"That's fantastic!" I said.
Then I immediately Googled "French flap."
Which it turns out is not, as I feared, some new variant on a Brazilian wax.
A French flap is a fancy-pants design in which the cover includes an extra folded bit on each side, which gives the publisher more room to tell you about the book, and gives you a built-in bookmark to fold into place. (Unless of course you decide to read the book in one sitting, in which case, I'm sure you can find some creative use for your flap page).
The French flap says, exquisite physical object. But, being bilingual, it also says pas trop cher. A French-flapped tome is not only elegant, it's less expensive, less heavy to schlep around, and less of a space-hog on your bookshelf than a hardback.
Yes, I said it. My book, The Secrets of Mary Bowser, is not coming out in hardback. This is the kind of news that until not long ago was the equivalent of a movie going straight to video. Hardback books are big! They're important! That's the way it is! Or at least the way it used to be.
When I told my friend Ben Metcalf that my book was being published, he made me feel like it was the best news in the world. Ben was for many years the literary editor of Harper's magazine, so the idea that he could be thrilled over my little ol' book made me even more thrilled.
When I told him what I thought was the bad news — that there wouldn't be a hardback edition — he made me feel like that was even better news."Nobody's published a hardback book in France in years," he pointed out, "and their publishing industry is thriving." Pop the champagne! Vive la paperback!
And that was before I learned about the French flaps.
I discovered Ben wasn't the only one who knew my news for what it was. Bookstore owners, librarians, literary agents (and not just my own) — everyone told me this was great news. The only people who didn't say it were the ones for whom it was most true: potential readers. Particularly the people who would avoid meeting my eye while saying something like, "Your book sounds really interesting, but my bookclub usually doesn't read things until they've been out for a while." Out for a while meaning, cheaper because the paperback has been released.
As an author, it's hard not to want a hardback book. It's still prestigious. But the point of a book being published is not to inflate the author's ego. It's to connect readers with a story with which they will fall in love. And you can't fall in love with a book you can't afford to buy. You can't treasure a book that you have no room to keep. I wrote my novel surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of books I own. A tiny percentage of which are hardcover novels. Why would I expect my readers to want a different relationship to my book than I have to the many books I love?
But I'll confess, there's one drawback of trade paper originals that still has me worried. They have a harder time attracting media attention, especially as fewer newspapers run book reviews at all (Portland being a wonderful exception, and Seattle as well). You read reviews and hear interviews all the time with authors who've come out in hardback. You may not buy the book until you read and hear the re-runs of those reviews and interviews a second time when the paperback comes out. But all the press adds up, whether you're shopping at the remainder table for last year's hardback or at the new releases for this year's paperback.
So make it easier for publishers and authors to make books accessible the first time around. Buy a trade paper original (I think The Secrets of Mary Bowser is an excellent choice, but it's a free market, find the one that suits you). It'll run you less than a couple of movie tickets. Or one movie ticket and a stop at the concession stand. If you like the book, tell people about it. In French, if you'd like. If we all make a flap, maybe we can Frenchify our own publishing world.
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Lois Leveen is an award-winning author whose work has appeared in the New York Times, on NPR, and in literary journals and anthologies. A former faculty member at UCLA and Reed College, she lives in Portland, Oregon.
Books mentioned in this post
Lois Leveen is the author of The Secrets of Mary Bowser