What's In A Format

15 November 2007

Last week Picador announced that, from next spring, it is going to change the way it publishes some of its books. A number of our titles will now be offered in both hardback and paperback simultaneously. It has been interesting to see how people have responded.

And it isn't about price either. No matter how affordable publishers make hardbacks, most people don't seem to want their reading delivered in that form. Of course there are exceptions: those lucky fiction authors whose following is big enough, and sustained enough, for people to overlook format; and for non-fiction, any book that makes a plausible Christmas gift. And it's important to state that, despite what some headlines have shouted, we are not trying to call time on, or speed the demise of, hardbacks. On the contrary, we are offering better quality hardbacks as a result of this initiative, a bit like Radiohead offering their new album both as a 'pay-what-you-like' dowload and a deluxe £40 boxed set (including old-fashioned vinyl LPs no less).

But the primacy of the paperback for the majority of books (the majority of fiction at least) cannot be denied. The paperback's much celebrated, unmatchable portability, the way it fits in just about any bag, the way it flexes and bends and even dries out if you drop it in the bath: all of these things speak to the uniquely intimate nature of the reading experience, an intimacy that can't be matched by any other media. A well-thumbed paperback tells its own story, of the magical exchange between writer and reader. The more battered the better, some would say.

There are other reasons why this country is primarily a paperback one. First, the format was famously perfected and made truly 'mass' by a British company, Penguin, the history of which is nicely told by Jeremy Lewis in his The Life and Times of Allen Lane. And some years later it was reinvigorated and turned into an essential cultural item by our predecessors here at Picador. Also, Britain is a nation particularly wary of conspicuous aspiration and quickly embarrassed by signs of pretension. The paperback, available to everyone, embarrasses no one.

This is not, however, an iPod moment, as kind as it was of one commentator to suggest it might be. If anything it's a re-embrace of a technology that is decidely 'last century'. And in fact we have been here before. Other publishers have dabbled in simultaneous editions, and Picador itself, for many years solely a paperback publisher, employed a simultaneous model when it first started publishing hardbacks in the early 1990s. The difference is that this time we'd like to make it stick.

In the end, there is no one solution. However the work is delivered, our aim is for our writers to find as many readers as possible. The first two titles in the initiative will be Andrew Crumey's Sputnik Caledonia and Joanne Proulx's Anthem of a Reluctant Prophet. We look forward to seeing what happens.

Most authors, and their agents, have been very positive. Booksellers, in the main, have given the idea the thumbs up. The press has been generally (sometimes even wildly) enthusiastic, with a few unsurprising exceptions, and it's reassuring to discover that people remain open to change. But the one constituency whose response we eagerly await (and there has already been some nice activity on the Guardian’s blog) is the one that matters most, and the one that has inspired this initiative: readers.

What is in a format? At a glance, not much. After all, a hardback is only a little bit larger than a paperback, with only slightly heavier paper which, along with its hard boards, gives it a bit more weight. Yet those few inches, and few ounces, seem to make all the difference to most people. Hardbacks are handsome, hardbacks have heft, but the place where people seem most comfortable keeping them is safely preserved on their shelves. Indeed, it's interesting to note that for serious book collectors those attributes that increase the value of a hardback - no signs of wear or tear, no broken spine, uncut pages - would seem to militate against the very purpose for which books were created.

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