Continuing the Black Library paperback debate

Yesterday I put up a post talking about Black Library’s approach to marketing their paperback releases, which I was prompted to write after realising just how many paperback editions of existing books have been released recently with barely any acknowledgement from Black Library. Various people chimed in with thoughts and comments, which were all really interesting to read – it’s always interesting to get this sort of response and discussion.

I wanted to follow up that post with a second one though, because it looks like perhaps I wasn’t quite as focused as I thought in my original article. Sorry if I’m hammering the point home, but I just want to be clear!

See, a lot of the comments have revolved around the question of economics – the fact that Black Library putting books out in hardback means they make more money per book – or the delay between a hardback and the subsequent paperback. All valid comments, absolutely. I don’t think there’s much doubt about the hardback/paperback question, as while it’s a pretty standard model to release a hardback first and then a paperback, it definitely doesn’t appeal to everyone. It’s also common for there to be a delay between the hardback and paperback, to a greater or lesser degree, primarily (presumably) to ensure the publisher sells as many hardback copies as possible before giving customers the opportunity to buy the book in paperback.

Let’s be clear though, the question I’m more interested in is this. Once a publisher decides to release a book in paperback (whenever that is), why wouldn’t they promote it?

That’s what I find the strangest about this situation.

Let’s take the example of The Talon of Horus. The safe assumption is that the paperback was held off for two years because the original hardback was still selling, and Black Library didn’t want to cannibalise the hardback sales in favour of a cheaper paperback. Let’s not worry about the decision-making process there – Black Library are a business, and they’re entitled to want to make as much money as they can. We can talk about the ethics of that another time.

Here are some facts and/or assumptions:

  • The Talon of Horus is written by Aaron Dembski-Bowden, who a) is a really good author, and b) has a large and dedicated group of fans.
  • The lovely (and expensive) First Edition version of the book sold out super quickly, which suggests there’s lots of demand amongst Aaron’s fans for his work, to the point that even for a £40 book the demand exceeds the supply.
  • When the standard hardback was released it sold well enough to encourage Black Library to push back the paperback release until such time as sales for the hardback dropped off.

Based on those facts/assumptions, Black Library made a decision to release the paperback in November 2016. The exact motivations for that decision are known only by Black Library, but it’s reasonably safe to assume that the hardback sales had dropped to a point where the introduction of a paperback wasn’t considered to be a problem.

So in this situation, Black Library have got a very successful book by a very popular author, which is ready for a paperback release. The hardcore fans have all bought a copy. Some have bought two. The less hardcore, but still pretty loyal fans have mostly bought copies too. In terms of the key fanbase, most of Aaron’s fans have probably got copies, as have a large proportion of general (but not Aaron-specific) Black Library fans. That leaves the casual readers as the majority of the remaining target audience – people who like Black Library books but don’t religiously read all of them, or general sci-fi fans who might pick up a copy from Waterstones if they see it on the shelf.

The question here is: is it worth promoting the paperback edition of The Talon of Horus, given that the hardback has sold really well, and money has been spent on advertising already?

The follow-up question is then: if it’s not worth promoting the book, why release it at all?

If you look at the wider publishing industry, paperback editions of popular books often get quite a bit of publicity; probably not as much as the hardback, but still a fair bit. Ok, Black Library is a little different to mainstream fiction publishing, so the comparison isn’t an identical one. It’s the closest comparison we’ve got, though.

What actually happened when The Talon of Horus saw its paperback release was…nothing. No publicity. No emails, Facebook posts, just one line at the bottom of an advert in White Dwarf.

Remember, this is a book that sold so well it was kept in hardback for two years. If there was value in publishing it in paperback (which there must have been, otherwise it would have been a waste of money entirely), SURELY it would have been worth reminding people about the book? There will have been some people who didn’t buy the hardback, for whatever reason…was it not worth letting them know?

A couple of suggestions were put forward by Duke_Leto on the Bolthole forum that I wanted to include here:

1. Lack of budget for ongoing promotion. So the focus is on initial release and hardbacks.
2. Lack of resource. BL is a small publishing house with a limited number of staff. There is only so much work each person can do so they probably again focus on the new releases.

Both of these are really sensible suggestions, and who knows? Maybe they’re the exact reasons why Black Library give so little love to paperbacks. They both tie into the same issue though, which is cost – is the cost (in staff time as well as monetary cost) of promoting a paperback more than the benefit reaped from doing so?

In other words, would it cost too much to make additional Facebook posts (or posts on the Warhammer Community website these days, I suppose), send additional emails or include more books/give more information about paperbacks in White Dwarf?

In my opinion? My entirely-not-affiliated-with-Black-Library opinion? I don’t think so.

Facebook posts? Yeah, to be fair there’s definitely a cost to making more posts, given that they need images to be created and someone needs to write/schedule the posts. White Dwarf? I guess it’s an opportunity cost – if you take up more space talking about paperbacks, you have less space to talk about other things.

Emails though? I get at least one email a week from Black Library, and almost all of them contain multiple items. What’s the additional cost of extending an email by another few inches to include some information about new paperbacks? Fifteen more minutes for the designer? It’s not a lot…

Maybe I’m overreacting. Maybe I’m talking nonsense and there’s more to it, or the cost would be WAY more than I realise. That’s all possible. I don’t know, I’m just thinking out loud here.

What I do know is that there are plenty of people who, for whatever reason, would prefer to buy their Black Library books in paperback. They don’t want hardbacks. They don’t want ebooks. They want paperback. Ultimately, they’re getting what they want – paperbacks are being released.

Why not tell us about them though?

EDIT: take a look at what happened the day after I wrote this post…

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