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Monday, 19 November 2007

Judging a book by its cover

It seems from what I am reading in the press that Picador, an imprint of Pan MacMillan, is about to discontinue the practice of launching works of literary fiction in hardback. There will be some exceptions, limited editions at £20 or so, but from next year, and for the vast majority of readers, the one practical option will be to buy it in paperback format, priced at £7.99. Some pundits are seeing this as the end of hardbacks for the genre, expecting all or most other leading publishers to quickly follow suit.

Nearly all hardback literary novels are heavily subsidised. Even established authors like Booker prize-winners find it hard to sell them. They are then, in a word, unprofitable. I had fondly imagined that there would always be a market for the hardback. Libraries, for example. Silly me! It seems that they now devote that part of their resources to music, D.V.Ds and ROMs. There is - or was - just one reason for the publisher to bother with hardbacks at all: the fact that reviewers will (would?) not review a book unless it was out in hardback. So what has changed? Could it be, I wonder, that it is because Richard and Judy will not put a book on their very lucrative lists unless it exists in paperback?

So is this the death knell for the hardback? What will the reviewers do if the format ceases to exist? Will they declare themselves redundant and go get themselves jobs with Waterstone? But the Jeremiahs are always around, which makes choosing your preferred soothsayer a difficult business. (No easier, perhaps, than picking the right weather forecaster.) Only a week or so ago I read that the e-book will kill off all forms of hard copy, paperback and hardback alike. I am not a gambling man, but I will lay a wager... Or perhaps not. I cannot for the life of me believe that there are enough people out there who would happily peer at a screen to digest the latest Graham Swift rather than consume him comfortably ensconced in a favourite armchair with... well, even with a miserable paperback riding on their lap. Another prospect that has been put forward is that we will all download pages, print them out and read them from our own hard copies. Has been known! Fine for reference, for the odd poem perhaps, but no way in which to go back on old favourites - and the loose sheets make the bookshelves look untidy. And as for reading a whole novel that way... forget it!

However, I do worry about what this development portends for poetry. There is an important difference between novels on the one hand and poetry, reference books in general, and some other genres on the other: it is in the degree of use to which they are subjected. For frequent use a hardback is essential, surely. To be fair it is only the death of hardback novels that is under discussion. And then only those described as "literary". There are, it is said, plenty of genres that are not threatened - but now I am willing to have a bet - that they don't include poetry.

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