Last month I visited the local Waterstones on Exeter’s High Street to buy a copy of Paul Auster’s 2017 novel ‘4321’. It was to be a gift for a friend’s birthday, which I would give the following morning. For the sake of clarity, I’ll confess this friend to be a girl for whom I wish(ed) to earnestly assist with a relevant piece for her upcoming dissertation while also instilling a memorable impression. The book was intended to shift the attention from my awkward and inconsistent tendencies to allow opportunity for the “brightspark-with-taste-who-remembers-the little-things-and-doesn’t-mind-investing-more-than-just-his-loose-change-in-the-people-he-cares-about-but-is also-not-overbearing” side of me to take front and centre. This was to be represented by the tangible book – a solid object that would last as an enduring reflection of the more of appealing side of myself.
I passed the hardcover tables by the entrance – loaded with non-fiction stories of Trumpian dystopias and recently retired sportsman autobiographies – to climb the stairs to the fiction section on the 2nd floor. There I was met by Everyman’s hardback editions of canonised works – the usual suspects; Orwell, Joyce, Bronte, Dickens and so on. To my disappointment the rest of Waterstone’s displayed collection were paperbacks, including the works of current heavy-hitters George Saunders and Zadie Smith, an entire table of Anna Burn’s ‘The Milkman’ (winner of The Man Booker Prize that same week) … and of course, Auster’s 4321.
‘Great book!’ the assistant interjected as I first mentioned the title. She then proceeded to laugh once I asked if there was a hardcover copy available in store. ‘Oh God no, you’ve missed the boat for that one. We stop stocking hardcovers after the initial release. We can have a copy for you in a few days if you would like to place an order?’
I opted for the paperback.
It’s counter-intuitive for an English literature student with the corresponding income to question the popularity of the cheaper paperback. Regardless, this dilemma which threatened to jeopardise my vanity instead shifted focus my to the position of power a bookstore holds in their relationship with customers.
A bookstores’ role as supplier naturally comes with a modest influence over what their customers read, but perhaps their greater power is with their ability to determine the exact form in which customers will purchase their texts. This latter position of influence works with more subtlety yet greater authority, as readers buy with predominantly the story in mind, and not so much the physical aesthetics which hold it together. In essence, my concern with the bookstore, and to a larger extent their publishing suppliers, is their ability to shift our perception of the tangible book from “enduring bearer of human intellect” to “disposable object of consumerist commodification”.
In the 20th century, paperbacks played an important role in the pursuit to democratise literature for readers of minority groups and the working-class. Cheaper manufacturing led to not only opportunity for a dramatically expansive readership with re-printed and packaged works, but also the ability for publishers to take marketing risks on previously unpublished novels. The form also assisted in bringing many novels back from the dead after a disappointing release with hardback, particularly during the Second World War. Why then, am I so sentimental in my concerns of a lousy bookshelf? Ironically, it is where the benefits of the paperback assisted the literary world that could potentially harm it in the future.
Since the refined white and orange Penguin cover announced itself in the 1930s as a major provider to both mass culture and a weary upper-class, the stereotype of paperback as distinctive pulp has evolved to resemble the traditional perception of hardcovers – both in role and appearance. In contrast, hardcover publishers have become reliant on the surrounding dust-jacket (usually made of paper) to aesthetically seduce readers while dedication to the craft of quality bookbinding underneath has diminished. This blurred assimilation has resulted in the loss of an immediate point of difference between the two objects, offering buyers little reason to choose the more expensive option.
Behind the argument of the hardcover as the endurer – the kind Leisel from ‘The Book Thief’ can save from the purging pyres of a totalitarian government – there is a more imminent threat to literature with a forgotten hardcover market. The normalisation of the paperback to meet every kind of the well-meaning buyers’ needs would place a disastrous strain on the industry. The less we invest in the books we purchase, the less money we invest in the industry; this being your favourite bookstore, publisher and writer. To quote George Orwell in his 1936 review of Penguin Books – “In my capacity as a reader I applaud Penguin Books; in my capacity as a writer I pronounce them anathema.”
According to the “Society of Authors” website, the typical royalty a writer receives upon the purchase of a hardcover is 10% of the recommended retail price (RRP), while for paperbacks they can expect to receive a RRP cut of 7.5%. With a standard hardcover book costing the purchaser at retail level £16.99 the author would receive £1.70 for his work. With the purchase of a paperback at £8.99 the author would receive 67p… not a whole lot of wriggle room for creative risk-taking in literature.
It is perhaps unfair of me to point blame at bookstores for creating an industry landscape where the majority of physical book purchases are paperback, especially when it was not the bookstore, but competitive publishers who introduced the form. However, the industry has now been pushed to a stage where it is at great risk of falling on its own sword, and it is in the bookstore where we can reverse this effect. If there is anything we can take from the plateau of the kindle market in recent years, it is that buyers are willing to pay extra in exchange for something of quality to hold in their hands. A market doesn’t change until it is apparent change is wanted by the consumer, so with this I ask if you can afford hardcovers, then treat your bookshelf and invest in them.
In other words, don’t do what I did when I entered Waterstones with selfless intentions last month. Instead, buy your love – enduring, familial or unrequited – some flowers for their birthday the following morning and order a hardcover copy to give to them a few days later. In turn, it is the duty of the bookstore to show publishers they’re willing to further invest and fully respect the objects which stand as the enduring tests of human intellect and imagination.
Kye has been the editor of Exetera Magazine for a few months, and has held concerns over the state of the publishing industry for around the same period of time.