My friend Andy's literature blog recently pointed to this essay by Pat Holt, about how book publishers lose tons of money printing hardcover books. Publishers see them as expensive promotional copies that they need to print in order to get the reviews and interviews that sell profitable softcovers later.
But to use a trite formulation, publishers of hardcover books must realize that they aren't in the
printing printed object business, they're in the talking-stick business. We have a shared general public dialog, but because there are more people with things to say than the public has time to hear, we need some object to confer attention-- like the talking stick around a campfire. In our culture, this object is the hardcover from a major publisher, which ideally makes a single timely point to inject into the public discussion.
Here's something less expensive that I think could replace hardcovers. Each publishing house puts a video billboard in a protected, shared area of Times Square or similar that's dedicated to showing the authors/books currently being promoted. I know outdoor advertising in NYC is expensive, but one sign has got to be cheaper than thousands of hardcovers plus distribution. If the signs are properly imbued with significance, which the industry could easily do, they would accomplish everything that a hardcover run does.
The book industry would tell book reviewers, talent coordinators, etc. that the signs are the new hardcover. In other words, this is the pool of people we're putting out there to make the rounds in the media, and other people will be covering them and people will be thinking about them at the same time that you are. Meanwhile, aspiring authors should want to see themselves up on one of those signs. They should be framed with appropriate gravitas indicators (marble, columns) and designed by famous artists.
According to Pat Holt, publishers fear that reeducating the audience away from hardcovers is impossible. But I think it would happen quickly if all the major publishing houses unveiled their signs at once with some fanfare and ribbon-cutting. It would be a major cultural event, and would get plenty of free coverage.
The signs would also establish a site for publishers to compete against one another, telegraphing how well they are currently doing, by things like how big their sign is, how well-maintained, how state-of-the-art the display technology, and any other ways of showing off how much money the house can publicly burn on image.
LATE ADD: With the "single timely point" etc. I'm just talking about nonfiction.