Soft Target

Have reports of the paperback’s death been greatly exaggerated?

Penguin published its first 10 paperbacks—including works by Ernest Hemingway and Agatha Christie—in 1935

In 2009, Penguin Group, one of the most successful publishers in the world, printed a charming history called The Book of Penguin, in the slim, orange paperback format that the company made famous in the mid-20th century. It begins: “This is a book about the most advanced form of entertainment ever. You can pause it at any time. Rewind and replay it if you miss a bit … It’ll fit in your pocket. It’s interactive … It’s pretty cheap. It’s completely free to share. And it lasts a lifetime. This is a book about books.”

If that micro-manifesto sounds slightly defensive, it might be because that highly advanced form of entertainment is starting to look a tad outmoded. E-books are ever more popular, eminently practical, and pleasantly cheap; hardcovers may always have a degree of shelf-worthy cachet. But where paperbacks fit into the evolving publishing landscape is less clear. It seems possible that paperbacks may lose their spot in the marketplace altogether.   

That may seem hyperbolic, but look at the numbers. The 2012 BookStats survey (one of the more reliable metrics of book-format sales industry-wide) revealed that 2011’s e-book net sales were double those of 2010. In the all-important “adult fiction” category, e-book revenue—for the first time ever—outpaced that of print. Amazon probably saw that coming: In 2011, they reported higher sales of e-books than paperbacks and hardcovers combined. And the trend seems destined to hold steady. The recently released 2013 BookStats report observes “an even more widespread popularity of e-books than in past years,” noting that e-book sales have grown 45 percent since 2011 and “now constitute 20% of the trade market.” Meanwhile, according to Publishers Weekly, between 2011 and 2012 the number of trade paperbacks sold fell by 8.6 percent, and total mass-market paperback sales fell by a whopping 20.5 percent.

Conventional wisdom holds that e-book sales eat into paperback sales but not those of hardcovers. So if e-book sales are growing exponentially, it seems fair to assume that paperback sales will plateau, dip, and eventually fail to justify the cost of printing them: So long, softcovers.

But there are many who believe reports of the paperback’s death have been greatly exaggerated—or just plain invented. Gerry Donaghy, book buyer at the largest indie bookseller in the U.S., Powell’s in Portland, Ore., says that the major publishers have a compelling reason to perpetuate a paperbacks-are-dying narrative, for one simple reason: because paperbacks are the most common books to be bought secondhand. “Publishers have a vested interest in keeping the e-book dominant—it allows them to control the ecosystem, because there are no used e-book sales,” Donaghy says. A paperback copy of, say, Eat Pray Love can be sold and resold ad infinitum, thanks to Amazon and your local used book store. But for multiple people to read that same book on a Kindle or Nook, each of them has to buy it for $10. And if last spring’s Capitol Records court victory—which found that MP3 files can’t be resold—is any precedent, e-books will likely retain their value in a similar way.

Donaghy also cautions against any assumption that e-books are taking over publishing unilaterally. E-books are a juggernaut in genre fiction categories such as romance, mystery, and science fiction, but in many categories, they have yet to gain significant traction. For example, popular narrative nonfiction—the likes of Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project and the pop-science books of Mary Roach—sell only modestly in digital formats, despite robust print sales. Also worth noting: Not every backlist title has been converted to an e-book.

Another boon for the paperback is rooted in the classic argument for the indie bookstore: Consumers need a physical place and a knowledgeable staff to find their next great read. Paperbacks make that hand-selling scenario infinitely more palatable. “People don’t buy $35 hardcovers on impulse,” Donaghy says, “but a $13 trade paperback can engender that kind of purchase. There’s still a debate about whether you can really discover anything online, but I tend to think you can’t.”

Patrick Nolan, vice president and associate publisher of Penguin Books—who sent me The Book of Penguin before we spoke—agrees. “Everyone in publishing talks about discoverability,” he says, “and no one would argue that it’s easier when there aren’t physical copies of books around. There’s no substitute.”

The Book of Penguin relates the legend of the company’s founder, Allen Lane, who in the mid-1930s found himself stuck a train trip with nothing to read. Having seen prototypical paperbacks while working at a publisher in London, Lane decided to create his own portable, inexpensive version of the format. Penguin published its first 10 paperbacks—including works by Ernest Hemingway and Agatha Christie—in 1935, with print runs of 20,000. At first, sales were slight. But then Woolworth’s ordered 60,000 copies of each title, revenue spiked, and by the ’50s most other publishers had created their own spins on the softcover.

Which raises the question: As long as print exists, why wouldn’t paperbacks exist? They’re cheaper than hardcovers. They’re just as portable and inexpensive as they were when Allen Lane made them available to his fellow riders of trains. And there’s no question that printed books are still a big part of our lives, however staggering e-book sales may be.

In fact, Richard Nash, head of alternative publishing formats Cursor and Red Lemonade and a general shaker-upper of publishing paradigms, isn’t convinced that the fate of paperbacks is appreciably different from that of hardcovers. “Technology doesn’t really disappear or get vanquished,” he says, “but its purposes migrate. The purpose of a horse in the 19th century was transportation; nowadays the purpose of a horse is entertainment and gambling.”

The purpose of print books will evolve, too, Nash believes. They will become art objects imbued with nostalgia, akin to vinyl records and Polaroid cameras. As e-books increasingly become our main means of digesting literature, print books of every binding will stop being mass-produced and start becoming more “bespoke,” Nash says. But he hastens to add that it’s at least another decade before that happens. “Physical books have a tremendous hold on our imaginations. The changes will be quite slow and incremental.”       

Which may reassure those of us who still prefer the printed page to the pixelated one—and if you’re a reader of literary fiction, a lover of graphic novels, someone who likes to clip things out of magazines, or a fan of Mary Roach, that group almost certainly includes you. Or rather, you would feel reassured, unless you asked Stephen King, reigning champ of mass-market paperback ubiquity, what he had to say on the subject. Unfortunately, he’s not someone in the business of settling nerves.

King told me via email that “if sales of e-readers continue to climb, paperback sales will continue to decline. As market share continues to decrease, display space will follow suit. There was a period in the seventies and eighties when paperbacks were the tail that wagged the dog. But as the old outlaw says at the end of The Wild Bunch, ‘Them days is gone.’ ” Or at the very least, those days may be numbered.