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Why Do Publishers Still Issue Hardbacks, Given That They’re Not That Popular Anymore?

In its ongoing efforts to beat the "print books good, ebooks bad" drum, on Sunday the Guardian asked Philip Jones of The Bookseller why he thought print books were still being published. (Yes, this is kinda like the priest asking the choir leader why church is great, but that is the Guardian for you.)

With consumers spending 327 million pounds a year on ebooks in the UK (in 2016) vs 70 million on hardbacks, the latter format really isn't that popular any more.

But it is still holding on and according to Jones, it is less about the content in a book or what you can learn from them than it is about a hardback book's value as decoration or as a status symbol.

Yes, hardbacks are still popular. Hardback fiction brings in about £70m annually (roughly 20% of the printed fiction market), according to sales data from Nielsen BookScan.

But the format’s worth is about more than just its monetary value. The hardback is a mark of quality and a demonstration of intent on behalf of the publisher: it shows booksellers and reviewers that this is a book worth paying attention to. In fact some literary editors will still only review fiction (on first publication) if it’s published in hardback. Similarly, a hardback signifies to authors and agents that this is a book their publisher cares about, so much so that some agents (and authors) will insist upon it.

Size also matters: hardbacks are bigger than paperbacks, they take up more space in bookshops and are more visible – whether in window displays or on bookshop tables. The hardback is the prop forward of the book world: it bashes its way through a crowded marketplace giving the book/author a foothold before the pacier paperback races through. Hardbacks are also more profitable for publishers: they will often sell at twice the price of their paperback equivalent but do not cost twice as much to produce. If a hardback becomes a bestseller, the publisher will often delay the paperback release even though that limits the book’s sales potential.

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However, there are no signs that the practice is coming to an end: last year sales of hardback fiction grew 11%. When the ebook arrived 10 years ago, some pundits suggested format did not matter. But they were wrong. A beautiful hardback is a joy, something to cherish, shelve and pass on, and readers are prepared to pay for that just as some people still prefer the cinema over television.

Even though I am someone who prefers to read my books rather than fondle them and show them off, I do have to agree with Jones.

Hardbacks are a status symbol in a way that ebooks are not, but how much longer do you think that is going to last?

Millennials have neither the room or the inclination to invest in print libraries as status symbols, and we have no reason to expect that future generations will be different.

Do you think print books will still be status symbols 20 or 30 years from now, when Millennials are in their mid-60s and Gen-X have (hopefully) retired?

image by “Caveman Chuck” Coker

Nate Hoffelder: Nate Hoffelder is the founder and editor of The Digital Reader. He has been blogging about indie authors since 2010 while learning new tech skills weekly. He fixes author sites, and shares what he learns on The Digital Reader's blog. In his spare time, he fosters dogs for A Forever Home, a local rescue group.

View Comments (22)

  • Do you think print books will still be status symbols 20 or 30 years from now? Of course! And if they begin to be scarce, even more.

  • The thing is, people will pay more for a hardback; they just see it as more valuable, and if they're giving a book as a gift, it's likely to e a hardcover. That's why the profit margin is bigger, and why hardcover is always the first format a popular author's books will come out in. But not everyone WANTS hardcovers because they take more space. Lots of people prefer a less bulky alternative.

    And that "cinema over television" line gives it all away! What a SNOB!

  • I think it's kind of a silly question. When did 70 million pounds become too little to care about? Ball pens and felt pens outsell fountain pens by far more than that but there are still lots of fountain pens available.

    Personally I never liked reading hardbacks even before the ebook days. I read paperbacks all my life. Hardbacks were awkward to read laying down and even sitting in an easy chair they were more difficult. And they wouldn't fit into my hip pocket where I always kept my paperback. But for those who like them I'm glad they're still around and I hope they always will be.

    Barry

  • I only buy hardbacks when I want to read the book more than once or to use it as a reference. That means nonfiction only. I don't buy as often as I did before ebooks.

    Although I rarely buy hardbacks now that I have searchable formats, I get a lot of pleasure in reading the hardbacks I inherited from my grandfather. There is something about knowing he read the same book and turned the same pages that makes me feel connected to him. Perhaps that is why they make great gifts.

  • Does it really have to boil down solely to "status symbol"? Can't there be middle ground? Me, I read exclusively digitally on an Oasis 2, but there are still special stories the books of which are important to me. Not so much as a status symbol but more as a manifestation of how much a story meant to me.

    Non-book case in point: I think I can put a DVD into my XBoxOne, maybe, but I don't know that I ever tried. What I do know is that Shakespeare in Love is my favorite movie, and while I've bought a download of that movie on most of the major platforms, so I can watch it whenever/however, one of my prized possessions is a DVD the screenwriter signed "To Will" for me when I met him while I was in grad school.

    This summer, I'll be publishing a novel called The True Story of Butterfish, by Nick Earls. One of my other prized possessions is a trade paperback Nick signed to me, and which was how I first read Butterfish, because it hasn't been digital yet.

    It's not always just about "status." Sometimes it's just that a density of memory and emotion feels like some physical presence is appropriate. I don't remember the last time anyone besides my wife saw my bookcase.

  • Yes, I think that a lot of the rhetoric on this site is very ebook biased. What it ignores is the more elderly people that have money and want to invest in quality material, even if it wont hold its value over times, ie, not an investment. As Will Entrekin says, its a manifestation of a memory and emotion.

    Further, I think there is the other aspect to that more mature perspective, and thats the collector. Not everyone, as Nate seems to infer constantly, just want to read and digest the book. It can also be a sign of intent. I am not rich, but if I were I might buy hard backs of all my favorite authors, Steinbeck, Faulkner, London etc, and others like Watership Down, because they rattle around in my head like mantras. I might also buy a complete set of Leonards Cohens works even though I already have every track in my head.

    The problem with hardbacks is that it replies on a printer printing them. I think they would sell even more if you could get them on demand.

    I dont even think its a snobby thing.

    I like hard copy books, but buy most second hand. However, I always make an effort to break them. Throw them about, leave them face down in the sand at the beach, mark where I am reading. They are investments in time, and you should record that time with marks that will carry your own memories in years to come, broken pages from where it was left face down on a dirty bedroom floor for 6 months, with the intention of reading the next paragraph, buy never doing so.

    I personally think the future of books is the audio.

    • "Yes, I think that a lot of the rhetoric on this site is very ebook biased. "

      If the Guardian can get away with being print-biased, my ebook bias is 100% kosher.

    • The blog is called the digital reader.
      Not "the dead tree pulp reader".
      Do you expect hot rod coverage on cooking blogs?

  • Back when I bought dead-tree books, I'd only buy books in hardcover if I thought I'd be re-reading them repeatedly. Hardcovers are a lot more durable than paperbacks. There are a few, much-loved, books in my family's collection where a new-purchased paperback has fallen apart and been replaced by a 2nd-hand hardcover for this reason.

  • I’m on the board of a local library, and it’s hard covers and more hard covers. They do last a long time, and the library can usually repair a volume cheaper than replacing it.

  • A truly pointless argument. For me it's about the story, not the container. But others see it very differently, which is fine. There is room for both of us. If enough people continue to love hardbacks and are prepared to pay for them, they will continue to be available. Hopefully quality POD hardbacks will make their appearance for these people.

    Though, of course, why the windowing? It seems to me that those who cherish hardbacks, who record their reminiscences in their pages through abuse or otherwise marking them, who regard them as a status symbol or who require more durable print books will buy them anyway. In the meantime please issue the ebook first so those of us who only care about reading them can get on with it and do so.