When paperbacks were the publishing industry’s Public Enemy Number One
August 14, 2012 | 11:38 pm
By Dan Eldridge
From mental_floss: Half a century before e-books turned publishing upside down, a different format threatened to destroy the industry.
The next time you find yourself tangled up in one of those endlessly frustrating conversations about how e-books and e-readers and the digital culture in general are threatening to destroy the publishing industry as we know it, you’d better believe you’re going to wish you had a photocopied version of Andrew Shaffer’s latest mental_floss feature on hand.
Why? Simple: Because instead of huffing and puffing and arguing yourself hoarse, you could instead simply hand the photocopied article to whomever you happen to be engaged in conversation with, and then, without saying so much as a single word, simply turn around and walk away. (With a knowing grin on your face and an intellectually superior spirit in your heart, of course.)
Not to put too fine a point on it, but Shaffer’s article, “How Paperbacks Transformed the Way Americans Read,” is a near-perfect example of the old chestnut that “those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it.” To be a bit more specific, you could probably even say that “those who know nothing whatsoever about the history of the publishing business probably shouldn’t go around prognosticating about it’s forthcoming demise, lest they make complete asses of themselves.”
But regardless of all that, Shaffer’s article does a wonderful job of reminding us that as recently as 1939, the American paperback book was a newfangled invention that many publishing industry insiders assumed would destroy the business as they knew it. At the very least, it was widely assumed that readers everywhere would abandon the hardcover book in favor of the significantly cheaper paperback. (Sound familiar?)
Some seven decades on, of course, we all know what happened: Hardcover books are still very much being produced today, although most readers regard them as something of a luxury or niche item. American companies that once produced nothing but hardcovers eventually branched out into paperbacks, and all was well with the world.
In fact, the history of the hardcover book is not entirely unlike that of the vinyl record. The cassette tape, after all, didn’t destroy the record, nor did the CD, and nor will the MP3 or whatever might arrive next. The vinyl record has simply become an enthusiast’s item, and indeed, the music industry somehow manages to march on. Today, musicians make money primarily by touring and selling merchandise. And in another 50 years, the model will almost certainly have reinvented itself once again.
If you happen to have a spare 30 minutes, click over to Shaffer’s article and give it a good, slow read. (And don’t forget to forget to print out a few extra copies. I suspect they’ll come in handy before you know it.)