The beginning of the end of hardback books?

The Guardian wrote this weekend about Picador’s plan to stop publishing most literary fiction initially in hardback form. That means even stellar writers like Delillo, Naipaul, Banville and Cormack McCarthy will be going straight to paperback.

I read this with an initial twinge of irritation and sadness. I love hardback books, what reader or writer doesn’t? They’re beautiful, solid, lasting, and look good on a shelf. Sometimes they even have resale value.

And yet. About ten seconds later, I realized this could be some of the best news to hit the publishing industry in some time.  Here’s why, nicely wrapped up in one rival publisher’s comment:

Rival publishers described it as “a seismic change”. “Hardback then paperback has been the model for 60 years,” said Dan Franklin, the veteran publisher at Jonathan Cape.

What kind of business model doesn’t change for 60 years? I’m as book-y as they come; and yet I scour used bookstores for paperbacks, the same way everyone I know does. Hardback books aren’t serving the mass market, and they aren’t serving the writers who produce them.

When my co-author and I did our first (and as yet only, but wait…) book, it was hardback only. We were shocked at the discounts, shocked at the haphazard marketing dollars spent, shocked that our publishers had no interest in moving it to paperback, despite the fact that our core audience was mostly unlikely to shell out for hardback. We’re still trying to get the rights back so we can publish an updated version ourselves.

Publishers simply haven’t adapted to a market that has changed very, very radically in 60 years, and probably most in the last five. This is a step in the right direction, even if it’s a little sad. So be it. If my next book (fingers crossed) comes out only in paperback and digital form, I won’t shed any tears.