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A paperback revolution - at last?

19 November 2007

Picador, the literary imprint of Pan MacmillanOne of largest fiction and non-fiction book publishers in UK; includes imprints of Pan, Picador and Macmillan Children’s Books in the UK, has just announced that it will in future launch its new fiction in simultaneous hard and paperback editions, in response to the very poor sales of hardback literary fiction. The majority of its titles will be released in a 1,000 copy hardback edition, with some of these ring-fenced for review purposes.

The logic of this move is clear. New hardback fiction can subscribe in less than 200 copies into UK bookshops and the new plan will enable the publisher to get press attention for new books at the time when most people who are interested in the book might go out and buy it in a paperback edition.

Picador publisher Andrew Kidd says: 'We want to help well-reviewed authors get straight to their readers. People who love books as objects are always going to buy them, and will be prepared to spend money doing so. But we are no longer trying to entice people who don't really want to buy the hardback to do so.'

Many observers might well think it's about time that the paperback was acknowledged to be the driver of book sales, and that readers should not be denied access to it for an arbitrary period of up to a year. Back in the seventies, when the power of the mass market paperback started to make itself felt, with big auctions for valuable paperback rights, it looked as if the paperback would rapidly become the format of choice for most fiction.

Since then publishers have become 'vertical', which means that the same publisher publishes both the hardback and the paperback, making coordinated promotion possible. Commercial fiction has enjoyed a surprising resurgence in hardback, partly because of the opportunity to discount from a higher price and partly because of its perceived value as a gift, but literary fiction has in most cases languished unless it is written by top prize-winning names.

What is extraordinary about the Picador announcement is that the book trade has greeted it coolly. Retailers predict that the hardback edition will be side-lined and Picador will in effect become a paperback publisher again. Agent Clare Alexander warned that the imprint might be disadvantaged in rights auctions: 'If Picador is in straight competition with another publisher which has confidence in hardbacks, then the author is going to choose to have a hardback.'

But why are they going to choose a hardback, when most book-buyers will not buy it? Don't authors want to reach readers and sell their books? Perhaps it's just another part of the bestseller culture which dictates that only bestselling authors, whether they're writing commercial or literary fiction, can be published successfully first in hardback.

For commercial novels, reviews don't matter. But for decades literary fiction has been adversely affected by reviewers' unwillingness to review paperback originals, thus denying a literary novel published in this way the coverage it needs. Reviewers have welcomed Picador's move, which is good news, but it does of course still give them the hardback editions they crave. In a sane world though you would have to ask why the format of a book is so important to them when what most readers clearly prefer is the cheaper paperback edition.