Note to Readers – Every now and then, I will re-post a blog entry that has withstood the test of time. Whether you missed it the first time ‘round or read it years ago, I feel it’s worth sharing again. I chose Paperbacks—The Hybrid Book? from August 10, 2014 after discovering that I had to adjust my old bookshelves to hold my new paperbacks since book dimensions have changed. That’s not all that has changed in the publishing world so it’s worth looking at the history of paperbacks… you might be surprised. (By the way, I never did buy an eReader.)
When I’m home, I prefer to read hardcover books but when I travel, I choose paperbacks. The reason is obvious: portability. Eventually, I will give in and get an eReader because it trumps paperbacks for portability, except that paperbacks don’t require battery power. With digital books, I will miss the sensory pleasures one gets with the touch or smell of paper that paperbacks offer. Even with an eReader, I’ll probably still carry a paperback when I travel.
I hadn’t given much thought to the health of the paperback industry until a couple of months ago when I saw an obituary for a man named Oscar Dystel. No, I hadn’t heard of him either, but I learned he was the publisher who “saved the paperback” in the mid-1950s.
When Dystel arrived at Bantam Books, founded in 1945 to maximize profits from new paperback production advances, the company had gorged on success but overextended itself and was on the brink of bankruptcy. As Bantam’s new president, Dystel reduced inventory while expanding publication to classics, school and children’s books. He also had a keen sense for what the public would respond to: appealing covers on the outside and riveting stories on
the inside. In just a few short years, he turned around Bantam Books, setting new standards that other publishers followed.
Another major paperback publisher, Penguin, celebrated its history in 2009 with a commemorative retrospective book, The Book of Penguin. It opens, “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.”
In the five years after that self-celebration, eBooks swept the market. In 2011, Amazon reported that eBooks outsold paperbacks and hardcovers combined. The upward trajectory of eBooks continued, at the expense of paperbacks. The 2013 BookStats report noted that eBook sales grew 45 percent since 2011, capturing 20% of the trade market. More ominously, Publishers Weekly said trade paperbacks saw a sales decline of 8.6 percent and total mass-market paperback sales fell by 20.5 percent between 2011 and 2012.
Before you mourn the death of paperbacks, consider this: sales reports don’t account for secondhand sales. There are no secondhand eBooks but secondhand paperbacks are wildly popular. Also, there are some genres that don’t sell well as eBooks but flourish in paperback form; popular narrative nonfiction and the pop-science books, for example.
The strongest hope for the continuation of paperbacks may lay with the intense market interest in indie books, a key force behind the growing popularity of indie bookstores. Readers are searchers. The physicality and staff experience offered by those stores offer “discoverability” – an element missing from digital books and online booksellers. Paperbacks make discoverability more affordable.
The role of books in all their forms is evolving. Fortunately, there’s a place for all of them.
Update: Sales of consumer e-books plunged 17% in the U.K. in 2016, according to the Publishers Association. Sales of physical books and journals went up by 7% over the same period, while children’s books surged 16%.
The same trend is on display in the U.S., where e-book sales declined 18.7% over the first nine months of 2016, according to the Association of American Publishers. Paperback sales were up 7.5% over the same period, and hardback sales increased 4.1%.
According to the Pew Research Center, 65% of Americans reported reading a printed book in the past year, compared to only 28% who read an e-book. Sales of e-readers declined by more than 40% between 2011 and 2016.