Sales figures show that, though paperbacks are all but history, hardbacks look surprisingly healthy
The decade since the millennium has sponsored a spike in anxieties about a viable literary culture. This much we know: the book business is being redefined by digital technology as the music business before it, though in a significantly different way.
If there has been one prediction, on which there's been virtual unanimity, it is that the hardback is toast, and bound books deader than a box of doornails. The smart response to any suggestion that the hardback harks back to a golden age will be variations on Monty Python's dead parrot sketch ("It's rung down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. It is an ex-parrot"). In short, conventional wisdom has declared the hardback an ex-book.
This column, perversely, has always maintained the opposite. Hardbacks, as I have written on many occasions, have a good future. Technological change is discontinuous. The typewriter did not eliminate the pen, nor the motorcar the horse. In the same way, hardback publishing, inheriting centuries of literary wisdom, will not be eliminated and might even flourish. There are signs that this prediction is coming to pass.
This month has been dominated by news about Fifty Shades of Grey, an online bestseller by an unknown writer launched as an ebook by the virtual publisher Writer's Coffee Shop. Less well reported, but far more significant, is the news that hardbacks are flourishing, especially when, as with Murakami's IQ84, they are designed to appeal to high-end literary collectors, with beautiful typography, fine paper and a library binding. In the UK, the hardback imprint Everyman reports a sales increase of between 25% and 40%, in line with figures across the sector.
Moreover, the new data shows that, as book sales soar, it's the paperback that's in real trouble. During the first three months of 2012, 11.3 million paperbacks were sold, compared to 14.9 the previous year. Year on year, sales of paperbacks are down by almost 25%. Paperback chiefs are being fired. Supermarket editions such as Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code will soon be a thing of the past. Simultaneously, the Pew Internet and American Life Project reveals that ebook consumers typically read more ebooks than their print-conscious predecessors. The latest sales figures for ebooks are off the chart.
Is this the end of civilisation as we know it? Certainly not. From another perspective, you might say this is a golden age of reading – with this difference. Everyone knows that digital screens are changing the way we read. Ebook buying and ebook reading is not like buying and reading traditional print through a bookshop. It's closer to browsing, and rarely involves the same reader-author loyalty. Where mass market paperbacks had the shelf life of fresh fish, ebooks redefine the meaning of ephemeral.
So where does this leave the future of the book? The sensible thing to observe at this moment is that, in the middle of a huge paradigm shift, no one knows anything. All the senior publishers who have just been in London for the book fair are agreed on this.
In the short term, any number of changes are likely to occur and in some instances have already happened. Particularly in America, we are witnessing the death of the book store. This will continue, to a much more limited degree, in the UK. It will be matched by a vogue for secondhand bookshops, such as my excellent local, Slightly Foxed.
The writing is on the wall for the great publishing conglomerates of the 1990s. I await the day, which cannot be far off, when the first of the big houses (Hachette, Penguin, Random House, etc) announce a departure from their swanky London premises. If the BBC has moved to Salford, can books be far behind?