. In each instance there's a lot of apprehension, it takes tremendous faith, and you have the chance to either meet your soulmate or run away screaming like your hair is on fire.

On a blind date, you've never met the person. You might have heard good things from friends. They might be particularly attractive. You might have met them in a public place, like a library or mall, or seen an ad in a newspaper or online. And then you suck it up and decide to take the plunge. You ask them out. And so begins your first night together. But where will you go?

Buying a debut author in mass market is like having a first date at McDonalds. It's affordable, familiar, and if it doesn't work you're only out $7. It might be the cheapest date, but if you can get past the presentation there might be some great conversation to be had. You can go there every night, scarf down a burger in minutes, and another will come right off the assembly line. Hey, there's a reason McDonalds has served over 99 billion people. Now if only you can get past the 80 grams of fat and the special sauce...

Buying a debut author in trade paperback is a little classier. You go out to a pretty decent neighborhood restaurant, maybe even get a glass of Chardonnay with dinner. There's something a fancier about it, a little more cultured. It says you're refined yet practical, somewhat youthful, a very appealing combination for your potential sweetheart.

Buying a debut author in hardcover, now that's a commitment, boy. You're taking your date to Nobu, Peter Luger's, the creme de la creme. You're saying you're willing to take a pretty expensive gamble that this blind date is going to go swimmingly. Because if it doesn't, you're out a pretty penny and cursing the fact that you didn't just take her/him to McDonalds and get that Quarter Pounder after all.

So what's the point of all of this?

In the end, each date is what you make of it. On a blind date, the food is almost incidental. A date is for one thing, and one thing only: To see if you have the chemistry to last past the first date (notice I'm talking about first dates, not booty calls, which are like downloading a pdf of a book from Kazaa).

The conversation can be just as good at Nobu as it is at Mickey D's. Sure the presentation is light years apart--there's a reason a steak at Peter Luger's runs north of $30 while a Big Mac is $2.99--but if the date is going to work, it's not because of the presentation. The presentation helps, no doubt about it, and not too many datees will be as impressed with a McShake as a McSteak.

But a date is a date. And if the two daters match, it's sure going to last beyond that first night.


Blogger s.w. vaughn said...

Spot on, my good man. Excellent comparisons. Are you, like, a writer or something? :-)

When did a Big Mac go up to $2.99?? Sheesh, I gotta get out more...

11:16 AM  
Blogger Jason Pinter said...

I live in New York, so I think a Big Mac is actually $149.95.

11:32 AM  
Blogger JT Ellison said...

Jason, this is by far the best analogy I've seen. This should have been in the Wall Street Journal yesterday. I'm proud to be a Big Mac. Well, maybe I'm a Wendy's junior bacon cheeseburger, but the concept is sound.

12:30 PM  
Blogger Jason Pinter said...

As am I, JT. But as we all know, Big Macs sell a whole lot more burgers than Peter Luger sells steaks. And as a first-time novelist, I'm looking for as many readers as possible.

This is a column for another day, but I'm VERY happy to be publishing my debut novel in mass market. I'm hoping THE MARK appeals to regular thriller readers, but since my protagonists are in their 20's I'm also hoping to snag the Gen X+Y readers who don't spend $24 on a hardcover.

12:52 PM  
Blogger Brett Battles said...

Great post, Jason. This has been something that has been on my mind a lot lately (as JT can attest to.)

At first when dream about getting published,you think "I can't wait to put that hardback on my shelf." But once you do sign that first contract, the reality of making a career of it sinks in. What's the best way to go? Hardback or paperback.

You're Micky D's/Filet Migneon comparison is perfect. It makes it very clear. As a first time novelist we want to grow an audience. It's so much easier to buy two or three paperbacks than one hardback.

That said, I really, really would love to have a hardback with my name on it sitting on my shelf someday.

1:50 PM  
Blogger Jason Pinter said...

Brett, that's the goal of any writer. Hardcovers get more reviews, authors earn higher royalties, and publishers spend more money on them.

That said, a debut novelist is lucky to ship 20,000 copies of a debut hardcover. A debut mass market can ship anywhere from 50,000-250,000 depending on the push.

I look at my career as a marathon, not a sprint. If it takes me 3 or 4 or 5 books to build an audience that will follow my eventual (knock wood) leap to hardcover, that's fine with me. It's a lot easier to do it this way than have a 15,000 copy printing of your first hardcover, get a 50% sell-through, and watch your numbers wane with every subsequent book.

A wise man (ok, it was Herm Edwards) once said, "It doesn't matter how we got on the bus. We're on the bus."

I'm on the bus. And now that I've kicked down the door I plan on making a huge ruckus.

I think Bryon is trying compare himself to Ramen noodles. Which are totally cool in my book.

2:56 PM  
Blogger Brett Battles said...

You're doing a great job of making that rukus, Jason.

And count me on that bus, too.

3:38 PM  
Blogger JT Ellison said...

Count me in. The Class of 2007 is shaping up to be a winner, kids!

5:12 PM  
Blogger Stacia said...

I think I'm the only writer in the world that doesn't really care about hardcover. I don't like them. They're too hard to read one-handed, which is the way I read almost everything.

Plus, as you so wonderfully put it, most people just don't want to buy an expensive steak for someone they've never met.

8:15 PM  
Blogger Flip Dixon said...

What kind of a date is the extra long, mass market paperback that costs $9.99?

I've heard them referred to as "Venti" paperbacks, so maybe a coffee date at Starbucks is the best analogy.

Besides, I guess nobody has debuted in that format.

10:12 PM  
Blogger Allison Brennan said...

FABULOUS analogy, Jason. I'm happy to be a burger :) . . . It's all about building loyalty and readership.

Mass market authors often "get no respect" and that's sad because some of my favorite books came out as PBOs.

But for a debut author, being out first in mass market is often the best career choice. And like you said, you're in it for the long haul. Ditto.

1:16 AM  
Blogger Jason Pinter said...

I like that...a "Venti" paperback is like a blind date at Starbucks. A little spiffier than Dunkin Donuts, a little more pretentious, and in the end you're paying more for the same coffee you get at Dunkin Donuts.

And Allison, chalk me up for the burger crowd too. Some of today's most successful authors started out with PBOs (Robert Crais, Harlan Coben, Laurell K. Hamilton, Tess Gerritsen). I think it's a much safer long-term business model than trying to break out your debut in hardcover.

7:51 AM  
Blogger Jason Pinter said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

7:51 AM  
Blogger Jason Pinter said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

7:51 AM  
Blogger Bill, the Wildcat said...

Yes, this analogy is dead-on. I've always dreamed about my first book being a hardback, but as the reality slowly (I hope) creeps closer, I realize how much better off I'll probably be if that first book comes out in a paperback.

1:48 AM  
Blogger Rob Gregory Browne said...

Well, Jeez. I would wind up being the goddamn expensive date.

But I DO put out.

5:10 PM  

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