Hardbacks and paperbacks and ebooks, oh my.

Or, why do we have all of these formats? And is it time for a change?

Back in the day, whenever that was, there were only hardback books. If you wanted a book, it came with a hard cover. On the upside, the book was well-presented,  durable, and looked and felt good. On the potential downside, book were comparatively expensive, not least because they were a status item, but also because they cost money to be produced. 

Then along came the railways. Mid-Victorian publishers sprang up offering cheap paper-covered volumes, often smaller in size, that were lighter, thus more portable, for the new rail-travelling markets, both to commuters and to leisure travellers. Chains like WH Smith grew on the back of such novelties, and for many these inexpensive alternatives were a way into book ownership for the first time.

So part of the history of books is the history of the available technology; innovations in mass printing, the developing rail infrastructure, changing leisure patterns. Add to this the rise of literacy among all classes throughout the 19th century, and there you have it. 

It wasn't until the inter-war years that paperbacks took off as a mass-market alternative though. Imprints such as Penguin bought reprint rights to ranges of books; offering again portability, the eye-catching immediacy of the distinctive Penguin cover and branding, and also price.

Now, until comparatively recently, publishing was not as vertically integrated as an industry as it is today. In other words, there were publishers, and there were paperback publishers. The two co-existed uneasily. There was a delay, often of years, if not decades, between original and paperback reprint publication. For in-demand books, there'd be bidding wars, not for original publication rights, but for reprint rights in paperback. Stephen King, in On Writing, tells of such an auction for the paperback rights of his first-published novel Carrie.       

But that was forty years ago. Through mergers, acquisitions and internal development, there's no longer the organisational divide between hard- and paperback; the same company will tend to publish both. As such, gaps in publication between the two formats have come down to a few months, perhaps a year. 

So here's the question: why? And how do ebooks complicate matters? The hardback remains a premium product, and profits per copy on their sales outweigh those of the paper alternative, so there's both kudos and cash to be had in hardback sales. Plus, some people prefer the format, and they're hard-wearing, so handy for long-suffering librarians to allow out on loan.  

But there's no hard-and-fast rule for ebook follow-on publication. Traditionally (if I can even talk about there being ebook traditions) the ebook price shadows the cheapest available real-world version, being pitched at just a little less. Sometimes, there's a delay until the ebook is available, sometimes not. 

In the world of movies, matters are more standardised. Either a film is released across all formats at once (limited cinema release to gain some reviews, home sell-through, video-on-demand) or the more traditional cinema release, followed twelve weeks later by DVD/Bluray and virtual rental, and then a few weeks later to other on-demand services. 

So are there options here for publishing? Release the book in all formats at once, so that the reader can enjoy the writing in the format (and price band) that suits them best? Many self-publishers and genre publishers do this in some form or other.  

Or is there value, use, and profit (let's not begrudge margins for all) in maintaining a lengthy staggered release system? And where do ebooks fit into this? I'm a little dubious of current mainstream ebook pricing policies, which seem (to an outsider) unduly attached to the price of the alternative, rather than to the value of the electronic file itself. Of course there are the hidden costs of publishing (design, production, marketing, editing, agent commission, writer's advance and royalty, storage and distribution, retailer's percentage and so on)  but some of these are either minimal or co-opted in to the physical book's existing costs where an e-version is concerned. 

I think I'd rather pay the same price for the ebook as the print version rather than something different. The paper/e-ink is, after all, merely a delivery system. A price differential raises questions about what you're buying. 

Then again, though, there are the intangibles. The smell of the paper. The softness of US paperbacks compared to their UK alternatives. Folding the page over (yeah, I'm a folder-over) rather than clicking the top-right-hand corner to have a virtual fold icon pop up. The display function; books as interior design, as conversation piece, as conspicuous consumption, as social identifier and as accessory. 

A Kindle or an iPad draws attention to the technology, not to the book.  That's not necessarily a bad thing, but who'd ever sneak a second peek at that person over there who's staring at a screen when there's that automatically-more-interesting other person. The one with the book. 

Maybe some things are worth paying for, after all. 

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My novel The Prospect of This City is out now and is available in paperback from me (signed if you prefer!) or in both paperback and  ebook via Amazon