Hardbacks thrown a lifeline by Daunt

Publishers are rethinking their format strategies as Waterstone's m.d. James Daunt's avowed fondness for the hardback creates an impetus away from paperback-first publication.

Daunt has spoken publicly about his wish to champion hardback editions, with publishers deeming his attitude a welcome change from the dominant trend of recent years.

The pressures on the hardback market have manifested themselves once again in 2011, with hardback fiction sales falling 7% in the first six months of 2011 according to Nielsen BookScan data, whereas paperback fiction has fallen 4%. Meanwhile, analysis of BookScan's Top 5,000 bestseller list for October saw spending on hardback books down  3% year on year, with fiction sales down 7% and non-fiction down 20%. Industry figures have cited both the economic downturn and the shift to e-books among the factors behind the figures.

But Daunt's support for the format is giving publishers new confidence. Vintage publisher Dan Franklin said: "James is a hardback man and he's about the only person who can sell them."

An independent publisher, who preferred to speak anonymously, confirmed that it was "reviewing all our fiction formats next year" after being given the news by Waterstone's fiction buyer Chris White that the hardback was in favour, adding: "It is welcome news for publishers."

Franklin said the change of policy at Waterstone's had relieved him of a "terrible dilemma" between competing demands from retailers. "Waterstone's would never put hardbacks in the three-for-twos whatever the price points," he said. "We do a lot of hardbacks at £12.99, exactly the same price as trade paperback, but it made no difference. So you were torn between Waterstone's, who would want a book in paperback for the three-for-twos, and independents, who loathed trade paperbacks and would say: 'Please, please give us hardbacks.' You weighed up which to go for, and during the dark days at Waterstone's I sometimes tended to plump for hardback. Now there won't be that prejudice."

Simon & Schuster publishing director Suzanne Baboneau said: "There was a time when you were acquiring a book and thinking about formats, that the response from your Waterstone's accounts manager would be 'Waterstone's would prefer a paperback.' Certainly the swing is to hardbacks now."

Producing a hardback edition gives publishers more flexibility, Baboneau said. "It's good to have the option of another edition up your sleeve; to do the hardback, and then be able to tweak the jacket and add quotes when you do the trade paperback edition and then the mass market paperback. It means you can give a book that extra push." She added that, though there was little price differential between formats, "subconsciously publishers and agents love a hardback, and reviewers do too—it's something about the colour of the boards, the flaps, the feel of it for book buyers."