Julia Eccleshare on a publishing trend that’s gathering momentum
Once upon a time … books were judged by their leather-bound covers, sold-tooled writing and thick, high-quality paper. The physical weight of a book added to its gravitas. Its smell added quaintness and an aura of studiousness. Good children read good books.
Few repine for those far-off days. The shift in the emphasis of reading, so that it fell firmly on entertainment and availability to all, brought us cheap paperbacks. Hardbacks, especially as far as children’s books are concerned, became increasingly the preserve of public libraries. The bookshop market for hardback fiction dwindled, and all but died, a few years ago. Even the most loving of grandparents would be loathe to chance their money on an `unknown’ novel, and for years children themselves have claimed they would rather read paperbacks – the image is better, even if the print size is not.
Paperbacks as the cheaper version of a hardback have long been with us. The risk was taken by the hardback publisher; origination costs were set against the small but secure hardback print run and the sale of paperback rights. Reviewers ‘noticed’ the hardback, informing prospective buyers. Those with big enough budgets bought it then and there, the rest could wait secure in the knowledge that in due course – at least a year later – they would be able to buy the same book in a different cover.
But then tough times came. The sales of hardback fiction grew less and less. Even libraries began to buy paperbacks, sensibly enough since children preferred reading them and they could buy far more stock with their decreasing funds. The time had come to take a long look at the hardback novel.
It’s not easy to break the habits of a lifetime and the hardback novel is clearly not going to lie down and die quietly. Different publishers have responded to the dilemma in different ways and opinions are divided as to how best to protect the future of new fiction.
The conundrum goes something like this: if a new author is launched straight into paperback (a) how will anyone know about it and (b) how can the costs work out when they can only be set against the paperback sales?
Eureka! In the 1980s a solution was apparently found. The `trade’ paperback was invented. Large-format paperbacks, produced to a high standard on quality paper, were intended to replace the hardback at a more affordable price and in a format that would appeal directly to children. Teenage fiction, the most problematic area to sell, was the first to be given the treatment. In 1981 The Bodley Head, renowned at that point for its `New Adult’ imprint, put all its new teenage fiction into this format. For them it worked. By dint of enormous marketing effort, they got reviews for the new novels and were able to keep prices down by putting print-runs up.
This paradigm has been widely followed by other publishers with teenage novels to sell. Teenage fiction, never quick to sell, seems to have found a `trade’ paperback market. Libraries have accepted these hybrids instead of hardbacks. Bookshops have been more reluctant to do so, knowing that in an area as price-sensitive as children’s fiction the extra couple of pounds on a trade paperback will be a distinct disadvantage. Like librarians, reviewers slowly got the measure of the whys and wherefores of the trade paperback and began to treat it as it deserved, in terms of review coverage. They are now, rightly, finding their places on prize lists alongside hardbacks.
It seems astonishing that this should even need mentioning. Surely the difference between an original and a reprint is more important than the difference between a hardback and a paperback? Apparently not. Paperbacks have for so long been seen as a second bite at a cherry that they rarely receive the attention they deserve.
Just as `trade’ paperbacks have been absorbed into the culture some publishers are taking the second obvious and almost certainly necessary step away from the hardback original. It is here that different publishers are following different paths. Junior fiction sells far more freely than teenage fiction and it sells especially well through the non-bookshop outlets of book clubs, school bookshops and school book fairs. These are committed paperback markets. If fiction is to compete with the obvious `paperback’ titles of jokes, quiz books, choose your own adventure stories and the rest, then it must be readily available in paperback. Of course it always has been, as a reprint. Now some publishers are chancing putting fiction straight into mass-market paperbacks. A risky commitment and, financially, a large one. To keep costs down, print-runs must be large. To draw attention to its arrival, the books and the authors must be seriously and heavily marketed. The price is a matter of enormous sensitivity as there is no shortage of titles for the buyers to choose from.
All of these strategies will work better for some books than others. Series such as `The Babysitter Club’, `Point Horror’, `Point Crime’, etc. sell happily on the backs of each other and have, therefore, always existed as paperbacks only. Their market is a mass one, they are passed on by the children themselves who therefore need them at affordable, pocket-money prices. Similarly, there are one-off junior fiction stories which find their way comfortably, without the need for signposting by reviewers. (Interestingly, there have always been exceptional books for which this has worked. Clive King’s Stig of the Dump was published straight into paperback in 1963 because no one wanted it in hardback and Robert Leeson’s The Third Class Genie was published by Collins in 1975 as a paperback original because it was felt to be a book which children would find for themselves – and they did.)
But, there are no formulae to follow and publishers are backing their own hunches. For some, the hardback is beginning to feel like something out of the dark ages. Picture books, novelties, junior and teenage fiction are all being launched straight into paperback. As one editor said, `It concentrates the mind wonderfully. The work on a book and the commitment to it are just the same for us as originators in paperback as for a hardback editor.’
Others take a more cautious view believing that fiction, and especially `quality’ fiction, needs building through the commitment and support of librarians. `Librarians generate the enthusiasm that gets books to teachers and children. It is a grassroots movement that creates a quality author.’ They are also concerned that the absence of reviews makes books less likely to succeed in shops, libraries or, increasingly important, in the award stakes. `It takes a tremendous marketing effort to get a new paperback known.’
Who is right? There are no hard and fast answers, since each company must do what works best for its particular list. Obviously, it depends to some extent on the structure of the list that’s being created – Puffin is richly fed by three flourishing hardback imprints; Red Fox by four or five. HarperCollins has only its own hardbacks to draw directly into paperback, Scholastic and Walker work on similar principles. All want to sell their books as effectively as possible. The days of publishing a book for reasons of prestige rather than sales have all but gone.
Sales, too, are what encourage authors but, again, different companies take different views on what authors and agents think about publishing straight into paperback. `Going straight into paperback looks like a lack of commitment,’ was set against `After all, authors mind most about getting their books sold.’ Agents, too, seem divided in their feelings about the virtues or otherwise of direct paperback publishing. The increased volume sales are attractive – if they materialise – but authors and agents like the serious review coverage which still sticks more closely to hardbacks than paperbacks. Authors, too, are very reluctant to give up the notion of their book in hardback. There is a dignity and sense of achievement about a hardback which few paperbacks can match.
At the end of the day, perception of what a book is lies at the heart of the debate. Is the book what it looks like from the outside or the words that are written on the inside? Or is it a sum of the two? Are books about immediate large sales but no built-in long life or are they to be treasured and handed down from one generation to another?
Traditionally children’s publishing has been committed to books that will last over a number of years. Publishing them in hardback could be afforded and then, a leisurely two years or so later, they could be given a new lease of life by the appearance of a paperback version. Thus established, they could hope to remain in print for a good few years, selling comfortably for a decade or so. But, times are changing. Most books do not have that leisurely life (and nor do the rest of us). They must make their mark quickly and then keep their profile high if they are not to be eclipsed by newcomers to the shelves. Paperbacks will always do this more effectively which is why Paperback Originals are the way of the future.
Julia Eccleshare has, for nine years, been the selector of Children’s Books of the Year. She’s been Children’s Books Editor for The Times Literary Supplement and a Fiction Editor for Puffin and Hamish Hamilton. Now she works as a freelance reviewer, is married, has four children and lives in London.