There was an interesting piece in last week’s New York Times on the transition back to so-called “gilded covers.” It confirmed a theory that I’ve had for a few years now. Despite the gloomy predictions of prognosticators, I don’t believe that hardcover novels are facing extinction. For one thing, libraries will always need hardier books to loan out. However, I do think that as eReaders become increasingly prevalent, hardcovers print runs will be dramatically reduced. Not phased out entirely, but the vast majority of books will be released in trade paperback form. The hardcovers that are produced will predominantly be special limited editions. More care will go into cover design and production, from the paper quality to the font to the dust jackets. And chances are that the price will increase as a result, since you’ll be paying for something a bit more special.
Currently, hardcover novel sales are being hit hard. As of September, hardcover sales had declined 25% for the year. Meanwhile, eBook sales rose 161%. Total eBook sales are forecast to reach $10 billion dollars by 2016, and thus far Kindle sales have outpaced Amazon’s rosiest predictions for the Christmas season. Mass Market paperbacks are being phased out more rapidly than anticipated, and many publishers are switching even consistently bestselling novelists to trade paperback rather than hardcover releases.
And let’s be honest– hardcover book sales should be dwindling. Now, before all you fans of “real” books, who extol, “the weight of it in my hands, the smell of ink on paper” jump all over me, hear me out.
Recently I was standing in my father’s library, poring over his collection. He’s always been an avid reader, and he has a stunning collection of leather bound books. Books that are truly works of art, and an experience to read. Books with soft vellum paper and calfskin bindings; books that really do have a special smell and feel to them.
Compare that to my collection of hardcovers. The vast majority of them don’t merit the same level of adulation. The truth is, most are just as mass-produced as MMPs. They’re heavy, cumbersome, printed on relatively cheap paper with cardboard covers and a dust jacket. Honestly, few are dramatically nicer than a trade paperback. By and large, those books don’t look stunning lined up on my shelf.
So given a choice, why would I spent $20-30 for a book that, content-wise, I can enjoy on my Kindle for half that price?
I would, however, pay a bit more for something that was special.
Publishers are finally coming around to that realization. The NY Times piece discusses recent hardcover releases that included special touches. Haruki Murakami’s latest novel 1Q84 features a “translucent jacket with the arresting gaze of a woman peering through.” Based on the book’s impressive sales so far, which has been the reverse of most books, (95,000 hardcover as opposed to a mere 28,000 in eBooks), investing in exquisite covers can help print sales.
The irony of this for me is that for the first time next year, my books will start appearing in hardcover form. Given the current sales climate, I’m nervous about shifting formats at this stage. However, I do think that we have an amazing cover, and hopefully the rest of the production quality will match up to it.