Publishers must improve the quality of their paperback output and “up-price”, if the format is to meet the challenge of e-books.
According to Nielsen BookScan data, sales of paperbacks have fallen 23% since 2008 and are now at their lowest point since 2001, with e-book sales growing rapidly over the past five years.
Yet the format still accounts for 66% of the overall print market, prompting many to argue for the format’s reinvention rather than accept its demise. Publishers and retailers told The Bookseller that they still saw the paperback as key to readers, but that there needed to be more quality and innovation within the format if it was to withstand the shift to digital.
Simon Winder, publisher at Penguin Press, said: “At the moment, you would have to say that the paperback remains the absolutely dominant book form, both in the UK and around the world. E-books have of course encroached on that dominance and in some genres become really significant, but as of 2014 paperbacks still remain the heart of writing, reading, bookselling and publishing.
“That may of course change,” Winder continued, “but it would require some really serious convulsion: the collapse of chain- bookselling or some further unguessable technological fix— direct injection of literature into the brain?—to deal the death-blow to such a cheap, disposable, friendly and democratic form of reading.”
Faber associate publisher Hannah Griffiths said she believed that when readers “think of a book what they are imagining is still a paperback book”. She added: “We’re all strategising formats in such a specific way, but I don’t think readers are.” Susan Lamb, m.d. of Orion Fiction, said paperbacks were “an important entry point” for readers, but so were e-books.
Patrick Janson-Smith, publisher at HarperCollins imprint Blue Door, said the paperback was still a “wonderful, portable object” but added that his “personal bugbear is the quality of the paper used”. He said: “In this country we’ve always had the attitude of using the cheaper paper and getting the books out. In the US, where there are more economies of scale, they have used acid-free paper—but sadly I think they are following us.”
Alessandro Gallenzi, co-founder of Alma Books, called the quality of UK paperbacks “very poor”. He said discounting and price-cutting meant “production quality” had been sacrificed in recent years. Gallenzi also blamed digital migration and the rise of print-on-demand for the decline in paperback sales, and said that the format had become “too predictable and formulaic”, and needed to be better quality and value for money.
Big publishers “should think twice before saving on paper, typesetting and editing, because they are digging their own grave”, Gallenzi continued. “Their paperbacks should burst with quality and stand out. They should invest more in the quality of their [hardback and paperback] books and add value in any possible way to their new and backlist titles.”
Transworld m.d. Larry Finlay said: “One thing we are doing is spending even more time and money making the physical product as desirable as possible. We want to make them beautiful products. I think paperback is still the preferred format for many people and will be for years to come.”
But publisher Kerr MacRae said there should not be a move to “luxury paperbacks in the same way we have hardbacks” because the paperback has “to remain accessible, disposable and lendable”. He said: “The paperback has always been a cheap, accessible, disposable format. The extraordinary value it represents is so important. It is still the best recruitment tool that we have.”
Recently-appointed Booksellers Association president Tim Walker, who called paperbacks the “bedrock” of bookselling, said there had been improvements in the quality of paperbacks, as did Foyles’ head of buying Jasper Sutcliffe.
“We have seen cover designs and jackets really coming into their own recently, which helps,”Walker said. “Anything publishers can do to improve the quality of physical books we welcome. Sometimes the paper quality brings them down generally—I think that could be improved. But publishers are learning and I am increasingly aware of that.”
As well as quality, Curtis Brown agent Sheila Crowley said the time was right for publishers to increase the price of paperbacks. “I think publishers are going to have to bite the bullet and start pricing up,” she said.
According to Nielsen, the actual selling price of paperback fiction was £5.46 in 2013, compared with £5.83
in 2008. Faber’s Griffiths said: “If prices drift up again, then I think you’ll see all of that [hardback-focused] attention and lavishness in that edition, but until the price is really relieved on paperback publishing I can’t see how as an object they will particularly change. It is the mass-market edition where you are often trying to recover your margin, so you don’t want to give it all away. The high street is the paperback’s friend; we don’t feel that Amazon prioritises paperbacks.”