Hardcover Judgment

18 Dec 2011

Helen DeWitt talks about hardcover books:

The readers who have bought the book early on are doing more than buying a book: they are sending a message, via our friends at Nielsen Bookscan, to publishers who might think of publishing the author’s next book.

I love books: reading, owning, scribbling in, dog-earring, carrying around, recommending, loaning out. And yet, despite this affection, I do not buy hardcover books.

Stephen King’s 11/22/63 is a story that I have eagerly awaited for months, but is not on my bookshelf despite having been released in early November. Eventually, the paperback version will come out and that is when I will then buy it. Hardcover books are not easy to carry around; they are more difficult to curl up with under a blanket or casually read next to a fireplace; and finding space for them on my overflowing shelves is harder.12

If it were money alone, I might reconsider my stance (although I know many who would not – as, Farhad Manjoo points out, buying more books is better for the consumer and for the economy), but I am not interested in lessening my joy as a reader to support a business model that is not rooted in providing the best experience possible for its customers. And that is what it comes down to: the customer.

The onus cannot possibly be on consumers to keep afloat industries that cannot support themselves. While there are hard times and poor economic climates, capitalism is not designed for businesses that require exceptional customers to support them.

The Internet is fundamentally changing the manner by which people come to the written word. I do not have the information to support this thesis, but I suspect that hardcover book sales have been dropping steadily in the last twenty years and the rise of the eBook is speeding that decline along. The cost and the convenience of a paperback will keep it around longer. If publishers insist on measuring the success of a book by the number of hardcover copies sold, I suspect that the industry is in trouble. Profit will have to be found elsewhere.3

Publishers have to change their methods. If this sounds at all like I am pleased by such machinations or eager for another industry to undergo a massive directional shift, consider: I would like to publish one day and by loudly shouting about the death of the hardcover, I am also expressing frustration that my own path to success will be that much more difficult. In the end, it is going to be writers that will suffer the most during any such change. The final result may be a much better situation for authors and would-be authors. I have no idea, but I know that it is going to be absolutely terrifying to find out.

For whatever good this will do Helen, next time I am in a bookstore I will be picking up a copy of Lightning Rods. And it will be in hardcover, despite my misgivings, because you asked, but there is a very good chance that it will be the last hardcover I buy.

(Via The Morning News)

  1. I need more bookshelves, you say? Indeed. I also need more space for those bookshelves. 

  2. This is not to say that hardcovers are completely without merit. Many of them look nicer than their softcovered cousins. 

  3. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the publishing industry can look to music as an indicator of the future: eBooks are mp3s, paperbacks are CDs, and hardcovers resurge as with vinyl records. I suspect that this analogy is false, if only because I think that I am inflating the market for vinyl.