Since I graduated from college in 1978, I’ve spent virtually my entire career in publishing. Naturally, I was interested when e-books debuted. The advantages seemed pretty obvious — portability, carrying around on one device an entire library, not to mention the benefits for publishers who wouldn’t have to pay for paper, ink, printing costs, labor, warehousing books, shipping them out, and taking back returns.
And then there is the ethical issue that is eliminated by e-books. Let me give you an example. A few years back, one of my publishers was having a crisis of conscience. The cheapest places, at the time, for printing hardcover and paperback books were China and the Philippines. The question was, did they want their books produced by political prisoners in China or child labor in the Philippines? It was a tough call, and my fully developed pre-Vatican II Catholic conscience has never been able to reconcile itself with either option. I don’t work with that publisher anymore, and the ones I do work with keep me in blissful ignorance regarding their sources of production.
In the interest of full disclosure, I still don’t have an e-reader. I don’t know why. My 80-year-old mother loves reading books off her Kindle. Not long ago, she tackled David McCullough’s Truman. She was on the cusp of adolescence when Truman took office. She’s said to me that as a Catholic school girl growing up in always-Democratic Chicago, it seemed to her that Pius XII would always be pope and FDR would always be president, so she has a lot of memories of Truman taking over the presidency. By the way, Mr. McCullough, Mom loved your book. So did I. (I bought the hardcover. By the time I’d finished it, I’d added an inch to my biceps.)
Yet, in spite of readers like my Mom, e-books haven’t packed quite the sales-and-marketing wallop you’d expect. In June 2016, the Association of American Publishers released a study that found sales for hardcover trade books had dropped by 13.7 percent — down to $488 million in January 2016 from $565.4 million in January 2015. The stats for e-books were worse — their sales fell 24.9 percent. Paperbacks, on the other hand, saw a bump — sales during the same period were up 4.3 percent. That makes me happy. I’ve always loved the feel of a well-bound hardcover, and as my over-crowded bookshelves reveal, I have a weakness for buying hardcovers (I want that new book NOW!). Nonetheless, there’s a lot to be said for lightweight, often smaller-sized paperbacks. As for this affinity for paperback books, it’s not just me. Readers have shown a preference for lightweight, portable books, for at least 5,000 years.
The first best-seller was “published” in Egypt. Originally, the Book of the Dead was chiseled into stone on temple walls. To read it required a special trip, and come on, even 5,000 years ago, who had the time? So, about 1500 B.C. a clever scribe wrote the Book of the Dead on papyrus. Lightweight. Portable. Read it anywhere. At home. At work during lunch. While hanging out waiting for the ferry across the Nile.
Of course, there were traditionalists who still liked their reading matter inscribed on a wall. But a couple hundred years after the papyrus edition of the Book of the Dead came out, a perceptive reader observed, “The scroll is better than the carved stone.” From that moment, paperback publishing was off to the races.
Recognizing a swell idea when they saw one, the librarians of ancient Greece and Rome made the shift to scrolls and soon even easier to use hand-sewn booklets followed. In the late 6th century A.D., when the barbarians had pretty much torn apart what had been the Roman Empire, Irish monks — who, in the splendid isolation of their island, had been busily copying Christian, Greek, and Roman texts — went out as religious and cultural missionaries to continental Europe. The books they carried were not bound in wood, or ivory, or gold, but vellum. In other words, high-quality, durable, light-weight animal skins. You could call them the world’s first quality paperbacks.
After Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1455, the world of publishing saw an explosion of new paperback products — pamphlets of Shakespeare’s plays, Milton’s poetry, Luther’s earthshaking new doctrines, not to mention sensational nonsense about the New World, invariably passed off to a gullible public as a “true relation.”
In colonial America, you could purchase in paper everything from Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac to Thomas Jefferson’s arguments why George III had to go. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow came out with a paperback edition of his poems for the rock-bottom price of 12 and ½ cents. Readers who had the patience to plow through the mind-numbing meter of Hiawatha made Longfellow a wealthy man.
As rail travel expanded across Europe, a German publisher, Christian Bernhard Tauchnitz, realized that passengers lacked cheap books to read on the train. He offered paperback copies of novels by Charles Dickens, Sir Walter Scott, and George Eliot so cheap that once the rail rider had finished them, he or she had no regrets about tossing the copy in the trash.
In America, the real kick-off of paperback publishing came in 1939, when Pocket Books released ten popular titles — price, 25 cents. Among the greatest hits were Wuthering Heights, Five Great Tragedies by Shakespeare, Lost Horizon, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, and Bambi. I’ve read all of those books, except Bambi. But I did see the Disney movie. And, yeah, I cried when hunters shot Bambi’s mother. Okay, so I’m a conservative, but I still have a heart.
Paperbacks have been with us ever since. I like them. But I have hunch that in 2017, I may succumb and, like my Mom, get a Kindle.