The Decline and Fall of the Paperback?

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June 20 2013 7:53 PM

Soft Target

Have reports of the paperback’s death been greatly exaggerated?

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Patrick Nolan, vice president and associate publisher of Penguin Books—who sent me The Book of Penguin before we spoke—agrees. “Everyone in publishing talks about discoverability,” he says, “and no one would argue that it’s easier when there aren’t physical copies of books around. There’s no substitute.”

The Book of Penguin relates the legend of the company’s founder, Allen Lane, who in the mid-1930s found himself stuck a train trip with nothing to read. Having seen prototypical paperbacks while working at a publisher in London, Lane decided to create his own portable, inexpensive version of the format. Penguin published its first 10 paperbacks—including works by Ernest Hemingway and Agatha Christie—in 1935, with print runs of 20,000. At first, sales were slight. But then Woolworth’s ordered 60,000 copies of each title, revenue spiked, and by the ’50s most other publishers had created their own spins on the softcover.

Which raises the question: As long as print exists, why wouldn’t paperbacks exist? They’re cheaper than hardcovers. They’re just as portable and inexpensive as they were when Allen Lane made them available to his fellow riders of trains. And there’s no question that printed books are still a big part of our lives, however staggering e-book sales may be.

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In fact, Richard Nash, head of alternative publishing formats Cursor and Red Lemonade and a general shaker-upper of publishing paradigms, isn’t convinced that the fate of paperbacks is appreciably different from that of hardcovers. “Technology doesn't really disappear or get vanquished,” he says, “but its purposes migrate. The purpose of a horse in the 19th century was transportation; nowadays the purpose of a horse is entertainment and gambling.”

The purpose of print books will evolve, too, Nash believes. They will become art objects imbued with nostalgia, akin to vinyl records and Polaroid cameras. As e-books increasingly become our main means of digesting literature, print books of every binding will stop being mass-produced and start becoming more “bespoke,” Nash says. But he hastens to add that it’s at least another decade before that happens. “Physical books have a tremendous hold on our imaginations. The changes will be quite slow and incremental.”       

Which may reassure those of us who still prefer the printed page to the pixelated one—and if you’re a reader of literary fiction, a lover of graphic novels, someone who likes to clip things out of magazines, or a fan of Mary Roach, that group almost certainly includes you. Or rather, you would feel reassured, unless you asked Stephen King, reigning champ of mass-market paperback ubiquity, what he had to say on the subject. Unfortunately, he’s not someone in the business of settling nerves.

King told me via email that “if sales of e-readers continue to climb, paperback sales will continue to decline. As market share continues to decrease, display space will follow suit. There was a period in the seventies and eighties when paperbacks were the tail that wagged the dog. But as the old outlaw says at the end of The Wild Bunch, ‘Them days is gone.’ ” Or at the very least, those days may be numbered.

Katie Arnold-Ratliff is the author of the novel Bright Before Us, and a senior editor at O, the Oprah Magazine.