Thursday, March 25, 2010

In praise of the paperback original

If you've ever spent any time in a European bookshop, you’ve probably noticed that the default book format is paperback. And the European paperback original is usually a sleeker, prettier, altogether more satisfying visual and tactile experience than our domestic trade paperbacks.

I’ve been waiting eons for that long promised ascendancy of the paperback original in the US book market. When did Bright Lights Big City first appear? 1984? At the time, we thought those genius Vintage Contemporaries might finally put a nail in the hardcover coffin. But in 2010, the conviction that every new fiction and nonfiction book has to appear sandwiched between clunky, unappealing cardboard slabs is more entrenched than ever.

If we’re lucky, the ebook threat might finally dislodge the dictatorship of the hardcover once and for all.

For years, publishers have resorted to the same collection of reasons why original books must be issued in hardcover.

Reviewers will not touch paperbacks.

Hardcovers are more durable and will last longer.

Americans just prefer hardcovers, it’s a cultural thing.

The economics of original paperback publishing won’t work.

But over the years, book reviewers have been much more willing to feature books in non-hardcover formats. (And in any case, better to worry about the continued existence of book reviewers themselves than about their format preferences.)

The deterioration in physical quality of some hardcover publishing has been depressing, and not unnoticed by bookbuyers. In the eighties, I remember joking about how many Doubleday Books you could stack up and carry (the old Doubleday, which used the same cheap paper as Book Club editions) because they weighed nothing. (One of the great things about working for university presses is that the physical and design standards are rigorous.)

Undistinguished blandness is often the physical book norm today. I groaned when I picked up Robert Darnton’s interesting defense of printed books published last year, The Case for Books. The book itself, which would have made a lovely paperback original, is a cheap, shoddily done hardcover with no aesthetic appeal whatsoever. The irony! Talk about undercutting an argument.

Like so many of the claims thrown around about what Americans “prefer,” the deck is heavily stacked in favor of what they’re being given. Are we American readers really so different from readers the world over, who overwhelmingly get their new books in paperback?

The economic question is the most compelling one, and most resistant to resolution. The simple truth is that a hardcover book carries a steeper price, and will, if successful, earn more money for publisher, author and bookseller. If issued as a paperback original with a necessarily lower price, more units would have to be sold. Projecting profit and loss based on conversion of a year’s worth of new books from mainly cloth to mainly paper is not a trivial exercise.

Yet one of the most constant refrains I hear from booksellers is that “this should have been paperback” when I’m trying to sell them on a new cloth title.

Publishing seems to be an industry inordinately obsessed with the Joneses. We do original books in cloth because the Joneses do them that way. If the Joneses started to do paperback originals, we’d do it too.

I’m hopeful that the challenges posed by digital media and ebooks will lead to some rethinking of the physical book as object. In fact, the ebook threat may not be to printed books per se, but to the dominant trade book model- clothbound, relatively expensive physical books.

If the standard price of a new trade ebook ends up being $12-15, wouldn’t an $18-20 beautiful trade paper edition be more competitive than a $30 cloth edition?

Except for art and heavily illustrated titles, for which hardcover can more often be justified, couldn’t we look to the European model for producing sensual, cleverly designed, durable paperback editions?

If somebody would start doing it, everybody would do it. Short runs of hardcover editions for libraries and collectors would still be possible. And cheap, minimalist editions in the $10 range (see semiotext(e)’s inventive and controversial Intervention series) should also have a future.

It seems logical to me. I’m not holding my breath. But even if we’re destined to live with our current two-step publishing norm- cloth edition, followed by paperback reprint one year later- there are some things we might do to breathe more life into the paperback.

Booksellers often hew a little slavishly (in my humble opinion) to the cloth track record when it comes to deciding on paperback reprints. It’s easy to see why- there is so little solid useful data around that when you see that you sold X number of units of the hardcover edition, you can make an informed bet on the paperback. It’s kind of exciting.

Some people bump the paper number a bit, expecting it to do better because it’s cheaper. Some people have a strict “sold three, buy three” approach, expecting the paper to perform just like the cloth. Some- and I won’t name names but this does happen- will look the book up and say “I didn’t sell any in cloth so I’ll pass” when a year earlier they said “This is too expensive, I’ll wait for paper.”

The point is, all of these approaches share a kind of routine thinking. Sometimes a paperback really does have a second life and might potentially reach a whole new audience, but not if it’s treated with a "cloth edition redux" shrug.

This was nicely argued in one of my friend Daniel Goldin’s recent blog posts about one of his favorite books last year, Chris Cleave’s Little Bee. The paperback is doing significantly better than the cloth did; you can read why here. (Hint: it’s finding its second life!)

With the proliferation of book clubs, it may be easier to imagine a second life for fiction than non-fiction. But the right non-fiction book, with the right package and the right story (see A Little History of the World) can spread exponentially in paperback.

In fairness, booksellers are not really to blame for not imagining reprint potential when publishers aren’t doing a very good job of it either. Too often we have a ho hum approach to paperbacks, and the result is ho hum sales.

I’d rather see, and I think we will see, a migration toward original paperback publishing over the next decade. Physical books as objects will get more beautiful, and riffs on the paperback format will proliferate. Or maybe American exceptionalism will carry the day again?


  1. I agree that paperback originals should be more common. If conglomerate publishers weren't under so much pressure to increase profits every year, maybe they would be. The one thing I quibble with here is this: Is "durable" really part of the "European model"? In my experience (and I guess I'm assuming that we're including the UK), paperbacks from there start naturally degrading -- as if you had dropped them in the tub -- after a few years. I've found them less durable, but it's possible you're talking much more broadly and I just don't have experience with THAT many global paperbacks. In any case, interesting issue...

  2. Not sure where it went, but that sentence should have read: "If conglomerate publishers weren't under so much pressure to increase profits every year (and didn't overpay so many debut writers, etc.)...."

  3. 1. Isn't it true that what we're really seeing in Europe is a paper to paper reprint model? Yes, the books start off as beautiful trade paperbacks...but at hardcover prices. Then a cheaper paperback comes out. It's more like the boxed 2666 to single-volume 26666. Prove me wrong!

    2. Talk about hardcover quality. I cannot bear hardcovers with see-through paper. For some reason, Penguin has issues with this. The latest travesty is Tony Judt's "Ill Fares the Land", the legacy of a lifetime that's selling great in our store (we're up to 10) that has the glorious advantage of the reader being able to read both sides of the page without turning it. (I might do a post on this as it's so upsetting to me.)

    Daniel from Boswell