Final chapter for the paperback?

In 2009, Penguin Group, one of the most successful publishers in the world, printed a charming history called The Book of Penguin, in the slim, orange paperback format that the company made famous in the mid-20th century.

In 2009, Penguin Group, one of the most successful publishers in the world, printed a charming history called The Book of Penguin, in the slim, orange paperback format that the company made famous in the mid-20th century.

It begins: "This is a book about the most advanced form of entertainment ever. You can pause it at any time. Rewind and replay it if you miss a bit ... It'll fit in your pocket. It's interactive ... It's pretty cheap. It's completely free to share. And it lasts a lifetime. This is a book about books."

If that micro-manifesto sounds slightly defensive, it might be because that highly advanced form of entertainment is starting to look a tad outmoded. E-books are ever more popular, eminently practical, and pleasantly cheap; hardcovers may always have a degree of shelf-worthy cachet. But where paperbacks fit into the evolving publishing landscape is less clear. It seems possible that paperbacks may lose their spot in the marketplace altogether.

If that sounds hyperbolic, look at the numbers. The US 2012 BookStats survey (one of the more reliable metrics of book-format sales industry-wide) revealed that 2011's e-book net sales were double those of 2010.

In the all-important "adult fiction" category, e-book revenue - for the first time - outpaced that of print. Amazon probably saw that coming: in 2011, it reported higher sales of e-books than paperbacks and hardcovers combined. And the trend seems destined to hold steady.

The recently released 2013 BookStats report observes "an even more widespread popularity of e-books than in past years", noting that e-book sales have grown 45 per cent since 2011 and "now constitute 20 per cent of the trade market".

Meanwhile, according to Publishers Weekly, between 2011 and 2012 the number of trade paperbacks sold fell by 8.6 per cent, and total mass-market paperback sales fell by a whopping 20.5 per cent.

In Australia, sales figures for e-books are vague. As yet there is no body tracking sales (as Nielsen BookScan does here with physical book sales).

"Given the newness of the market, and the fact that it is largely dominated by the big publishers and the big retailers [like Amazon], it is pretty hard to get hard numbers," says Eloise Keating, news editor at Weekly Books Newsletter.

"That being said, a number of the big publishers have told us this year that their e-books sales are around 17-18 per cent of total sales. But it's hard to find any concrete figures, largely because at the moment most e-book sales are coming from the big companies and it's information they don't necessarily want to - or can't - share."

Malcolm Neil, the Asia-Pacific regional director of content acquisition and publisher relations for Kobo - the second-largest e-book retailer in Australia, after Amazon - says that e-book sales account for more than 10 per cent of book sales in Australia. "I would use the word 'easily' - my numbers say the numbers are much higher. But industry people always contend what I say - they claim I'm boosting e-books. I used to be CEO of the Booksellers Association, so I have a long relationship with books, but e-books are where the action is and sales have grown incredibly rapidly. We've had triple-digit sales growth last year."

Conventional wisdom holds that e-book sales eat into sales of paperbacks but not of hardcovers. So if e-book sales are growing exponentially, it seems fair to assume that paperback sales will plateau, dip and eventually fall to justify the cost of printing them - so long, softcovers.

But there are many who believe reports of the paperback's death have been greatly exaggerated - or just plain invented.

Gerry Donaghy, book buyer at the largest indie bookseller in the US - Powell's in Portland, Oregon - says the major publishers have a compelling reason to perpetuate a paperbacks-are-dying narrative: because paperbacks are the most common books to be bought second-hand.

"Publishers have a vested interest in keeping the e-book dominant - it allows them to control the ecosystem, because there are no used e-book sales," Donaghy says.

A paperback copy of, say, Eat Pray Love can be sold and resold ad infinitum, thanks to Amazon and your local used bookstore. But for multiple people to read that same book on a Kindle, each of them has to buy it for $10. And if Capitol Records' court victory in March - which found that MP3 files cannot be resold - is any precedent, e-books will likely retain their value in a similar way.

Donaghy also cautions against any assumption that e-books are taking over publishing unilaterally. E-books are a juggernaut in genre fiction categories such as romance, mystery and science fiction, but in many categories they have yet to gain significant traction. For example, popular narrative non-fiction - the likes of Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project and the pop-science books of Mary Roach - sell only modestly in digital formats, despite robust print sales. Also worth noting: not every backlist title has been converted to an e-book.

Donaghy also puts stock in the classic argument for the indie bookstore: consumers need a physical place and a knowledgable staff to find their next great read. Paperbacks make that hand-selling scenario infinitely more palatable. "People don't buy $35 hardcovers on impulse," Donaghy says, "but a $13 trade paperback can engender that kind of purchase. There's still a debate about whether you can really discover anything online, but I tend to think you can't."

Richard Nash, head of alternative publishing formats Cursor and Red Lemonade and a general shaker-upper of publishing paradigms, is not convinced that the fate of paperbacks is appreciably different from that of hardcovers.

"Technology doesn't really disappear or get vanquished," he says, "but its purposes migrate. The purpose of a horse in the 19th century was transportation; nowadays the purpose of a horse is entertainment and gambling."

The purpose of print books will evolve, too, Nash believes. They will become art objects imbued with nostalgia, akin to vinyl records and Polaroid cameras.

As e-books increasingly become our main means of digesting literature, print books of every binding will stop being mass-produced and start becoming more "bespoke", Nash says.

But he hastens to add that it's at least another decade before that happens. "Physical books have a tremendous hold on our imaginations. The changes will be quite slow and incremental."

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