What’s Wrong with Publishing? #7: What About Hardcovers?

The usual disclaimer: The opinions and ideas expressed in WWwP? entries are ruminations, not rants. I’m thinking out loud here. Even if it seems like I’m demonizing some quarter of the industry, I’m really not — I want publishing (every aspect of it) to be stronger and better. Everyone has a role to play. I welcome your thoughts in the comments. I adore just about everyone I’ve met and worked with in publishing; nothing I say here should be construed as denigrating any sector of the industry.

In the world to come, the upcoming Brave New World of publishing, what will come of the hardcover?

This is a question people pose a lot. The thinking goes that as e-books condition readers to expect to pay less and less for a book, there will be significant, entrenched resistance to spending the requisite bucks to buy a hardcover book. And then, the question goes, where will we be?

Well, I suspect we’ll be right here, still working away in publishing.

People say hardcovers may go away in the New World Order, and I say… Well, actually at first I don’t say much of anything. I usually just shrug my shoulders.

Believe me, it is not easy for me to take a laissez-faire attitude towards the fate of the hardcover. I love hardcover books. In particular, I love my hardcover books! They are sturdy and hefty and feel somehow Important in my hand. And, of course, hardcovers cost more money and generally have a better royalty structure. Thus and hence.

But…

There’s no reason why a book has to be in hardcover. (Well, for most books. Certain ginormous coffee table books probably have to have that kind of binding. I’m speaking generally here.) Yes, it’s impressive. Yes, it’s advantageous financially. Yes, authors published in paperback often feel they’ve “arrived” when they get that first hardcover deal.

But…

The price of a hardcover makes it something of a liability as we move forward into the future. I remember when I saw the first early sales figure for my first novel. I didn’t know how to interpret them (having no context for them), but I remember my editor saying to me, “Don’t even worry about your hardcover sales. Kids won’t buy your books until the paperback comes out anyway.”

Sure enough, when that first book came out in paperback a year later, I got swamped with e-mail from readers. For those of us who write for kids, it behooves us to remember that kids have many things to spend their limited income on, and if it comes down to a seventeen-buck hardcover or an eight-buck paperback… Guess which one will probably win?

Is there a chance that publishers and authors will suffer financially if all (or nearly all) sales are e-book or paperback? Possibly. I don’t pretend to have a breakdown of industry revenues in front of me. But I suspect that there will be a transition period, and then that you’ll see readers who originally bought in hardcover buying paperback instead…and possibly buyingmore books because suddenly they’re cheaper.

(If anyone knows of an average breakdown of sales in terms of hardcover vs. paperback, I’d love to see it! Comment below, with links, if possible.)

The truth of the matter is that e-books are forcing a re-alignment of consumer expectations in terms of books. Readers are re-evaluating what a reading experience is worth to them. There’s a very good chance that hardcovers will lose out in this, that the general consensus of the audience will be, “Not worth it.” And if that happens, then publishers won’t be able to justify publishing in hardcover any longer. I’m actually OK with this.

(One reason books are published in hardcover, by the way, is that for a long time certain traditional review sources would only review books that were published first in hardcover, skipping over paperback-only books. Guess what? A lot of those traditional review sources are either drying up…or are being supplanted by new review sources, like blogs.)

I hasten to add here that I am in no way calling for or otherwise advocating the death of the hardcover. If hardcovers stick around for a thousand years, I’ll be happy. I’m just saying that if they do go away, I won’t be crippled with depression.

And in any event, I don’t think hardcovers will ever truly go away. I just think they will become rarer and less of a commodity, more of a special event. Publishers will publish the Big Books in hardcover to make a statement: “Yeah, we know it’s expensive. Deal with it — it’s worth it.” Hardcovers will become collector’s items, like those special DVD boxsets that come with fold-out posters and extra content and a custom-designed logo beer cozy. It’ll cost fifty bucks minimum and you’ll have to order it specifically, but so what? You’ll have your way-cool edition and everyone else will be staring at a paperback or a Kindle. As with most things in life, if it’ll make you happy, you’ll find a way to have it.

If not, you’ll learn that the story is exactly the same, whatever the format. Which, at the end of the day, is what matters.