In praise of paperbacks

Remember when people, especially publishers, worried that the advent of the e-book would bring about the demise of the printed book? Only a few years later, that worry seems rather silly. As sales statistics bear out, both formats will co-exist for a long time to come.

Who can argue with the convenience of e-books, especially when traveling or wanting something instantly? But I also love the sensory appeal of printed books—their look, touch and smell; the way they beg to be opened and the way you can leaf through them randomly or with intent. And, although the dictionary and search functions of e-books are fantastic, entering marginalia in one is hardly as easy or as enjoyable as in a physical book (provided you have something to write with).

And yet, people still seem determined to kill off the paperback. I don’t understand it. If anything, despite recent sales figures to the contrary, I would predict the death of the hardcover book. At least for general fiction and non-fiction.

Once upon a time, you bought a hardcover book if you couldn’t wait to read it, or if you planned to keep it for years to come in your private library (you know, that stately room in your familial manor that reflected your education, social status and cultural devotion, now dubbed the media room), or if you were a librarian dealing with the wear and tear from multiple borrowers.

Recently, I read about a new library in Texas that contains no books at all. In effect, it is a computer hotspot with online access to e-books and e-zines. Give our digital age a few more years, and I suspect that will be the norm rather than the exception. The great democratic notion of public libraries full of books will become as quaint as public polling stations full of voting booths.

The demise of book-filled libraries may be the kiss of death for hardcover books, as well.

As if they sense it, publishers in these micro-margin, cost-cutting times have taken action. Hardcover books have risen in price and deteriorated in quality. These days, their spines often crack or tear, their cardboard covers warp and their pages feel like they are made of Kleenex and recycled soda bottles. Increasingly, the disadvantages of hardcover books—their size, heft and expense—outweigh their merits (especially if a book is only read once, as most are).

Meanwhile, paperbacks, especially trade paperbacks, have gotten better. Perhaps because they are traditionally the re-issue of hardcover editions, paperbacks tend to have more design harmony. More thought seems to go into branding the author and the imprint.


A fine Europa Editions reprint

My current favorite American paperback publishers are Europa Editions and New York Review Books.

In the case of Europa, their sturdy covers come with gatefolds front and back, more like European books than the dime-store paperbacks of old. Their cover designs are simple, and the interior layout is refined: the off-white paper is a heavy uncoated stock, and the typefaces are well chosen for legibility, with large fonts and generous leading.

NYRB are winners for their understated design, modern color palettes, quality paper and sturdy construction (not to mention their interesting author lineup). You can always tell when you have an NYRB or Europa Editions book in hand. They are a pleasure to hold and to read, and they will last a lifetime of multiple readings.

NYRB's distinctive design.

NYRB’s distinctive design.

With the emerging trend to publish the e-book version simultaneously, that publishers still issue a hardcover edition first, before the paperback, seems backward, a throwback to ye olde days. Publishers wonder why fewer books are bought each year, and they grumble about the terrible cost (not to mention waste) of remainders. But if they offered a high-quality paperback first edition instead (and saved the hardcover for the reprinting of time-tested literature), I believe they would have a winning formula. More often than not, my first choice would still be a physical book over an e-book, provided I didn’t have to wait months for its release and it was offered at a reasonable price. I bet plenty of other readers would choose it, too.



Filed under Books, Commentary

17 responses to “In praise of paperbacks

  1. Thanks for the Europa and NYR recommendations. I’ll look out for them in my part of the globe. And I do like your succinct, acerbic description of the familial manor and how it has morphed into a media room. I cannot explain why but electronic books and media have so far failed to “juice” my imagination and to stimulate my intellect. The one exception to this has been the Mad Men series, which I regard as television literature as opposed to literature on television.

    • Thanks for your comment, Russell. Like you, I can’t get excited by the e-book format. There’s nothing to please the senses in an e-reader. But I have found as I get older and as my eyes strain more with the small type so often found in paperbacks, that the ability to enhance the type size is invaluable. And there’s nothing like being able to take a dozen books with you all on one device when you head off on vacation.

  2. todadwithlove

    I AGREE with every point you’ve made here vis-à-vis hardcover books, paperbacks, and e-books. Despite what people say, I cannot get excited over e-books. Like you, I relish the sensory pleasure of paper — olfactory, in particular. As for hardcover books, why are publishers still printing them? They break my arm, if they haven’t broken my bank account. ALL publishers should read your post!

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  4. Offering a good paperback edition first rather than a hardback makes a lot of sense, Tom.

  5. Well put, Tom. I find it difficult to read long books on screen too. Having paperbacks available before hard cover would be godsend.

    • Thanks, Bhupinder. What do you think of the Book of Lamentations, which I see from a comment on Russell Boyle’s blog that you are reading?

      • I am finding it very engrossing. The initial part of the novel was especially impressive, I am in the middle now and must admit that somewhat bewildered by the number of characters.

        The style of writing has a very 19th century feel to it and is very refreshing (I am exhausted now with the Roberto Bolano and other experimental kind of writing). What stands out most so far is the very sensitive treatment of the female characters. My progress is slower now, but I hope to complete it in the next few weeks.

        Thanks again for introducing to this fabulous work !

  6. And oh, I forgot to mention that I noticed that one of the covers in your post is from a book by Robert Walser- I loved his work “The Assistant”, but some of the other ones (“The Robber”, “The Walk” and another collection of his stories that I can’t recollect) were far less impressive. Just wondering if you have read Berlin Stories and how you found it.

    • I’m glad you are enjoying Castellanos. And I agree that the beginning is especially good. As for Walser, no I haven’t read him yet, but he’s on my list, so thanks for the comments on his other works.

  7. Agreed! I love the combination of ebooks and print books, but nothing beats a paperback.

    • Hi Britt,
      Yes, owning an e-book is not nearly as satisfying. It just sits there in a list on your kindle after you’ve read it. I like the way paperbacks invite you to pick them up again, if only to browse and refresh your memory. Thanks for commenting.

  8. People are really tight these days and won’t take a punt on a paperback unless it is some established author…all new authors should go straight into paperback I thinik and yes high quality paperbacks offest by the money from hardbacks you are saving is the way forward…and a stronger scent to the pages, that’ll keep the ebooks at bay.

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