The arrival of e-book readers such as the Kindle and the Sony Reader has triggered a lot of discussion in the media and among bloggers about the future of the book and the ‘interesting’ state of the publishing industry. Reading a book on an electronic handheld device is a utilitarian act: I need something to read, but I don’t want to carry a hunking great hardback book around with me. Oddly enough, that was partly the thinking behind the invention of the paperback. I’m not convinced (yet) that one of these techno-readers will become my primary reading device any time soon, but I believe they are already changing the way publishers do business and I think in the long run mid-range paperbacks are an endangered species. It no longer works simply to ship any old atoms to sell bytes; they have to be the right kind of atoms and they have to be flying in the right formation.
Penguin’s recent release of leather-bound editions of books from the Penguin Classics range suggests the company is changing the formation of the atoms it ships and making an effort to move into a more tactile and emotive market. In fact they are selling the book itself rather than its content. These editions, at £50 each, look very lovely indeed, but they are not really the kind of thing you might sit down and actually read. They also have a whiff of good economic times past about them, which makes the inclusion of The Great Gatsby in the list rather more interesting. Fitzgerald’s role as the chronicler of a society heading for destruction has to some extent turned his books into historical curiosities. We wouldn’t be so stupid as to make those mistakes again, would we?
As with closets full of shirts, so there has always been room for boutique books. But I doubt Abigail’s Party is the image Penguin is looking for. In a world where day-to-day reading is increasingly done on a screen of some kind, real readers may well be prepared to pay more for high quality editions to read at home. But they will have to be robust and usable. Lower down the scale Everyman’s Library has been doing ‘value quality’ for over a century and may be about to issue the most patient ‘I told you so’ in publishing history. Penguin revolutionised publishing with its paperbacks in the 1930s. These catwalk classics are strictly for for the display cabinet.
Note: there was a server problem while this post was being edited so it originally appeared in a slightly different form. This may explain why email subscribers have received the post twice.
Posted by Chris Routledge