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The Point of the Paperback

11 April 2013

From The Millions:

“Why are they still bothering with paperbacks?” This came from a coffee-shop acquaintance when he heard my book was soon to come out in paperback, nine months after its hardcover release. “Anyone who wants it half price already bought it on ebook, or Amazon.”

Interestingly, his point wasn’t the usual hardcovers-are-dead-long-live-the-hardcover knell. To his mind, what was the use of a second, cheaper paper version anymore, when anyone who wanted it cheaply had already been able to get it in so many different ways?

I would have taken issue with his foregone conclusion about the domination of ebooks over paper, but I didn’t want to spend my babysitting time down that rabbit hole. But he did get me thinking about the role of the paperback relaunch these days, and how publishers go about getting attention for this third version of a novel — fourth, if you count audiobooks.

. . . .

About ebooks. How much are they really cutting into print, both paperbacks and hardcovers? Putting aside the hype and the crystal ball, how do the numbers really look?

The annual Bookstats Report from the Association of American Publishers (AAP), which collects data from 1,977 publishers, is one of the most reliable measures. In the last full report — which came out July 2012 — ebooks outsold hardcovers for the first time, representing $282.3 million in sales (up 28.1%), compared to adult hardcover ($229.6 million, up 2.7%). But not paperback — which, while down 10.5%, still represented $299.8 million in sales.

. . . .

“Many people still want the portability of a lighter paper copy,” said Deb Sundin, manager of Wellesley Books in Wellesley, MA. “They come in before vacation and ask, ‘What’s new in paper?’ ”

“Not everyone e-reads,” says Nathan Dunbar, a manager at Barnes & Noble in Skokie, IL. “Many customers tell us they’ll wait for the paperback savings. Also, more customers will casually pick up the paperback over hardcover.”

. . . .

A look at a paperback’s redesign tells you a thing or two about the publisher’s mindset: namely, whether or not the house believes the book has reached its intended audience, and whether there’s another audience yet to reach. Beyond that, it’s anyone’s Rorschach. Hardcovers with muted illustrations morph into pop art, and vice versa. Geometric-patterned book covers are redesigned with nature imagery; nature imagery in hardcover becomes photography of women and children in the paperback. Meg Wolitzer, on a panel about the positioning of women authors at the recent AWP conference, drew knowing laughter for a reference to the ubiquitous covers with girls in a field or women in water. Whether or not publishers want to scream book club, they at least want to whisper it.

Link to the rest at The Millions

Advertising-Promotion-Marketing, Covers

15 Comments to “The Point of the Paperback”

  1. What I want to know about people comparing sales figures is this: Why do they always use revenue numbers in dollars when the price of the different formats is not the same. Are they trying to hide how popular the e-book is by comparing sales revenue to the more expensive hardcover revenue?

  2. Paperbacks are decorative, functional, have insane battery life. Unfortunately the storage is fixed, so you can’t upgrade the data. It’s a limitation of the technology, and adds considerable weight to the device — on the other hand the chassis is surprisingly ruggedized and can survive falls and mishaps a lot more reliably than other readers. Finally, while it’s not waterproof, it generally recovers from immersion a lot better than other readers in the arena and its insulation technology means you won’t fry yourself if you’re reading in the bathtub or in a pool.

    I like to have as many different kinds of devices onhand as possible, so while I’ve standardized on eBooks overall, I do keep paperbacks around for books that I particularly like. Especially if the cover art is very well done.

    • *grin* Thank you for making me smile.

    • *hi-5s* Very awesome. I’d like to add that paperback also have superb “loaning” technology, requiring only a shared meta-language with the receiver — though they’re often glitchy about “returning” to you.

  3. Since I don’t have a ereader or tablet I still read paper. I do have ebooks on my pc but I don’t like reading so much on my computer. I look forward one day to transferring them onto a device of some sort that is comfortable for me to read on.
    I still like paper and just recently for my birthday coming up I gave myself some books. I actually got a good deal that Chapters here in Canada had going. I got six hardcovers for under 30.00. They will be added to the growing stack around my bed but I don’t mind I like their physical company.

    • I do like picking up paperbacks and hardcovers when there’s a good deal going on. I signed up for the Science Fiction Book Club a couple weeks ago and got eight hardcovers ($200 retail value) for $5. Hard to pass that up.

  4. Paperbacks came out in 1931, and really took off in 1935. Penguine is the company that formed to bring paperbacks to the market. They were sold normally in dime stores, news stands, and almost anyplace but a bookstore. Paperbacks were books for the poor, or the masses, and considered low and trashy. Retailers did not even have to return the whole book, but just the cover to the publisher for a refund and the rest of the book was to be recycled by the end retailer, or thrown into the trash.

  5. Okay, they’ve convinced me.

    It’s always good to look at a small snapshot in time to predict long-term trends.

    Paper, even though it’s more cumbersome and expensive in every way, will win over the increased accessibilty, ease of storage and immediate access of e-books. People who are not e-reading now, will never decide to switch over.

    Good to know. I guess we can lay this argument to rest now.

  6. I’d rather ask “What’s the point of hardcovers?”

    Now I like paperbacks. I have an e-reader, but the vast majority of my reading is still done in paperback. And there are many people who don’t do e-books at all. Most of those read paperbacks.

    As for hardcovers, what is the point? Hardcovers make sense for reference books and the like. But what’s the point of a hardcover novel. Hardcovers are heavy and unwieldy, particularly the ridiculously oversized American ones. The only people who buy fiction in hardcover are the sort of people who don’t read but want something representative looking on the shelf.

    I understand that authors like hardcovers because of the higher royalties and associated prestige. But not many readers do.

    • The only people who buy fiction in hardcover are the sort of people who don’t read but want something representative looking on the shelf.

      Oh, bah. I buy hardcovers all the time — primarily because I want to support the author, the hardcovers are generally sturdier, and they’re there. I pay impatience tax for them, just as I pay impatience tax on a Baen eARC of a Bujold book, and like it.

      Mind, the other key point is that I buy hardcovers of books I want that my spouse and/or kid will want to read, too. As I mention above, albeit with humor, physbooks have better lending capabilities than ebooks, at this time. Even without DRM involved, it’s just a bit of a pain to have to go to the computer (rather than tablet, e-reader, or phone) and download the file, then ship it off to someone else.

      (Hmmm. The ability to “link” accounts as family accounts, and share certain books between them — while still keeping the grown-up books out of the kid-library — would be a useful value-add, customer-side, for someone. Add that to my Masterlist of If I Ruled B&N.)

    • Not necessarily. I’m an avid reader and an avid purchaser of books. I used to buy paperbacks because they were significantly cheaper. Now, I shop through Amazon, and the cost of the hardcover is only $2-5 dollars more than the paperback that will come out a year later. So I buy hardcovers–which are sturdier than paperbacks. For me, it’s not an issue of showing off, but a matter of economy.

      Caveat:I purchase and read kidlit almost exclusively. I have no idea what the prices are for any other genres or age ranges.

    • I like paperbacks for the fact that they take up less space and are cheaper. But I honestly do prefer hardcover because they’re significantly less likely to fall apart on me from one or two normal reads (I am careful with my books, but paperback binding has got insultingly shoddy for their creeping prices). I also like to read in the tub, and hardcovers are safer than paperback for that. They’re usually printed on sturdier paper too, which is (again) better for tub-reading.

      Of course, I say all of the above and add: there are very few authors I buy anymore in hardcover when they’re full or near-full priced. Most of my hardcovers come from discounted purchases (overstocks, sales;etc) or from second-hand sales. I also tend to buy more ebooks than physbooks lately.

  7. Most of my library system’s print books are hardcover. Durability, I guess. I’d say that libraries are a big customer of hardcovers.

  8. Where do “remaindered” hardcovers fit into these figures?

    I buy HC’s of fewer and fewer authors as they are released. The fact is that they’re too expensive to buy for every author I like. I buy paperbacks on impulse, if I’ve heard good things about an author or the blurb sounds intriguing. Then I wait for and buy remaindered HC’s for most others. I can get a remaindered hard cover for Lee Child or Michael Connelly or even Laura Lippman and Dennis Lehane, albeit a long time after it’s originally published. But I’m so far behind on their books that it’s not like I’m going to get to the newest one anytime soon anyways. HC’s look way better on the shelves, remaindered or not. I”ll probably be buying far more on Kindle in the future anyway.

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