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.
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.
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.