Format interrupted

There is an old joke about publishing that I’ve seen resurrected recently across various online media outlets. Q: How many publishers does it take to change a lightbulb? A: Change? Like the best jokes, there is an element of truth. But a more accurate (though not funny) ending would turn the joke on its head. Publishers will change the lightbulb when it stops working.

The paperback market is a good example of this. Looking at the raw numbers, one might think that paperbacks are going out of fashion, supplanted by e-books. But actually—aside from Jeffrey Archer—no one thinks the paperback is reaching its end of days. In fact, at 66% of the overall printed book market, fears of its death look fanciful.

The “paperback” has its origins in the early 19th century, but it took the intervention of Allen Lane in the 1930s to make it a mass-market product. Like all great disrupters, Lane saw a gap in the market—for cheap books sold nationally—and led a pack of opportunist publishers in after him. The golden age for paperbacks was the late ‘70s and ‘80s, when bookshop expansion, along with the spread of mass entertainment such as TV and cinema, meant there was an eager audience for the new delights of a Jilly Cooper—or a Jeffrey Archer. It was during this time that Sarah Broadhurst established her Paperback Preview in The Bookseller, and we remain in her debt for the vision and execution of the column.

If there is a feeling that this time has passed, then the arrival of the e-book has hastened this thinking. If it is a publisher’s job to amplify their authors’ content, then the e-book is the natural heir to what the paperback once was. The new format is cheaper to produce, and easier to ship nationally and internationally.

Yet this would be to misread and underplay the importance of paperbacks, and where they fit in the supply chain. Penguin’s first paperbacks were cheap, but not cheap. Neither were they designed to be disposable. As historian Ian Norrie has written: “they sold to those who wanted the best they could afford”.  Booksellers’ enthusiasm for the paperback remains strong because it is the format where they can still compete on price; while for publishers their delayed publication allows books to reap the rewards sown by the hardback. Yet if the paperback is still to play a subordinate role to the hardback, then this needs reimagining. As The Bookseller's new paperback previewer Cathy Rentzenbrink has noted, the disconnect between the timing of the publicity and the arrival of the paperback has only been intensifed by digital—giving the e-book an advantage it does not merit.

The problem with the lightbulb joke is that it assumes the light has gone out. It is much tougher to change that bulb when it is still burning—albeit dimming.