Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

Are ebooks the new paperbacks?

It’s not uncommon knowledge that the way ebooks have infiltrated the publishing industry has caused nothing short of hysteria. Publishers, not usually noted for their ability to adapt quickly to changing market conditions, cry foul against ebooks and their alleged attempt to destroy the publishing industry as we know it. Who will continue buy real books when there are these cheaper, lighter, hipper versions? What role can the publisher possibly fulfill when an author can bypass traditional methods and publish their book online in mere minutes?

Intimidating questions, yes; but rational, perhaps not. Publishers should be unafraid of this industry upheaval because we’ve seen this before, and everything worked all right. To what do I refer? The paperback revolution.

Penguin paperback books


Paperbacks began to see a rise in popularity in America in the early twentieth century. Several factors contributed to their rise, including the institution of consignment for book retailers, cheap paperback copies being shipped overseas to soldiers during World War II (these soldiers would return to the States with a newfound affinity for the smaller, cheaper editions), and a rise in the number of Americans who became college educated after the GI Bill in 1944.

In 1939, Simon & Schuster opened an imprint, Pocket Books, that would be one of the first imprints dedicated exclusively to mass-market paperback publishing. Retired appazoogler Emily Picillo noted in her excellent summary of the paperback revolution back in November that:

[The paperback revolution] also received a considerable boost from a postwar intellectual zeitgeist that carried on into the 1960s, which made a copy of Jack Kerouac or Hermann Hesse sticking out of your back pocket the ultimate symbol of subcultural cool.

Sound familiar? What’s cooler than toting around an Apple iPad or Kindle Fire? Like paperbacks, ebooks are also more inexpensive than their hardcover counterparts. But also like paperbacks, ebooks are typically of lesser quality. With the ability to self-publish digitally comes the increased opportunity for poor writers to impose their work on the book-buying public; heck, even great writers who skip the traditional publishing process are more susceptible to bad editions (be it from a lack of editing or a lack of technical savvy that’s required to publish an ebook). Last week, Wheaton College English Professor and blogger, Alan Jacobs, shared his experience with digital self-publishing in a post in the Atlantic:

…my experience with digital-only “direct publishing” has given me a renewed appreciation for what traditional publishing houses do for writers. Some of their concerns and priorities may occasionally differ from mine, but they’re not my enemy; and probably not anyone else’s, either. Change produces tension, but let’s not exacerbate the tension by hyperbolic rhetoric.

And paperbacks didn’t cause the extinction of traditional hardcovers: they provided an alternative format for a newly emerging, middle-class demand for inexpensive books in great variety. There were people who still loved their hardcover counterparts and continued to buy them. In fact, many new book buyers that became avid readers because of paperbacks would morph into hardcover collectors themselves years later.

In addition to the similarities between the paperbacks and ebooks, it seems that there is a linear relationship between the increase in ebooks sales and the decline of paperback sales, suggesting an eventual eclipse of the latter. It was reported in April 2011 that in the month of February ebook sales for the first time surpassed the sales of paperbacks. In a September 2011 New York Times article, vice president of publishing services for Bowker, Kelly Gallagher, was quoted as saying,

…as e-books become more affordable and better aligned to the mass-market reader, I would have to say that I don’t think there are encouraging signs that print mass-market books will rise again. When all these things align against a certain format or category, it’s hard to recover.

So you see, publishers, you do still have a purpose when it comes to ebooks. They are simply a new, exciting—sometimes scary—evolution of the good ol’ codex you’re more familiar with. Once we get the technical kinks straightened out, and the pricing war between booksellers, Amazon, libraries, authors, and publishers comes to an end, the book publishing industry might even enjoy a period of comfortable stability: traditional hardcover books will still be needed and desired by certain book buyers, while ebooks will replace the practical function of the mass-market paperback. Personally, I’m looking forward to it!

13 comments on “Are ebooks the new paperbacks?

  1. Keelan Foley
    March 13, 2012

    I don’t think ebooks are the new paperbacks, mainly due to the overall lack of paper. But seriously official ebooks are usually more expensive than paperbacks, usually on par with the cost of hardbacks. Just pop over to amazon and you’ll see what I mean. Yes poor authors have an easier outlet for their work but in the past many inadequate writers have slipped through the net and received many lucrative publishing deals. Personally I believe that anything which can help to disseminate information can only be a beneficial advancement. The printing press has evolved once more.

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      January 22, 2013

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  2. Keira Lyons
    March 13, 2012


    Thanks for your reply! I guess we’d have to agree to disagree on this one. I assume when you say official you’re referring to ebook editions published by traditional houses, not the authors themselves, but even those editions can be riddled with errors and typos. Publishers have not yet mastered the art of ebook design; and the principles of traditional page layout and editing don’t usually translate well to the digital page.

    I also agree that ebooks are a great way to disseminate information, and my argument is that they shouldn’t be feared as something that would make hardcovers obsolete. In that way, they are more like paperbacks than a new dominant format.

  3. Keelan Foley
    March 13, 2012

    By ‘official’ I was differentiating between the legal and not so legal forms of ebooks.

    I do understand your logic but can still see plenty space for the 3 mediums to co-exist as i feel they all serve different purposes.

  4. jennagilligan
    March 13, 2012

    I actually spoke to an editor at a New York publishing house in an informational interview, and she said that her house is experimenting with crashing the paperbacks of their bigger fiction titles–sometimes they’ll wait only a few months instead of the traditional year, because the low-priced ebooks and the hardcovers are released simultaneously, eating into the eventual paperback sales. I wonder what the actual numbers are for ebook vs paperback sales per title. (Didn’t BookScan recently start tracking ebook sales?) While I don’t think we can do away with paperbacks entirely, I do think that publishers will–and probably should–start printing fewer of them.

  5. Keira Lyons
    March 13, 2012

    Hi Jenna!

    I think the release of the ebook at the same time as the hardcover is an Amazonian initiative; it wasn’t always that way. Scott Turow, president of the author’s guild, was just talking about this last week in his letter to members about the agency model investigation. He said, “Just before Amazon introduced the Kindle, it convinced major publishers to break old practices and release books in digital form at the same time they released them as hardcovers. Then Amazon dropped its bombshell: as it announced the launch of the Kindle, publishers learned that Amazon would be selling countless frontlist e-books at a loss.” I would imagine that paperbacks as well as hardcovers are taking a hit because of this. I wonder what publishing all three formats at once would be like? Publishers obviously fear that the ebooks sales would kill print sales, since the major advantage the hardcover has always had over other formats is that it was released first. It would be an interesting experiment anyway! On equal playing ground, which format would prevail?

    I found an article from PaidContent ( saying that BookScan started a partnership with the Wall Street Journal last year to provide data for an ebook bestsellers list, but I don’t see that they offer the ebook sales data publicly just yet. If you find out otherwise, let me know!

  6. AJJenner
    March 15, 2012

    This is a really interesting issue – great article for me to take into consideration as an aspiring writer and not knowing which avenues of publishing to potentially pursue. I personally hope that both paperbacks and ebooks can co-exist together, so that readers will have a choice. I have a kindle which is great for when I am travelling, but I still like to see my favourite books on my bookshelf. There is something about the smell and feel of a loved book, even if it is a paperback. Amanda

  7. Keira Lyons
    March 16, 2012

    Agreed, Amanda. Here’s to hoping print will never die! (But will co-exist amicably with its digital counterpart.)

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