The Girl Who Made American Readers Impatient

When THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET’S NEST, the final book in Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy, was published in the UK in October, I knew I had to get my hands on a copy almost immediately*. I was far from the only impatient one, as it turns out, and the New York Times’ Motoko Rich was on the case to figure out why American readers were ready and willing to fork over as much as $45 for McLehose Press’s airport edition of the book, and independent bookstores like Partners & Crime and Murder by the Book have sold about 100 copies each of the title:

The imports are attracting fans like Joan Morgenstern, a retired

property manager in Houston who had already torn through the first two

books in the series and was eager to read the third when she discovered

that her favorite bookstore in Houston, Murder by the Book, imported

several copies of the British hardcover version shortly after it was

published in October.

Ms. Morgenstern, 64, paid $40 for her copy

and read it over the Thanksgiving holiday. “I’ve never been extremely

patient when it comes to stuff I can find and read,” she said…

…Bridget Lennon, an interior designer for retail stores, visited the

shop last week to buy a copy of “Hornet’s Nest” as a Christmas present

for her fiancé. “You put down the first one, and you want to read the

second; and you put down the second, and you want to read the third,”

Ms. Lennon, 27, said. Although she said the $45 price tag was steep,

she figured that by the time she, her fiancé, her fiancé’s sister and

his father had all read it, “between the three or four of us that we

know immediately who want to read it, it will pay off eventually.”

So why is Knopf, which publishes Larsson in the States, holding off on releasing THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET’S NEST until May? Spokesman Paul Bogaards said the company wanted to allow interest to build as more and more readers discovered the first two volumes in the series. “The sales on Book 1 and Book 2 are so strong that you wouldn’t want to add Book 3 to the mix immediately.”

And here’s the thing: Bogaards is probably right. The hard-core fans may not want to wait until May to read it, but their early buzz essentially acts the same way that advance copies do, and if the early adopters are enthusiastic (so far, they have been) then the much larger market segment of less hardcore fans will not only be primed to pick up book #3, they will also have plenty of time to catch up with THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (764,000 copies sold in all formats, according to Bookscan) and THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE (199,000 copies sold of the hardcover, also according to Bookscan)

Now, the funny thing is that originally, HORNET’S NEST was supposed to come out in early 2010, keeping the one-a-year pace of the first two books. But McLehose Press, a division of Quercus, moved it up, and the combined sales of all the Larsson books pretty much salvaged their year. They are far more in need of the cash boost the books provide than is Random House, which started off being 9 months behind (DRAGON TATTOO was published in January 2008 by Quercus, September of that year by Knopf) and has been publishing the series at a slightly accelerated pace, too (PLAYED WITH FIRE came out in late July; HORNET’S NEST will be out this coming May.)

If anything, publishing HORNET’S NEST so “late” makes it more likely that 2010 will provide the needed boost for the entire company – Dan Brown did all right, but they needed plenty of other books to perform well, too. And by 2011, when all three of the books are in paperback, Knopf – through its paperback arm, Vintage – will see plenty more money still from perennial backlist sales. 

Importing UK titles happens all the time, and I expect that issues of territory will become far more serious once e-books have more than a 3-4% market share. But with regards to Larsson, the number of people too impatient to wait versus the expected market for THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET’S NEST is still so tiny that, to my mind, Knopf is hardly losing out – if anything, they’re gaining more attention and potential sales as a result. Because many early adopters will turn around and buy the US edition come May – for themselves, for loved ones,  for anyone they can think of. And that way they benefit Knopf and McLehose Press (who, by the way, get first dibs on US sales because they bought World English rights back in the day) double. 

UPDATE: Publishers Lunch (subscription req’d) points out one aspect that Rich didn’t touch much on in her story but “is of concern to some trade

publishers: bulk imports for resale by US retailers (portrayed as a

savvy “way to lure customers into paying premium prices”) are a

violation of copyright law.” I followed up with Knopf’s Paul Bogaards on a couple of points. First, to my question about whether they might pursue any action against booksellers who imported the Larsson books en masse, he said:  “I’m not at liberty to discuss action we may be taking against booksellers who are operating in clear violation of copyright law, other than to say, we are carefully reviewing our options with counsel.”

The release dates for HORNET’S NEST and the paperback editions of THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE remain unchanged as well, and with general regards to issues of high demands, Bogaards had this to say:

Import sales, while illegal, are not a new phenomenon, and we witnessed some of the same consumer behaviors with book two in the series (the UK sale preceded our own, and some readers purchased UK editions). The term “high demand” is relative one, and could easily be substituted with another, more accurate turn of phrase (ala “a cadre of die-hard Larsson enthusiasts in concert with their lawless, book smuggling brethren”) — and it is important to note that what is driving current demand for The Girl Who Played with Fire in the US marketplace are the phenomenal paperback sales of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Generally, it is the wide availability of a paperback, in all channels of distribution, that helps broaden a hardcover readership, as has been the case with Larsson. As this story continues to unfold in the months to come, it is the wide availability of both paperback editions of The Girl Who Played with Fire, coming in March, as well as the attendant marketing campaigns for Fire and Nest, that will spur readers to purchase The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest when it is released in May.

Also see BookNet Canada’s Morgan Cowie’s post for yet more food for thought. 

*(thanks, A.K.)