An interesting article from Nicholas Clee in The Guardian Books Blog today. He starts by saying:
"It seems hasty to announce the imminent death of the hardback literary novel on the evidence of one experimental policy by one London publisher. But Picador's decision to bring out most of its new fiction in paperback editions, accompanied by only a small number of "collectors'" hardbacks, is a symptom of the dire health of what has been a surprisingly persistent format. While we may think of the hardback, usually appearing some 12 months before the edition that most people consider affordable, as elitist and uncommercial, there are nevertheless reasons to worry about its passing."
For the hardback, Clee asserts:
"At the same time, Picador's novels will also appear in limited hardback print runs, produced for the people who prefer to acquire books with cloth covers, boards, endpapers and so on, and who don't mind paying for those luxuries."
Well, thank God for that. But neither do I mind arguing back when it comes to the small population's love of books and the buyer's point of view. There is a small population out there that is neither elitist nor one to see its hardback purchases as "luxuries". Since the Net Book Agreement trickled down the gutters and into the drains, new (hardback) book prices have become rather more attractive to the customer. (Perhaps the publishers sold themselves out here?) There are more than a few who have not waited for the potentially easily-grubby mass market paperback of their favoured authors; they want a hardback. And what would you choose to have signed by the author? Something that resembles a flayed with vigour Andrex toilet roll or something you can preserve with the honour and respect it deserves?
Curiously, Clee let one cat out of the bag with this comment:
"Until now, a small market has just about upheld the other arguments for literary fiction in hardback. But that market has almost reached vanishing point. The paucity of sales of novels even by acclaimed authors was an awkward book industry secret until this summer, when it was broadcast that eight of the novels on the longlist for the Man Booker Prize had sold fewer than 1,000 copies."
Note that it's "literary fiction" of which he speaks, which adds another dimension to this argument. I agree with him for the literary genre, but beg to differ on crime & thriller fiction. He added:
"Publishers of hardbacks can print 1,500 copies, hope for reviews and - for a lucky few - awards. The authors' careers build from there. If they dispense with hardbacks, they will have to put out larger print runs of paperbacks to justify publication; and they will find that the market is often resistant to new fiction, at any price."
Some of us already realise that hardback runs are so severely limited. Some of us devour that fact and pursue our purchases to match that thought. I have one crime fiction bibliophile friend who texts me regularly. One of our recent conversations had me listening to - we're text and talk in person - something along the lines of "Christ, you didn't buy the trade paperback did you? There's a hardback out there!"
But while I can understand a reaction to less sales on the part of the publisher, isn't this an example of actually creating elitism going forward? Those that can, will seek out the ever more scarce hardback and ensure it's signed, creating an ever more elitist market. The publishers will not gain a penny, as the main market will be second hand sales; unless they bump up the price on a new release in hardback, creating even more of an elitist market. £100 anyone?
It's both a self-fulfilling prophecy and double-edged sword as far I can see.
"Et tu, Brute!" See the horizon and weep; if it's your credit/debit card on the line.