Paperbacks: where fiction sells

My friend Sean Carman extolled the virtues of paperback fiction last month, saying:

I don’t like hardcover editions of novels. There, I said it. Am I alone in this? Paperbacks are so friendly. They bend considerately in your hand, and turning the page requires only that you gently release the pressure on your right thumb to make the odd-numbered page jump obediently to its even-numbered side. They are also light, and travel well. So accommodating!

I agree. Paperbacks are superior in every way — except on the subway, where if you drop a hardcover you can remove the dustjacket and not contaminate your hands with floor germs — unless you’re a collector. (I’m not. I’ve said it before, but I put a book in my bag for five minutes and it looks like it was mangled by wild dogs.)

Sean and I aren’t the only readers holding out for paperbacks, evidently.

As Rachel Donadio recently observed, novels that aren’t best sellers in hardback can find “new life in paperback.” She cited Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex and Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time as examples, and pointed out that “some titles seem to take off only in the independents.”

Among these is Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘The Namesake, which “has sold steadily in paperback, with 325,000 copies in print,” but has never placed on a major chain list.

I visited lots of local indie bookstores over the holidays, and I discovered that many excellent smaller stores — Three Lives and 192 Books, for instance — wait for paperbacks.

Customers at these establishments are understandably reluctant to shell out $20+ for a hardback when the paperback will appear a year later. So a significant proportion of indies simply don’t order hardcovers at all.

I’ve been wondering how all of this plays into the current “fiction is dead/nonfiction reigns” wisdom. And along comes the Literary Saloon’s careful examination of a recent, somewhat muddled study of British “fastsellers” (defined as “books published in paperback for the first time in the calendar year”), which seems to establish that “88 of the top 100 best-selling paperbacks first published in the UK in 2004 were works of fiction.”

The Literary Saloon’s proprietor says:

People (an astonishing number of them) keep telling us that non-fiction is more popular than fiction — relying, it seems, on anecdotal evidence (and maybe Sam Tanenhaus’ non-fiction heavy coverage at the NYTBR), but here, it would appear, is yet more proof that it’s simply not true (at least as far as the sales-totals — i.e. reader-interest– go). Yes, paperbacks first published in 2004 are only part of the market, but as far as units sold go they made an impressive dent. And fiction — as always — dominates.


Subsequent posts of possible interest: Novelist back in print, electronically; Reading on the iPhone 1 and 2; Practical city living #12: Your cell on the subway tracks; When is a book not a book?; Publishing and writers in the Great Depression.


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