From New York Times:
Publishers say there is no harder sell in the world of books these days than literary fiction. Even critically acclaimed literary novels often have a short shelf life in hardcover, with one-half to three-quarters of the books shipped to stores often being returned to the publisher, unsold.
That has a growing number of publishing companies, from smaller houses like Grove/Atlantic to giants like Random House, adopting a different business model, offering books by lesser-known authors only as “paperback originals,” forgoing the higher profits afforded by publishing a book in hardcover for a chance at attracting more buyers and a more sustained shelf life.
The paperback original is not an entirely new concept, of course. European publishing companies have been doing it for years; in the United States, Beat writers were often published only in paperback in the 1960’s. Jay McInerney’s “Bright Lights, Big City,” the seminal novel of the 1980’s, was first released as a paperback in 1984 by Vintage Contemporaries, a Random House imprint. More recently, in 1999, Jhumpa Lahiri’s volume of short stories, “Interpreter of Maladies” was released only in paperback by Houghton Mifflin’s Mariner Books. It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.