The Fate of the Hardcover
When I got my first bookstore job back in 2001, people still bought hardcovers, and e-books were nothing but enigmatic peculiarities that would occasionally pop up in database searches. I imagined them as little diskettes or video game cartridges that could be inserted into a computer -- in other words, as tangible objects that one could pluck from a shelf and carry to a cash register.
Oh, how wrong I was. And oh, how things have changed.
The formula used to be thus: a book would come out in hardcover, then after approximately one year, the same book would be released as a trade paperback. If the book was a bestseller, it might also be released as a mass market paperback.
In the current book market, however, a fair number of publishers are bypassing the hardcover phase and releasing first-editions of new titles as trade paperbacks. Poison Shy, for example, will come into the world as a paperback, and frankly, I wouldn't want it any other way.
Why? Because these days, a hardcover is a hard sell. "I'll wait for the paperback," is one of the most frequently uttered phrases among those who still shop in bricks-and-mortar bookstores. Hardcovers are heavy, clunky, take up too much space, and are more expensive -- to make and to buy -- than their softcover counterparts. (I know it may sound like sacrilege for a writer and self-proclaimed book lover to say that any book is expensive, but it should go without saying that writers and book lovers spend a lot of money on books as it is.)
I'm always carrying books around with me, and as a non-driver, I don't have the luxury of a trunk or backseat where hardcovers can be stored. All I have is my tattered old backpack and a handful of crunchy plastic bags I've been using and re-using for years.
I am without question a paperback man. Always have been. The biggest downside is that I often have to wait a year to buy a book I've been salivating over before it comes out in softcover.
It makes sense to publish hardcovers in certain cases -- art books, textbooks, cookbooks, and books for children -- but literary titles don't need to be cloth bound.
According to a report compiled by the Association of American Publishers and the Book Industry Study Group, e-books outsold hardcovers for the first time in 2011, accounting for 15% of total industry sales, up from 6% in 2010. That's a huge jump in a single year, and the percentage for 2012 will no doubt be higher.
With these kinds of numbers on the horizon, perhaps it's time for publishers to ask themselves if releasing new literary titles in hardcover is really necessary.