John Gapper The decline and fall of the hardback book

The US publishing business is in turmoil, driven by the rise of e-books and the decline of print. It has now reached a turning point with e-book revenues overtaking those of adult hardbacks.

The hardback is under severe pressure globally – UK publishers  increasingly publish “trade paperbacks” initially rather than hardbacks. The hardback survives in the US but its future as a mass product looks dim.

In some ways, that is a shame. I am reading The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan in the US hardback, which is an object of beauty. The Knopf hardcover is finely bound, has an embossed cover of golden suns and moons, and is edged in blood-red.

That said, the hardback list price is $25.95, compared with $12.99 for the more prosaic black and white Kindle version. The margins for Knopf’s parent Random House* on the Kindle edition are higher, while the reader pays half-price.

The effect can clearly be seen in the latest sales figures released by the Association of American Publishers (via GalleyCat). In the first half of 2011, e-book revenues rose 160 per cent to $390m while adult hardback revenues fell 23 per cent to $386m.

As my colleague Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson wrote in April, e-book sales briefly overtook those of adult paperbacks in February but it was an unusual month. Adult paperback sales outstripped e-books in the first half as a whole, falling 18 per cent to $473m.

Publishers traditionally relied on selling hardcovers initially and then paperbacks in a second sales window. That will become implausible in an e-book dominated world; a single window for hardbacks, paperbacks and e-books looms.

Given the price differential, hardcovers seem likely eventually to fade into a niche product while e-books and print-on-demand paperbacks vie for the mass market. Borders’ bankruptcy this week will hasten that process.

(*A declaration of interest: Random House is publishing my first novel in the US next year.)