Paperback write-off

Several customers have been asking, in a state of excitement, for The Popes, by Lord John Julius Norwich. The excitement proceeds from Norwich's late-night Radio 4 readings on "Book of the Week", in which he imparts tales of papal venality and bestiality in avuncular, fireside tones. Affectionately known to booksellers as Lord Knowledge, and to customers simply as Julian of Norwich, the frequent confusion of his identity with a medieval mystic has only increased his cachet. Sadly, the price put my punters off. They said they would try to remember to come back in about four months for the paperback. But their excitement would have faded by then. They will forget. Norwich's sonorous nocturnal tale—the Shipping Forecast with nepotism and sodomy—will no longer be ringing in their ears. The publisher's publicity machine, having got the author all over the media for the hardback, will fall silent as the book is finally mass-released. These lost sales are crazy. If publishers saw the above tale repeated daily with a host of authors, as we booksellers do, they would begin to issue simultaneous paperbacks and hardbacks. Customers have interrogated me for 25 years about why, when they want to buy a product, its publisher will not sell it at a man-in-the-street price until many months later. When I explain that the actual date is unknown, and depends on how long the publisher can milk a dwindling minority for the hardback price, well, the customer backs away with an expression that says "get me out of here and back to a normal retailer" or even, "when your planet exploded, how many of you survived?" Now that the book can be downloaded on publication day, this Dance-of-the-Seven-Veils journey to paperback seems even madder. E-reader buyers are mostly older people fed up with holding up that new Clive Cussler hardback in bed, or, at holiday-time, paying EasyJet a fortune in baggage allowance. Ironically, hardbacks, or rather, delayed paperbacks, are helping to kill bookshops. And what are all these different paperback formats for? Only after 15 years in bookselling did I understand the secret freemasonry of format: "B" is big and literary, "A", small and vulgar. A third runt, the "trade paperback", is self-evidently common. Is there some class hangover here? Format snobbery has little meaning for the public, and a lot less meaning to authors than publishers like to believe. It's confusing and wasteful. There is another way. The French know that paperbacks are perfectly respectable guests at a book launch. Editions Gallimard is celebrated this spring with a Bibliothèque Nationale exhibition. Its "Collection Blanche" of humble softbacks started in 1911 and has made millions. Understated and zen, they are objets fétiche. Let glorious hardbacks be born with their paperback cousins, in one blaze of publicity and customer happiness.