June 06, 2004

The "International Paperback" Mystery

As Shelby already mentioned, we were able to buy a copy of David Sedaris' latest book -- in paperback -- at Thalia Bücher on Friday night, just days after the first hardback edition came out in the United States. And as I'd previously mentioned, mega-hyper-blockbuster The DaVinci Code may still only be available in hardback in the US -- after over a year -- but over here, you can choose from two English-language paperback versions.

What's the deal? My first thought was raw efficiency: something like the reason why post exchanges on U.S. military bases overseas price items to the nearest five cents so that the government doesn't have to go to the expense of shipping pennies around the world. Given the fact that a box of hardcover books costs more to ship than a similar number of paperbacks, that sales of English-language books in a non-English-speaking country must be relatively low, and the fact that the English paperbacks here are usually marked up to just below the "30% off" price of hardcovers in the US, it just seems to make more sense: publisher and bookseller stand to make more money if the publisher runs off a set of paperbacks "under the table", only sending them off to merchants outside the US (while no doubt cruelly keeping the rest of the paperbacks stacked up in some vast Indiana Jones-style warehouse, waiting until they've sufficiently milked the continental American public through hardcover sales before they start rolling the giant boxes of books out the door).

After some browsing around, the real answer seems to be more complex than that. Most books are published by separate US and UK publishers, who each have exclusive rights in their home market and share non-exclusive rights to sales in non-English-speaking Europe. The UK doesn't have the market for hardcover books that the US does (smart people), so their paperback editions tend to come out much sooner than the American versions. So, in order to grab potential sales away from the British publishers, US companies will preemptively rush an "international paperback edition" into the European market.

So, it's a simple matter of greed (or "increasing shareholder value") rather than efficiency -- and if you're travelling abroad and see a "Printed in USA" paperback edition of a book you know is only available in hardcover in the US, there's no conspiracy involving vast numbers of held-back paperback books hidden away in secret American warehouses. Mystery solved!

Posted by Kevin at June 6, 2004 11:42 AM