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Paperbacks - a surprisingly resilient format

5 May 2014

When I first came into publishing, paperbacks seemed the coming thing. Surely it was only a question of time before the power of consumers drove paperbacks to centre stage and ousted those expensive hardbacks? In book auctions most of the money came from the paperback publisher, so it seemed logical to expect that shortly paperbacks would win the day and books would be published straight into paperback.

There are a number of reasons why this didn't happen, and a certain snobbishness, plus the fact that reviewers wouldn't bother with a paperback original were two of them. It seems incredible now that reviewers had such power. But the other thing was that the publisher had two bites of the cherry in terms of income from the book, even though it didn't really make much sense for the publicity to surround the first, hardback, edition when the sales were quite small.

Then came verticalisation in publishing, with the hardback publishers taking over the paperback companies or clawing back the paperback rights, which they owned as part of volume rights. This all seems a long time ago and much more recently hardbacks, which became quite lucrative for publishers, stood their ground. You might well have expected that the paperbacks' new enemy, ebooks, would have seen off hardbacks, but in fact this hasn't really happened. Paperbacks have been affected as sales have switch to ebooks, which are often available earlier.

Paperbacks have taken a big hit, in the UK slumping 23.3% in value terms and a quarter in volume. Last year there was an astonishing 46.7m fewer paperbacks sold in the UK and paperback revenues reduced by £285m. Publishers would really be hurting if they hadn't managed to get their share of ebook sales. But they have and hardbacks are still holding their own.

But we shouldn't forget that paperbacks still account for 66% of overall printed book sales. Simon Winder, Publisher at Penguin Press, says:

‘At the moment you would have to say that the paperback remains the absolutely dominant book form, both in the UK and around the world.'

And it all depends of what kind of writing you're talking about - Fifty Shades of Grey sold almost exclusively in paperback - of 10.9m units sold in print editions, just under 20,200 were in hardback. The converse is true of J K Rowling. Her hardback sales far outsell her paperback sales, with 60% in hardback and only 34% in paperback.

So it looks like the paperback book will live on for a while yet, even if the mix of other formats has changed. Who would have thought we'd be talking about its decline back in the days when it looked set to rule the book world.