Sunday 10 May 2009

A Cunning Ploy

Say you're a publisher who wants to publish a famous book. Unfortunately, the rights to that book are owned by another publisher, and because it's famous and a money-spinner, there's no chance in hell that they'll let those rights go. What do you do?

If you're Orion, the publishing company that contains Gollancz and Weidenfeld & Nicolson, among other imprints, you have a cunning alternative: snap up the hardcover rights.

For the most part, once a book has gone into paperback, the hardcover rights are virtually worthless. Everyone who was going to buy it at the higher price has already done so. A publisher who nabs the rights and releases the book as a hardcover is going to be competing with a cheaper product, and thus putting themselves at a disadvantage.

Not if you're Gollancz. Their tactic is to release hardcovers of science-fiction classics for the same price as the paperbacks from the other publishers. They manage this by not having a dustjacket (a significant part of a hardcover's production costs), and printing the cover directly onto the book's boards.

Here's their version of the ecological-mystical science-fiction classic Dune...

..which looks very sturdily appealing next to Hodder's identically-priced and lurid airport-blockbuster equivalent.

And here's the Gollancz version of Philip K Dick's The Man in the High Castle, one of science-fiction's masterpieces, set in a defeated US divided between the Axis powers.

This competes with the two available attractive but less robust Penguin paperbacks.

(That second Penguin cover doesn't show up well in two-dimensions--it has a sort of Braille-like cover 'image' of the seven continents, now Nazi- and Imperial Japan-dominated, in raised bumps down the right-hand side.)

They're also planning a similar edition of Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, which I'll talk about when a cover design appears.

Having done this for science-fiction, Orion are now turning to "literary fiction" to do the same thing to celebrate Weidenfeld & Nicolson's 60th anniversary. They're grabbing the hardbackrights to books like Lolita... well as One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, as well as books to which they already have the rights, like A Suitable Boy, and the wildly over-rated The Reader, and repackaging them as a matching set of un-jacketed hardbacks.

(Sorry for the low-quality images--these have been taken from a PDF catalogue, and there are no better versions available yet).

However, this time they're selling the books for about twice the rate of the paperbacks, so I'm not sure how well it will go. Furthermore, I'm not sure that they haven't gone past subtle into the realm of pleasant-but-dull. I'd need to see them in the flesh to see how effective this series design really ends up being.

UPDATE: John Self of Asylum suggests that the W&N Classics will have shapes cut out of the front boards, with the patterns (just) visible above being the endpapers showing through the holes. Now that would definitely make these a more enticing set of books.

UPDATE 2: The ultra-wise Tulkinghorn points out that the Gollancz Dune hardback cover is that originally painted by John Schoenherr for the Analog magazine serialisation of Herbert's work.


That Hank said...

I really like the idea of hardbacks with no dust cover. I hate dealing with those things.

John Self said...

I believe the W&N anniversary editions have 'cut-out' covers, so the images we (just about) see in your pic are of the endpaper below the cut-out hard cover.

The hardback rights thing is a good trick - Bloomsbury did it very successfully with their dinky little Bloomsbury Classics in the mid-90s. God I loved those books.

Steerforth said...

The Penguin 'Man in the High Castle' non-Braille over is superb - a huge improvement on its early 90s sub-Bladerunner version.

JRSM said...

John: The cut-out covers would definitely make them a bit more interesting: I'll amend the post. And those Bloomsburys were gorgeous. So nicely put together and designed.

Anonymous said...

As somebody whose own foible is a love of hardcover books, I'd love to see more of this. Doubt it will happen though -- too bad, from a purely selfish perspective.

JRSM said...

It's especially nice when the hardcovers are as cheap as paperbacks, but that does seem to have gone out the window.

Ian Koviak said...

What a wonderful idea. Who would not want a hardback instead of a PB? Jackets do get in the way and ultimately serve little in the end to protect the book.

Interesting to know that the rights for HBs go down to nothing once the PB is out. Very interesting.

Go Orion!

JRSM said...

It makes you wonder what other enterprising publishers might come up with as far as in-copyright classics go.

Tulkinghorn said...

The John Schoenherr covers for the issues of Analog magazine containing the original serialization of Dune and its sequels are classics: here appropriated for the Gollancz hardcover edition.

You can see the original here:

and if you poke around in the years before and after you can find more.

These were not digest sized magazines at the time, by the way, but full folio sized....

JRSM said...

I'll update the post to include that information. Thanks for that!

Craig D. said...

Back in, oh, 2003 or 2004, I remember Barnes & Noble selling tiny hardcovers of public domain classics (Dracula, The Picture of Dorian Gray, you know the drill) for $5, displayed in the little vestibule in front of the store. They were surprisingly of pretty high quality, like little Library of America or Everyman's Library books: cloth bound hardcovers with dustjackets, acid free paper, and sewn binding (I think, anyway -- it's hard to remember.) They couldn't have been bigger than four by four inches, but they were genuine books with regular sized print, not just little novelties. I can't for the life of me find a damn thing about them online, but I'm pretty sure I didn't hallucinate them. I would love to see more modern classics produced this way, but it seems we're always stuck with the same damn five or six from the 19th century.

Speaking of Philip K. Dick and small hardcovers, back when the Minority Report movie was made, a hardcover of the short story was published -- yes, a hardcover of a 30 or so page short story. Of course, the font and margins were huge so they could pad it out to 112 pages (!!!) by Amazon's count. The cover was ugly as shit ( and, worst of all, it was printed and meant to be read vertically, for no good reason at all. The cover price was about $12. Even a rip-off would call that a rip-off. I recently saw another one of these for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but at least that one was illustrated.

JRSM said...

That Dick cover is woeful!

I think I know the hardcovers you mean--they were published by Konemann (sorry for the missing umlaut), who were (I think) more usually a publisher of art and cookbooks. Did they look like this: ? They did a nice range of travel writing classics, too (people like R L Stevenson, Isabella Bird, Mary Wollestonecraft, etc)

Craig D. said...

Minority Report covers seem to be not very good in general (,, but oddly enough, I find the film tie-in cover to be quite striking (

(Sidenote: That second link is news to me. Minority Report read by Keir Dullea? That's awesome. Why wasn't I told about this?)

It's been so long since I've seen those tiny little hardcovers (unfortunately, I didn't buy any of them) that I can barely remember them, but one thing I remember for certain is that they had no cover art, just the title in the upper center. Imagine an Everyman's Library book ( without the image, and sort of dull in color, maybe the same rough brown of the EL covers. They also had gold-edged paper, unlike EL or Library of America, but they had the little tassel bookmark that EL and LoA use.