The Beauty of the Paperback

The Beauty of the Paperback

Last week I heard Elisa Albert discussing her new novel, After Birth in a radio interview. Curiosity piqued by Albert’s comments on her tale of a woman struggling (somewhat unsuccessfully) with postpartum depression in a small college town, I headed to the library for a copy. Evidently other library patrons had heard the same interview as there were already ten holds on the library’s sole copy.

Undaunted, I walked over to the local bookstore. There the clerk informed me that the store would receive a shipment of copies of the book in a few days. “And it’s a really good price,” he told me. “Only $23.00!” I was surprised. Most of the popular books on my shelves – as well as the books that we typically purchase for Books@Work seminars sell for $10 to $15, well below the “good price” of $23 quoted by the clerk at the bookstore.

It took me a few minutes to account for the difference; Albert’s novel is in hardcover, while most of my other volumes are paperbacks.

The question is why?

According to an Economist report, publishers release books that they expect to do well in hardcover prior to a paperback release. (This mirrors a similar practice in the film industry, in which studios release films they expect to be highly profitable for longer exclusive theater runs prior to the release of a DVD edition.) In this way, a book that readers are going to purchase regardless of format generates greater revenue upfront.

Of course there are other reasons for publishing hardcover books. They are able to sustain the wear-and-tear of usage by library patrons. They afford eye-catching jacket design and may become collector editions. But the primary motivation for publishing in hardcover is financial.

If publishers’ format decisions are not based on the reader experience, is there – in fact – a difference between hardcover and paperback for readers? The jury is still out on whether the format (digital or paper) of a book affects reading experiences, as we’ve explored previously in The Notebook. However, while it may affect purchasing, it seems unlikely that there would be a wildly different experience between reading a paperback or a hardcover edition of a book. In some cases the paperback edition may even contain additional material – a new foreword or explanatory notes, for example.

Still, there is something compelling and enduring (even if not literally!) about the paperback.

It is the affordable, reliable, available book for the everyman. While serialized literature was a feature of nineteenth century newspapers, and while the concept of the free public (and sometimes lending) library dates to even earlier, the mass availability of serious literature in book format largely came with the advent of the paperback. Prior to that, paperbacks were largely isolated to romances  and other not-so serious literature.

The sixteenth century printer Aldus Manutius – the subject of a new exhibit at the Grolier Club in New York City – revolutionized the field, offering small, personal copies of classic works, but it was the creation of the British publisher Penguin during the Depression that made high quality paperback versions of great works accessible to the masses. Indeed, Penguin’s business model required high volume to offset the low cost of each copy. The margins were small, but the volume was very, very big. In its first year of operation, the publisher sold over three million copies of books by Ernest Hemingway, Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and others.

In many ways Penguin’s runaway success also showed a previously unacknowledged hunger for learning among ordinary people. Millions of people demonstrated their interest in engaging serious literature through their purchase of Penguin books. This interest in reading among people from all walks of life continues to the present day and is something that we encounter in all our seminars at Books@Work. The paperback makes the realization of this interest possible for many.

Image: Daderot, Thomas Jefferson Building, Library of Congress, Washington DC [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Rachel Burstein

Rachel Burstein

Rachel Burstein is a Research Associate for EdSurge and former member of the Books@Work team.