Replace Hardcovers with a Bunch of Big Signs

Boingboing's current guestblogger Paul Spinrad is currently Projects Editor for MAKE magazine and the author of The VJ Book and The Re/Search Guide to Bodily Fluids. He lives in San Francisco. 

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.


  1. but but
    i love hardcovers. all my paperbacks are torn to shit from months of heavy toting~

  2. Except that those to whom the hard cover books are intended, the ones that write the reviews that sell paperbacks, fetishize them. In other words they want a talking stick that smells and feels like a book.

    How about just buying the reviewers a Kindle and spraying it with “Ye Olde Book” scent?

  3. It’d also make the job of libraries a lot more difficult, if they intend on keeping the books for more than a couple months. Having the hardcover option makes it possible to stock with durable books, that can last decades or even centuries.

  4. I’ll often buy a book I’m not sure about in paperback (sometimes used), then if I love it, I’ll give away the paperback and replace it with a hardcover to keep and re-read.

    I think this idea assumes that people only buy/discover new books, and is uniquely concerned with marketing to them.

    I would be very sad to lose hardcovers. And dustjackets: I love dustjackets as much as I love hardcovers. Wait: are hardcovers SUVs, and have I become That Guy?

  5. They should do previews for books in movie theaters like they do in some parts of Europe.

  6. I’m with no.1 on this one; also, until an archival method as reliable as the book is found (and electronic archival just gets *more* ephemeral as new developments come along) , I’m sticking with my good, dusty library of hardcovers.

  7. @ M. Whittier

    I heard just yesterday that eco-terrorists in certain parts of Europe have been setting fire to hardcover books. Sleep in the library with one eye open.

  8. I still want hardcovers. Libraries almost exclusively stock hardcovers, that’s all that will hold up.

    I would accept hardcovers as a print-on-demand item…I would especially be interested in premium p.o.d… (today’s hardcovers are sadly cardboardy hidden under the dust jacket) leather-bound with stitching bumps along the spine.

    I can’t see the connection between lit billboards and hardcovers.

  9. Another vote for keeping hardcovers. I worked long and hard to be able to afford the luxury of them and I love them. If I am successful enough (and can find them) I will replace my old paperbacks with hardcover editions for a completely hardcover library

  10. A sign in Times Square can’t be carried with you, or passed from person to person. It will only be seen by people in one city, in one country. It doesn’t let you advertise in smaller cities and smaller towns all over the place.

    Is it a problem that hardcover books are not profitable? Are they ineffective? Just because it would be cheaper to buy a billboard doesn’t mean that’s a better solution.

  11. I disagree with the “hardcovers as promotional copies” idea.

    If that were true, and they lose money on harcovers, why would a series like Patricia Briggs “Mercy Thompson”, or Kelly Armstrong’s “Otherworld” wait until several softcover volumes had built up a fan base before bringing the latest book out in hardcover?

    Or, for that matter, why is “Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows” STILL not available in softcover?

  12. I feel like hardcovers serve two purposes — to promote a book as a tiny, timely billboard, [i]and[/i] to create word-of-mouth about the product–what’s between the covers. I feel like posters or billboards are a good solution to the first problem, but not the second. There’s no content there so there’s nothing to get excited about except cover art and maybe a few blurbs.

    I also find the notion of locating these billboards problematic–sure, maybe one in NYC, maybe one in SF or a few more areas–but you can’t loan a billboard out to your friends and get them exicted about the product. How would people in smaller cities, or tiny demographic markets, find the books?

    Creative suggestions welcomed.

  13. Not only will I give up my hardcovers when you take them from my cold dead hand (the other hand will be holding a gun, which you can also take), but I have seriously considered having some of my paperbacks custom-bound since they’re not available in hardcover editions.

    I’m not really surprised publishers don’t make enough money on them, given how cheap hardcovers are on Amazon–only a couple of dollars more than the paperback will be when it comes out. Maybe whatever price break Amazon is getting is too deep!

  14. “If the signs are properly imbued with significance, which the industry could easily do…”

    I think you’re underestimating the difficulty of this task.

    More to the point, I think “imbuing with significance” is something that society does, rather than publishers (although they might certainly try).

  15. Back in the day (which in this case means more than 200 years ago or so) the printers sold the pages, and one could get them bound how one liked. Wealthy book owners could get all their books bound in the same style, so their library could have a uniform look.

    I can imagine a specialty niche like that working today. A binder could specialize in carefully removing the crap glue that mass market paperbacks are currently bound with, and re-binding them. Of course that does nothing for the newsprint-quality paper that most mm paperbacks seem to have. Maybe print-on-demand makes more sense.

  16. Many of us commenting like “book as object” – not just the content, but the cover art, etcetera. For that reason, some market needs to exist for hardcovers as artistic objects.

    The durability issue is valid as long as libraries loan out books as physical objects, too – but, perhaps the economics of just serially replacing worn-out paperbacks would be better for libraries?

    All that said – the idea of promoting the book first has merit, THEN do paperback printings, and allow (as someone else said) people to get a good-quality hardcover on demand.

    One more thing – don’t forget the pleasure of handing a book to a following generation! When I started to be a snotty young teen, my Dad or Granddad handed me “Captains Courageous”, and I count that as one of the books that helped me think better .

  17. “But to use a trite formulation, publishers of hardcover books must realize that they aren’t in the printing business, they’re in the talking-stick business.”

    I’m not an expert on the publishing world, so I may certainly be wrong, but I would think all the major publishers would own their own printing houses by this point. Is this not the case?

    Also, @ M.Whittier

    Why the love for dust covers? They killed the beauty that was Publishers’ Bindings!

  18. Yesterday I received a new book via USPO that cost $75 USD. There is no way this 700 pg. monster of arcane scholarship is ever going to go soft-cover, so I had to fork over the bucks. It is, however, bound and covered to last at least a hundred years; I think it’s called a ”library edition.” It’s an ugly looking thing, and it sure ain’t no ”talking stick.” Not even any pictures, just a few graphs and charts.

    Flash this on a video billboard and people will throw rocks at it.

  19. Your premise is interesting, but the geographical issues seem problematic.

    Video billboards, as you rightfully note, would better work in hotspots in concentrated urban areas. But then the dominance of those concentrated urban areas in intellectual culture at large would be reinforced by this. That’s not a trivial issue — and as someone who chooses to live in a small rural area, I believe it moves culture “away” from me, and from rural life in general.

    I deny that as an acceptable loss in shifting media promotion. Especially in an age of increased micro-culture, net culture, etc., in which the circles which need those talking sticks are LESS about geographicality than ever before.

    Sorry. No dice here.

  20. Replace hardcovers, sure. Overpriced, heavy, bulky, and…. wait for it…. a bit snobby. But please, spare us the big signs. Reading is so intimate, and billboards are so the opposite of intimate. You know, its like with these full page ads they run in the paper for the new realeases? Who falls for that crap? Full page ads are good for cars or fur coats, but books? It just doesn’t work for me.

    The new Kindle, on the other hand, is working quite well. “Hardcovers” cost ten bucks and paperbacks are like seven or less. I don’t need publishers to push advertising down my throat, I need literary fiction that I can afford and I think they *finally* got that part right.

  21. Here in New Zealand, hardcovers don’t seem to be as common as in the US. Particularly with SF, new releases tend to first appear as the large trade paperbacks rather than hardcover, so the few hardcovers I own generally came from Amazon rather than local stores.

  22. I don’t like hardbacks, they’re too big and too expensive. I really resent publishers making me wait a year for the paperback version to come out after the hardback is available (at a stupidly marked-up rate), so anything that will get the paperback out quicker gets my vote.

    I’d always assumed that publishers made more money out of hardbacks because of the inflated price, to scalp those that can’t bear to wait for the cheaper paperback format. If that’s not the case, I don’t see the reason for it. Why not release all formats concurrently, particularly if the last format to be released is the one that makes the money?

    Incidentally, I don’t like trade paperbacks either, they’re too damn big.

  23. @ Mecharius:

    Maybe because I’m a graphic designer, maybe because I grew up with children’s series books (Rick Brant Electronic Mysteries, Ken Holt, Nancy Drew) that had wonderfully lurid dustjackets over banal tweed covers.

    I have been known to create my own dustjackets, for favorite books that have none, and for gifts. I like me the fancy-pants anachronisms. When cassette tapes pushed out LPs, I missed the scale of album art; now that digital music reigns, I miss the teeny CD art.

    So: art, I guess. But I get your point about beautiful bindings.

  24. I think this is a cool idea, but I’m going to have to vote in favor of keeping hardcovers. It may be solely because I fetishize the object of the hardcover and because I work in a library, but that seems to be true of enough people that it’ll be hard to make billboards successful.

    Additionally, as someone who works in a library, I can tell you it’s very hard to make the paperbacks last. Just today I shelved a copy of “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers,” which is a pretty recent book, and the cover was all bent and ripped up, which meant the first fifty pages or so were also bent and ripped up. We have lots of very old paperbacks, and they all come in boxes because they’re so fragile. Just taking them out of the box to check them in/out usually results in another piece of the book falling off (and getting Old Book Dust all over any white clothes you happen to be wearing).

    1. I just checked out a popular work of fiction in hardcover from the local library. It was printed in 2008 and it’s already looking rid hard and put away wet. A year-old paperback would have been a pile of literary dandruff.

  25. The majority of the books I buy these days are hardcovers because if I’m not planning on keeping a book around I’ll just borrow it from the library.

  26. What a horribly bad idea. For authors as well. Because I know what would happen if this idea was put out. Publishers would simply reduce the pay for authors.

  27. I can see the imminent death of magazines and newspapers but I don’t follow on the hard covers. They’re just so beautiful. I work in printing so I’m biased but I don’t think it will be billboards that replaces them.

  28. Hardcovers serve more functions than just as advertisement for paperbacks. I think most of the main functions have already been mentioned in previous comments, so I’ll just agree with most of them and move on.

    Books that are meant to be read once and essentially discarded should just never get a hardcover edition. The other books, which are worth reading twice or more, or worth lending to friends, should be available in hardcover form, just so they have a chance to last through a few more reads.

    The suggestion above concerning going back to the system of printers printing pages, and then binders binding those to the customer’s specifications seems to make even more sense, in an age where “just in time” printing is becoming viable.

  29. Soon enough our books will be like covers with no pages inbetween. Open it up and a plasma display shows you the text, with a row of tools on the edge.
    It won’t be bad. They’ll be a little bigger than a CD case, and you can get a lot of them in a bookcase! References built in, batteries cheap.
    It’ll be nice.

  30. “But to use a trite formulation, publishers of hardcover books must realize that they aren’t in the printing business, they’re in the talking-stick business.”

    Er… I am pretty sure they are actually in the “book” business, and this is why the articles economics don’t make sense.

    Huge bestsellers are released initially in hardcover. They keep the book in hardcover for as long as possible while the book is selling. The DaVinci Code was in HC for at least a year and a half while it was a bestseller in the US. If it was more profitable to print the trades and mass-market paperbacks they should switch while the book is still popular rather then wait until a year after the reviews and buzz has died down. Also, if you have ever seen an Advanced Reader’s Copy or an Uncorrected Proof (which are the “talking-stick” they send to reviewers, buyers, and booksellers) they are always in a paperback format.

    Maybe the publishers are losing money publishing first-time or unproven authors in hardcover, but that is a completely different issue than hardcovers merely being less profitable. A majority of first-time authors are unprofitable because they don’t have an established readership. I do not see how you are going to create a readership by not giving them something they can read.

    The wastefulness of HC is completely bogus. HC hold up to wear better, therefore they go through many owners with out being replaced by a new copy. They also are easily recycled in most areas.

    Finally, a giant sign in one city is the silliest idea for book promotion I have ever heard of. I think Pat Holt has really over thought this.

  31. “They should be framed with appropriate gravitas indicators (marble, columns)…”

    OK. The authors can wear togas, then, too. That’ll have gravitas up the freakin wazoo, and be stylistically consistent with the weird antiquity fetish.

    The idea has some merits, but another silly part of it is the idea that ginormous video screens is the right way to reach readers. Readers like reading. Giant videos are for joystickers and thumbsuckers and, um, advertising victims.

    I’m delighted to live in a city (PDX) where billboards are kept on a leash. And books are still read without them.

  32. are hardcover books today even as well built as those of 30 years ago? For one thing, I never see stitch bound books anymore – granted they weren’t that common 20 years ago either. Seems like the hardcovers that come out today are just as pulpy (in the paper quality that is, not necessarily the content) and flimsy as the paperback versions except for the cardboard cover.

  33. One of the nice things about hardcovers is that they maintain their value much better on the used market, should you ever need to liquidate (or prune) your collection.

  34. To clarify: this would only be in one location. Not a few major cities, not a wide campaign– just one single, significant, sole location– it makes sense to make it NYC, or wherever the publisher is based.

    As I see it, duplicating these signs somewhere else, even another capital like London, would make it not work. They aren’t like regular billboards. They’re unique artifacts controlled by the publishers that other people watch and report on.

    Then you sell softcovers and digital at the same time.

    Also– you can do lots of things to make softcovers more durable!

  35. …also, maybe it would be classier and more fitting to not use video at all, but go the old fashioned way with paper.

  36. I own over 800 novels, and probably over 200 non-fiction books of assorted types.

    I refuse to buy HCs whenever paperback is an option. I find them superior to HCs in every way except maybe lifespan… but my paperbacks will probably outlive me anyways, so that’s not a big deal.

  37. I always feel like I’m getting screwed with hardbacks.

    When you are waiting months for a book and it finally comes out, you either have to wait another year for it, or pay way too much for it now. It feels like there is a premium on having the book now, rather than the methoid of binding it. It feels capitalists and mean.

    I always feel guilty if I cave and get the hardback, but sometimes I do. Othertimes I d/l it from the tubez for now, and buy the paperback when it eventually comes out.

    1. When you are waiting months for a book and it finally comes out, you either have to wait another year for it, or pay way too much for it now.

      If I know I’m going to read it every year, I buy the hardcover. If I’m not but I still want to read it as soon as it comes out, I put a hold on it at the library. I get it the same day as the folks who bought it. God bless America.

  38. Meanwhile, out here in the sticks we’ll just continue grooming each other.

  39. What Wygit said.

    If hardcovers are such loss machines, then why is Deathly Hallows only available as a hardcover? Surely you are not trying to tell us that Harry Potter is still trying to build an audience? Or that Harry Potter’s final book has just lost gobs of money? Something isn’t adding up here.

  40. Stop printing hardcovers and use it to do something NEARLY as expensive… something only NYers can ‘enjoy’. Lame.

    How about just doing away with hardcovers and passing savings on to consumers? Honestly, I have bought like 3 hardbacks in 38 years. Give me paperbacks or trade any day.

    1. How about just doing away with hardcovers and passing savings on to consumers?

      We could also get rid of the car industry and only make mopeds and bicycles. Or we could, um, you know, continue manufacturing a product that remains in high demand by consumers; in the case of hardcover books, consumers with the most disposable income.

  41. When it comes to manufacture you are right. Some hard covers are pretty cheaply made. There re still a lot of book binders who use machines but the quality is as good or superior to hand stitched. To answer another question about making soft covers better this has definitely happened over the last 30 years. They have definitely gone up in quality while hard covers have gone down a bit in general. Printing quality and paper quality definitely better also.

  42. The way I prefer my dead tree books:

    Wait for them to hit Amazon used for a penny to a dollar or so. Look for an ex-library hardback. Usually get a low-wear hardback with mylar over the dust-jacket and library binding. Since most of my book purchases are science non-fiction, very few people will have ever checked them out. (One of the science books I bought that way recently had scribblings one one of the front blank pages, which was mildly annoying. But then I noticed that it was a somewhat personal letter written by the book’s author, gifting the book to someone who was important to him growing. Evidently, they didn’t find it important enough to not sell on Amazon for a few bucks.)

  43. Where is this “Times Square” you speak of? Oh, right, New York City. A billboard in New York City is where new writing will be announced? Even when I go to New York, I don’t go to Times Square. Something seems wrong with this as a means of communication.

  44. I read books every day and find hardcovers annoying – they’re too bulky and heavy to hold comfortably in one hand. My paperbacks last well enough and I rather like it when they get a bit tatty, they look like they’ve had more attention and are more important because of it.
    That said, I’m happy to see dead tree books go extinct – my netbook has spoiled me as an ebook reader. It has all the portable physicality of a dead tree book and weighs less than the library it replaces and I can search online, etc.

  45. SFBC seems to have proven that there’s a market for reasonably-priced decent-quality hardbacks that actually make a profit. NESFA Press has proven that there’s a market for higher-priced, high-quality hardbacks… though certainly a large part of the reason they make a profit is that they rely heavily on volunteer labor and are primarily a reprint house.

    I mostly buy paperbacks. But I do buy some hardbacks, when it’s something I know I Want A Proper Copy Of and am willing to spend some additional money and shelf space on. Actually, the shelf space is more of a constraint than the money; I’m planning full floor-to-ceiling library shelves and I already know that won’t be enough space for very long.

    (There’s no such thing as too many books, just not enough shelves.)

  46. Many great points about hardcovers– yes, they are nice, durable, etc. I like them too. If we want the printed version, let’s expect to order the Hardcover Option for a few dollars more!

    @ 51 Ecologist– good question. It doesn’t need to be Times Square, but should probably be a well-chosen place in NYC. The point is not for lots of people to see the signs themselves firsthand– it’s for the site to have a significance of its own, to be watched and reported on, understood as a centralized and exclusive conduit for meaning, placed in a significant and central location.

    That’s why it should only be in one location. Hopefully, people who like books, in whatever form, will want to see the signs for themselves when they visit New York, after having seen countless references and reproductions of them everywhere else.

  47. It shouldn’t have to be said but all publishers are not the same. Big publishers frequently over-print and make a loss as a consequence. Smaller independent outfits tend to print smaller runs and target their audience with more care which means they sell out their titles. They also frequently build in extra value for the readership by having the books signed by the author.

    I’m a graphic designer and spend a large chunk of my time designing books for independents. Most of these are hardcovers which I endeavour to make as beautiful and desirable as possible. Two of the titles I’ve worked on recently have incuded specially-commissioned illustrations. Blocking with metallic inks can be added to the boards at a fraction of extra cost, so too can printed endpapers. I’m always pushing for this with publishers since I want to see books which are desirable objects that people would treasure. Many of the larger outfits seem uninterested in doing this then they complain that people don’t want their costly titles. And as noted above, many big publishers produce hardcovers on inferior stock with bad (often glued) bindings and paper which yellows after a few years.

    Complaints should be aimed at business practices and the corporate structure, not books themselves.

  48. Funny how so many Boingers cling to their dead tree media in this case, while they listen to MP3s and cheer on The Pirate Bay’s efforts to ‘change the business model’ of the audio and video industries…

    I was one of the first through the doors when the great Bristol free book-grab was announced:
    and among the hundreds of thousands of titles free for the taking, a four-hour search surrendered less than a dozen that me and my wife wanted between us. It took four charity shop volunteers all day to find enough re-saleble stock to fill a shopping cart. The reason that the people there flung most of the books onto the floor in piles is that most of them were junk – outdated wine lists, soccer annuals from seasons past that even the nerdiest fan wouldn’t need, picture books of boy bands now hitting 40, instruction manuals for long-defunct operating systems, school/college texts containing outdated and inaccurate information, ghosted autobiogs from faded celebs – all hardbacks whose physical form had way, way outlived their usefulness, and whose bulky presence and cost of indexing/storage/disposal was one of the reasons the BookBarn went bust.

    A book sitting on a shelf does nobody any good, unless that shelf’s in a library – and even then, only if it’s being borrowed and appreciated. I love books, but going digital and freeing the information they contain in our only chance to redefine commerce and society into something more sustainable than the current medieval models.

    1. I love books, but going digital and freeing the information they contain in our only chance to redefine commerce and society into something more sustainable than the current medieval models.

      Or, you know, businesses could continue to provide a product for which there are tens of millions of buyers. We still continue the medieval models of living in buildings and wearing clothing. I would hate for my desire to own a hardcover book to interfere with anyone’s ethical objection to the antiquated business model of providing a salable commodity to a willing buyer.

  49. Funny how so many Boingers cling to their dead tree media in this case, while they listen to MP3s

    It’s equally funny how many Boingers cheer the efforts of the Long Now Foundation whilst racing to convert all of human culture to a virtual state whose future may well be very short indeed.

  50. Hardcovers aren’t billboards to me. They’re things I like to collect, and they last longer than paperbacks. If you want me to stop reading on paper, just get rid of everything except mass market paperbacks–that’ll drive me to a Kindle faster than just about anything else I can think of.

  51. I buy hardcovers simply for the durability. The quality of the binding is better, they’re more resistant to damage, and so on. I reserve hardcover-buying for authors whose work I love, and I know I will not resent the extra dollars for picking up the early hardcover before the paperback hits the stores. So no, I don’t think this idea works.

  52. The “big sign” idea is a really bad one, actually, because it plays into the market forces that are already hurting the publishing industry. Right now, a lot of publishers are screwed because they’ve been bought by “media companies” which expect high growth and consistent revenue from an industry which has never, ever delivered it– it’s very tricky predicting which book will be a hit with the public, and it’s very tricky ensuring that a writer is consistent with their product. The expectation of consistency has pushed publishers into the position of being primarily marketing companies, which depend on making big investments in producing and promoting blockbuster titles.

    Begin rant:

    That’s where a lot of the inflated advances of the 90’s came from: the model for publishers moved from “many small gambles” to “a few big gambles”, and it cost a lot of money to hedge the bets: buying ads, payola for premium placement with Barnes and Noble, and sending author/celebrities around the reading/talk-show circuit. The big screen idea would just replace B&N with Clearchannel (or some other billboard operator), and force the publishers to concentrate yet more of their marketing efforts on a smaller patch of psychic real-estate.

    The whole “big sign” thing presupposes that there’s only a limited amount of attention in the media available for books, which is utter bullshit. What Spinrad’s idea doesn’t take into account is that the publishing industry has completely failed to cultivate its own market (see RIAA).

    Just a few things to note:

    1) Publishers let the LA Times Book Review evaporate, along with tons of book reviewers in regional papers. As if they couldn’t set up a grant or endowment. Or, if you’re not betting on papers to last, heaven forbid the print industry underwrites websites or TV shows…

    2) Speaking of which, publisher’s websites are utter dreck. I spend a lot of time there, and lemme tell you on the whole they’re miserable. Which is insane– these people employ writers, for God’s sake.

    3) Publishers aren’t editing their damn books. This means their books suck harder than they need to.

    4) Publishers are babying the damn market. It may be heretical to say this, but you don’t need to “YA” a perfectly sound adult book to sell it, or chickify one, either. Wrap it in whatever foil/pink/pop-up cover you need to, but give your readers credit, especially your teenage readers. While there are great books in both genres, a mania for them means perfectly good “adult” books are getting chewed down to bubblegum as we speak.

    5) Lobby Congress to get the damn tax code changed, so warehoused stock becomes an asset again. (Maybe this has changed? I can’t remember…).

    6) Figure out a way to support independent bookstores. Fix the damn consignment model.

    Oh I could go on. Lobby for the NEA? For public libraries? There’s just too much book publishers aren’t doing. The big sign is the opposite of doing something, though.

    End rant.

  53. Do you pay tax on books in the US?

    Lazyweb! sorry, my cursory google turned up lots of unrelated false positives..

  54. Ecologist wrote:

    ” A billboard in New York City is where new writing will be announced? Even when I go to New York, I don’t go to Times Square. Something seems wrong with this as a means of communication.”

    Don’t you get it? It’ll have GRAVITAS. It’ll be covered in greek columns. People who’ve heard about these signs will travel from all corners of the country to see THE signs where books are announced, that they’d only heard of and seen on tv and the internet.

    Seriously, when I read this I said “Is this the same guy who’s hair-brained scheme for atheist acceptance was that they should go to church and stage silent sit-ins every service until they provoke a reaction?” Then I read the by-line. Yup.

    Sorry, these are half-baked hair-brained ideas Paul Spinrad. I mean, so bad that I think you’re actually proposing them as some sort of goof or performance-art piece.

    I propose a contest: predict Spinrad’s next hair-brained scheme.

    Here’s one. I’ve read recently that both Right whales and American crocodiles are endangered. So why not duct-tape crocodiles to the whales? That’ll keep anyone from attacking the whales (don’t want to get bit by the croc), AND it’ll keep the crocodiles from getting run-over by trucks. Win-win!

    Also, I’ve heard that church attendance is dwindling in big cities, and i happen to know that advertisers are always looking for places to promote their products. So why not run advertisements on a big screen in church? This will cause more people to go to church, because people will want to see exactly what products get advertised in church (plus, skipping them a’La tivo will be a new deadly sin!). Think of the cross-promotion (PUN INTENDED!)

    I’ve got TONS of great ideas like these!

    Honestly Boing-Boing editors, this guy is NOT a deep thinker.

    ANYONE can have a blog, and can post junk like this… and they usually do. People looking for half-baked schemes like these can find them anywhere on the internet.

    I’m sure you can find better writers with creative ideas not so divorced from reality or practicality.

    Exercise some editorial quality control.

  55. Fun idea! And thanks for the link to my blog. But I wonder if billboards would work – for the publishing and book-writing crowd, they wouldn’t have anywhere near the symbolic valence as a stack of hardcover books, in an (ideally “independent”) bookstore. That is, they wouldn’t serve, in multiple contexts, as a sign of “seriousness” – of the publisher (to the author), of the author (to bookbuyers), and of the reader (to his friends, who see the book on his coffeetable or bookshelf).

    I can’t think of another, single medium that could pull off all three of these tricks. Which is likely why, economic considerations aside, hardcovers still exist.

    But let’s assume that economic considerations being what they are, publishers eventually decide that hardcovers’ symbolic power isn’t worth the cost. Of the three parties to the book-making and -consuming process, which will be left symbolically deprived, once hardcovers are replaced by something else?

    Readers! Or at least to some degree – more on that in a minute. To publishers, hardcovers are important primarily because they impress writers – that is, the ones who write profitably sellable/prestigious books. When a house publishes a writer in hardcover, it shows him – and other writers, most of whom think long and hard about such things – that here is a publisher who will treat my work with respect, in time-honored fashion, and do what it takes to make my work respected by others, and, not incidentally, ensure that it lasts for the ages. Certainly hardcovers impress readers as well. But without saleable/highly respected authors, publishers can’t dream of reaching readers – or rather, selling enough books to them, to make a living. So I think writers are the primary consumers in the symbolic market for hardcover books.

    And unfortunately for the billboard scheme, I don’t think billboards would quite make the nut for them. Advertising, after all, is just so crass

    Unless, of course, it’s advertising on PBS! Which is the perfect medium, I think, for publishers to use in reaching authors – and impressing them! – once hardcovers are gone. And how much does an ad on the Lehrer News Hour cost? Peanuts, I’m guessing, compared to a Times Square billboard. All the better! John Houseman’s as dead as big book publishing’s business model, unfortunately, so you couldn’t film him in a Harvard Club-style chair, in the Harvard Club, holding the book, saying, “You go into this book with a mindful of mush, and you come out of it thinking like a writer.” But I’m sure another suitable actor could be found. William Hurt is old now, right? Everybody knows he’s smart, and while he doesn’t have a quasi-British accent, he did once play an Ivy League professor in a movie. Also, he’ll work cheap – which will be key, since for book industry 2.0, cheap will be the new wasteful! Anyway, once those ads start running, no one will thinking about money – they’ll be thinking about books, and nothing but. And while hardcovers may still be missed, they’ll hardly be mourned.

  56. For me, it’s a question of time and value. I don’t mind buying a paperback of a book I’m only going to read once, but much more than that and it’s worth buying a hardcover. Also, I use quite a few reference/textbooks on a regular basis and have for years; they pretty much have to be hardcover.

    Now for the ranty part. So publishers are supposed to focus their attention on one spot in NYC which, if they’re lucky, might get seen by 20 million people per year. Of those 20 million, maybe (generously) a third actually care. I don’t know for sure, but I’m willing to bet that the combined foot traffic of every bookstore in the US exceeds 7 million people annually. Yes, some people would make pilgrimages to see Publishers’ Mecca, but nowhere near as many people as walk into B&N, Borders, or their local bookstore and at least scan the hardcover racks. This idea is simply bad advertising.

  57. Siamang,

    I really enjoyed your post and parodies until you tried to tell the Boingers how to run their site.

    Paul Spinrad is their guest. Stick to the laughs, they were good.

  58. I just noticed :

    LATE ADD: With the “single timely point” etc. I’m just talking about nonfiction.

  59. @Oscar_Littlelad “A book sitting on a shelf does nobody any good, unless that shelf’s in a library”

    A book sitting on my shelf does me a whole lot of good. What are you talking about?

    “I love books, but going digital and freeing the information they contain in our only chance to redefine commerce and society into something more sustainable than the current medieval models.”

    And just what does your sustainable model look like? Man, if I have to hear “information wants to be free” one more time….. just where do you think content is going to come from? Appear magically out of thin air? You know, “information wants to be free” is just part of the quotation…

  60. @68 Andy– I fear you may be right about billboards being too crass. We don’t want a Caesars’ Palace vibe with this (no matter how brilliant the design of those cocktail waitress toga-miniskirts).

    But I love the PBS ad idea! Maybe that is the way. Nice casting, too– William Hurt in a comfy leather chair would be perfect as the personification of “reading”! (And the price probably is right on him these days!)

  61. @41: “you can do lots of things to make softcovers more durable!”

    Uh huh. And wind up with something like–a hardcover book.

  62. i only buy cheap used trade print paperbacks, and the can get beat up to the point of unreadability, but even if you end up with a bent up stack of papers with no cover – you still have the text. and that’s the whole point isn’t it? i guess i’m not thinking about this from a publishing/marketing point of view. the only text i distibute is in the form of photocopied zines or comics that are given away free and encouraged to be copied more. scammin free copies and stealing paper and toner is half the fun! now that i’m completely off subject, i’ll try to return.

    hardcovers nice if you come across them, but really they’re for wankers who get boners about it. the esoteric is now exoteric! if you have a good book, don’t let it sit on a shelf, give that shit away and make sure the next person will give it away too! i donated all my books to an anarchist library (even shoplifted some faves to give to it – don’t worry it was b&n) and sometimes information will amass that way, and generally when such projects fall apart (they always do – importance of impermanence, etc.), the books will be released into the wild in a number of generally diffuse forms. so anywhere between a few months and a few years from now, many great books will be floating free – where they belong – pollinating dormant desires or making people yawn (who am i to say?) and they will be happy, because that’s the way information wants to be. i believe a few of mr. doctorow’s stories will be in that litter. consider the aether boinged!

    (and no, i’m not even high)

  63. p.s. there’s no need to view these things as binaries. i don’t much care for e-waste or dead trees, but i’ll take the good with the bad and get my read on. print out pdfs with one hand and upload copyrighted works with the other.

  64. The late add of only nonfiction doesn’t change anything for me – I only buy nonfiction anymore. The fiction I re-read is already hardcovers in my personal library.

    Keep the hardcovers coming.

  65. Hmph…I’m too busy to read BB for a few days, and of course something like this comes up.

    I’m a bookbinder (amateur; there’s not a lot of money in it), so I know a bit about the structures of books. Most hardcover books being sold these days are not the durable, easy to disassemble for scanning or rebinding objects that people think they are.

    Today’s hardback books are basically large format paperbacks with a hard cover. The spine is glued, not sewn, so they have no more structural integrity than their cheaper cousins. The hard covers provide some protection against hard knocks, but they won’t survive any more readings than a paperback.

    In some ways, they are actually even worse. The covers on a hardback book are larger than the rest of the pages. This means there’s a gap at the bottom edge, and the weight of the book is held in suspension instead of resting on the shelf. Although this keeps the pages cleaner, it also fights gravity. And, eventually, gravity wins, pulling the lower front corner down to the shelf, which deforms the spine at the top. A glued spine tends to hold its deformed shape more than a sewn one (think of a well-used telephone book).

    I have some ex-library glued hardcovers, and their spines are pretty badly misshapen. And I can’t take them apart and re-sew them, because there’s nothing to sew.

    In many ways, modern books are incompatible with things like the Repair Manifesto. I still own a lot of them, and I love making more, but I find it sad.

  66. oh yeah i went to a bookbinding workshop a few years ago. that was really fun. i wanna get back into it. any good websites for noobs?

  67. Publishers could give people the option for a POD hardcover if those people don’t mind the wait. I just ordered about a dozen books yesterday from Amazon, just following the trail of recommendations from one to the other (I needed no live human help). About 50% was hard cover, and I don’t mind spending the extra because I have a book fetish. I Ordered Stross’s new one! The days of impulse buying of hardcovers isn’t going to be around for much longer–they just cost too much.

  68. I must confess: as I read this, I thought Mr. Spinrad was attempting some kind of Jonathan Swift “Modest Proposal” satire. Not as dark surely, but digital billboards in Times Square–and ONLY Times Square?–surrounded by curtains and Doric columns with which to draw critical attention to their subjects? I thought surely he was being metaphorical, but his responses in the comments don’t bear that out. Unless, as I still suspect, this is a put-on–a sort of sanctioned trolling to get us all to defend an outmoded medium we don’t want to let go of.

    I’m an author of young adult fiction, and I know my books sell far better in paperback than they do in hardback. I also know why the hardback is initially published: to get attention and get reviews. Mr. Spinrad is certainly right in that regard. In many ways, first-run hardbacks for authors whose books are NOT expected to go into multiple hardcover print runs are generally not a financially sound idea. With my first book I got lucky–the hardcover sales exceeded expectations, and it went into three printings before it was eventually retired in favor of the paperback version. With my next two novels, I was not so fortunate. Neither one sold out its hardcover first printing, and though they are both still “in print,” one of those books is already out in paperback, and I suspect both hardcover editions will be remaindered before getting to a second printing.

    In today’s publishing world though, it would have been more risky to put those two books out first as paperbacks, simply because they would have been overlooked by reviewers and trade journals. “Paperback original” in the publishing world carries much the same baggage as “direct to video” does in the film world–if it wasn’t “good enough” for a hardcover release, why review it? That’s a gross generalization, of course, and there are many genres (sci-fi comes immediately to mind, particularly with its many respected indie houses) where the print format of a book matters not to many trade review journals.

    But when you consider that more and more book review pages and journals are drying up, and that those that still exist have a limited amount of space dedicated to reviews, it’s only natural that they will use criteria like original print format when deciding which books to review. It’s a problem endemic to the industry. When I saw the headline for this post, I came to it with a question already in mind: “But what about reviews?” Mr. Spinrad addresses that problem, but I still have issues with his solution.

    And yet…just now as I write this, I am reminded of the fashion industry, with its seasonal shows. New lines are sent down runways in the fashion centers of the world, and the media swarm to them to take pictures and interview the creators. THe original dresses–think of them as “hardcover originals,” if you will–are meant to be sold off as one of a kind pieces, with derivative (again, “paperbacks,” if you will) to be sold to the general public later. If publishing could somehow coordinate that kind of event, they might have something–events in many cities that draw attention to books he way hardcovers and other promotional efforts do. (And as a book lover, I would make it an annual pilgrimage.)

    At the same time, I wonder why we’re talking at all about a physical space, or even ads on PBS, when we have the internet.

  69. There are “real” case-wrap hard covers, and “fake” hard covers (perfect bound books with “hard” covers). The later are much cheaper. I see them in libraries too. Of course they don’t last any longer than the regular perfect-bound paperbacks. But they look like normal hard cover, complete with dust jackets.

  70. The idea is so right but the implementation is soooo wrong.

    I ignore billboards. That’s what this fix is. Yes some people will pay attention but not the people you want. You want readers to pay attention, not The Herd.

    Here’s an idea — Print the first chapter in a newspaper. Expensive-seeming, reliable, great distribution, everything a hardcover represents and it has the added bonus that book readers drool over — it is theirs and they don’t need to print it out.

  71. I read through 2/3 of the post thinking it was Swiftian satire. Now I’m flabbergasted that Mr. Sprinrad is serious. He actually *wants* to put all those children in ovens!

    I’m in the “I heart hardcovers” camp. I buy hardcovers and I download free books and if I love the free download, I buy it as a hardcover too.

    A billboard in one city in one country? Why not convert the book to a cartoon for dissemination on YouTube? Equally redonkulous.

    It’s an interesting theory that hardcovers are simply for marketing but I think it fails any number of empirical tests.

  72. Setting up a single billboard in a single city to let the agenda setters know what the agenda is this week strikes me as a terrible idea. It also overlooks the sheer number of books published. You know, even if — by some miracle — the agenda-setting billboard became … well, the agenda-setting billboard … what happens to the other twenty books published the same week as Malcolm Gladwell’s latest?

    Hardcovers may mostly lose money, but they have the potential to turn a profit. A billboard doesn’t. It’ll always be a billboard no matter how you dress it up.

    Also, who’s to say book buyers are going to listen? Hardcovers put thousands of books in front of thousands of readers and get them to talk about the book they just read. And then the paperback comes out nine months or a year or a year and a half later and thousands of people have already heard about, know a little about it because their pal at work told them about it, tried to check it out at the library but there was a wait, and now here it is. Even if they’ve heard no talk, they saw the cover and the name on the “new in hardcover” shelf at the front of the store last year and it rings a little bell. A billboard tells a couple hundred media people what a publisher would like them to write about. Not even in the same league as far as getting the word out.

    I dunno. I don’t see it.

  73. @53

    I hate hard covers. If I am not desperately keen to read a newly published book I wait until the paper back is out. The few hard backs I have bought over the past years because I couldn’t wait are a real source of irritation whenever I tidy up my book shelf.

  74. @82 Samurai– Great analogy with the fashion industry, great idea! Yes, a sort of “book week” — now that’s really the way to do it! Better than the signs, better than TV or the internet. Maybe some authors are shy and antisocial, but they’re not going to do well anyway. Thanks!

  75. I don’t have the money or space for hardcovers (studio apartment), so I’d much rather they just went straight to paperbacks. For that matter, hardcovers are harder for me to carry with me or lend out, too – they’re heavy! And part of the reason hardcovers aren’t making the money anymore is that trade paperbacks – the big non-standard-size guys – are more expensive and more commmon than they used to be. When all you had was hardcover and mass-market, more people bought the hardcovers.

    As for libraries, they often buy books in a special, more-sturdily-constructed “library edition” anyway.

  76. Both PBs and HCs are expensive, but PBs seem _more_ expensive relative to size and quality. And longevity, certainly. If I am truly interested in a book (ie, know that I want it around for more than a handful of years), I buy it in HC.

    Old, yellow, crumbling PBs are interesting — if somebody else owns them.

  77. @87 Pspinrad “Maybe some authors are shy and antisocial, but they’re not going to do well anyway.” Um… please, please, please tell me this is your idea of a joke or some kind of wry ironic statement. It’s a bit early for April Fool’s, but I’ll take it.

  78. I was always taught in economics that hardbacks were an example of catering to the part of a market which is willing to pay more a service while the paperback represents the standard product. It means you can get a bit more revenue while not scaring off the lower end of the market who only want the basic product (and to pay the basic price).

    It’s a definite hot button topic to get page views and comments, it certainly worked for me. You might as well have an anti-steampunk post on BoingBoing tbh. Books are another pillar for a large portion of readers on

  79. Personally, I LOVE this idea. Publishers can spam New York to hell and back with their latest Twilight book or Al Roker autobiography. I don’t care, I don’t live there. I can get the few (and getting fewer these days) books I actually want without waiting for them to drop in price to “affordable.”

    About hardcovers: how in the name of sweet zombie jesus are they an effective marketing ploy? I’m supposed to go out and plop down $20-25 for a random (but durable!) piece of drek that odds are I’m not even going to like? Whereas books that DO sell like that are THEN released in a small, cheap, temporary form? Isn’t that completely ass-backwards? Shouldn’t paperbacks be the unknowns, and hardcovers the books I’m actually going to read again? There must be something I’m not seeing, because I can’t be the only one befuddled here.

    If I were to piss in the “save teh book industry” pot, my suggestion would be “more free stuff.” There are a lot of authors out there, more than I have the time to read to separate out the good stuff from the mary sue erotica. Having to physically buy a total unknown is just another hurdle to this, one that’s bitten me too many times. If each publisher would release a representative novel of each of their authors, that would go a long way toward getting them into the public eye. To some extent, this is already happening, see: Baen Free Library, Cory, etc, but it can’t come soon enough.

  80. Many commenters seem to assume that hardcovers are on the way out and paperbacks are going to stay. Sounds a bit weird to me. I suppose those e-book reader thingies are going to gobble up all the market share now occupied by mass-market paperbacks.

    These are the books publishers do their very best to produce as cheap as possible. You know, squeeze in the smallest type they can get away with, the tiniest margins possible (just enough to keep the print from getting cut off), cheap pulp paper that turns yellow and brittle after a year, garish covers cheaply glued on which will tear loose from their cracking binding after being read once or twice – in short, the books people don’t really care about except as a cheap, if necessary disposable carrier of text.

    That’s what I want a decent e-book reader for. No more hunting for a badly damaged, used copy of out-of-print classics like Hardwired, say, which needs to be shipped across the big pond from a small used-books dealer. I don’t give a shit about the physical thing, I just want to read that cool panzer run sequence in chapter 3. I also don’t need an embossed metallicized title on a cover which is going to rip loose soon, anyway (and adds 25 cents to the price of a cheap-as-possible book, for nothing).

    Then there’s another piece of the market. Those are the books I like to weigh in my hands and run my fingers over the lovely type and feel the paper and put them in my bookcase and feel good about the way it looks – the whole bibliophile shebang. It’s already been talked to death, so I’ll stop here and just say: these are going to remain hardcover, because some people want them that way, and as long as enough people are buying them, they’re going to be made and sold. (I just hope there’s going to be less of the cheap glue binding and more of the good typography.)

    So, with the cheap-skate sector being taken over by e-books, I think hardcovers are going to be even more of a prestige thing for the big publishers. I also think they’re going to be more expensive. If it turns out that nobody is willing to pay the print price for an e-book, publishers – it is to be hoped – will increase the price difference between e-books and print books, probably by making the former a bit cheaper and the latter a bit more expensive.

    Of course there are not only the big publishers, but also lots of small publishing houses. Many of them cater for very specific, very small circles and specialize in producing beautifully made artifacts, some even going so far as to hand-set the type. In lead. Obviously, these are never going to go into the e-book market, and they simply don’t do softcovers

    The rest of the spectrum, I don’t know. Textbooks might well vanish as physical objects, or they might not. Comics? Probably not. Trade paperbacks might well stay, at least for some time, for those who like a book now and then that is a bit well-made and pleasant to read, but not too bulky and expensive.

    This is about the way I suspect (and hope) things are going to turn out. The book business as a whole is probably going to take quite a beating, but if publishers realize e-books could be their friends and not the enemy, and embrace the concept, we could see a new golden age, where nothing is ever out of print and you will have to look up the meaning of backlist. Oh glory.

    That crazy scheme, however, I can not see ever working out. You can’t just invest an arbitrary object with all the meaning attached to, say, well-made books, which they accumulated over centuries in which it was the single most important carrier of information and cultural substance. Sounds a bit like Humpty-Dumpty to me.

  81. ornith – you’re not the only one buying books. Plenty of people won’t want to wait for the paperback editions. But you’re welcome to do so. It’s not like there’s a shortage of good books in the word available in paperback.

    But if you want the new $fill-in-the-blank edition rightnowOMG, you buy it in hardcover, and publishers make a bit more money.

    And that’s a good thing for all concerned.

  82. Yes, by all means, make books less durable, less fun to read, and less valuable. You will have done the world a signal service.

    You can’t just invest an arbitrary object with all the meaning attached to, say, well-made books, which they accumulated over centuries in which it was the single most important carrier of information and cultural substance.

    True ‘dat!

    I’d like to echo sianmang @67’s comments: the quality of guestblogger contributions is tanking faster than the value of the Dow. First turgid exegeses-cum-advertisements for Lost, then global warming denials, and now this dreck? We’re all tolerant, I think, of the “philosopher in running shoes” problematics with bloggers–writing in areas outside one’s expertise, the need to craft arguments and strike a rhetorical tone, the inability to offer painstakingly in-depth analysis, etc.–but dear lord, such stuff and nonsense, such humbuggery!

  83. I heard (years ago) that hardbacks had the same manufacturing cost as the equivalent book in paperback (I assume trade paperback.) FUD?

  84. The billboard thing is a bit naff, but this thread definitely made me think more deeply about the purpose of hardcovers. I personally hate them (so pointy!) – if it’s a question of making more $ on a new release, I’d just as soon pay more for a newly-released paperback, and then have it drop in price after 6 months or so, skipping the hardcover phase entirely. As mentioned above, they’re really not that much more sturdy or long-lasting than the paperback.

    As for being worth more on the used market – most of the used bookstores in Boston only accept hardcovers in rare cases, and once a book is remaindered/comes out in paperback the hardcover version’s pretty much worthless online.

  85. I would mourn the passing of Hardcovers.

    I grew up surrounded by books, and always noticed
    that the hardcovers lasted longer. They are not
    always more rugged, but they get more respect.

    I hardly ever read a hardcover book while walking
    in the rain, and hardly ever cram a hardcover book
    into my hip pocket.

    It is no coincidence that the oldest classic
    science fiction in my library are hardcover,
    for many of these books, the only existing copies
    that I could find were first editions, hardcover.

    There are a few exceptions; I have a few old
    paperbacks that I love, and which I have not
    been able to replace. So I try not to read them
    more than once every few years.

    Someone mentioned print-on-demand … yeah, that
    would be really really nice; it seems to me that
    such a facility would make the phrase “out of
    print” confront me less often.

  86. Another problem with Holt’s plan is that it seems to buy into the inane (and inaccurate) stereotype that most people who read books live in NYC.

  87. Books are meant to open easily and lie flat. older hardcovers and comic book bindings achieve this modest goal. This whole discussion became possible when publishers stopped making true hardcover books. They now just glue them into a stiff card “binding” which may or may not be properly made. Most clamshell so they cannot be opened without effort and close unless one props a milk bottle on one side and a toaster on the other. Most become “cocked” (bent out of shape) after a single reading. In a few years many start to lose pages.
    It doesn’t have to be this way. There is a great German binding process for paperbacks in which the text block is not glued to the spine, but rather to a slip sheet. however, this process costs a few pennies more per copy.
    There would be hard to sell any electronic books if publishers still bound them properly.

  88. Where is this argument that hardcovers are a loss leader? I find this a difficult pill to swallow. When you have vertical integration hardback books shouldn’t cost a whole lot more than a paperback to produce. Whoever told you that hardcovers are a loss leader for 95% of the industry was obviously lying to you.

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