Let’s begin this with some manner of controversial statement. Specifically:
The trade paperback is dead.
I attended an excellent talk about the future of the digital book hosted by Kate Eltham (@Kate_eltham) and Richard Nash (@R_Nash), and it crystallised many of the thoughts that had already been coalescing in my mind and bumping into each other to create ill-formed monstrosities.
To whit: it is important to separate the book as container and the book as content. I won’t delve into these insights as Kate did a far better job and I would only be paraphrasing her poorly. The point is, separating the container from the content gives us a perspective that will allow me to clarify my earlier statement: the paperback book is dead.
Let us ignore the faux-hardcover volumes that have been polluting the Australian marketplace for years. These are books that are the same proportion as hardcover books, and attract a similar price, yet have none of the quality or durability of the originals that they so poorly shadow. I’m referring more specifically to the trade paperbacks that I grew up with and of which I have several shelves full.
Trade paperbacks exist because there was a market need to provide content as cheaply as possible. They have no artistic or other merit; they clutter your shelves but add no aesthetic or collectible value. Unless you read them carefully (as I do) they present a vista of crushed, flaking, discoloured spines to your visitors. They exist only to get the story into your brain as cheaply as possible.
Clearly, digital books done right are superior to trade paperbacks in every way, except that of providing an eyesore and filling your shelves. At this time (July 2010), and especially in Australia, the digital publishing industry is lagging approximately 10 years behind the music publishing industry, and seems doomed to repeat all its many mistakes, even while authors such as Scott Sigler, Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross are reaping amazing rewards from their approach to digital distribution. Of course, digital files still need to be affordable, unlocked, and in a standardised format (at this stage .epub seems the best, but I am no expert), before they are any threat to paperbacks, but the cheap unlocked digital book is an inevitability, given market forces, so I won’t rant further about that at this time,
A digital book, even in its most simplistic form as plain text in digital format, allows us to enjoy books like we enjoy movies: an on-demand access to our entertainment. Plain old digital books allow us to download a book each time we want to read it, instead of acquiring it and storing it in the interim. Remember, for the vast majority of the time that you own a book, you are not reading it. It makes more sense to simply pull the digital file out of storage when, every year or so, you get the urge to revisit a narrative you remember fondly.
What we are left with then, to offset the purely digital, disposable future of books, is a resurgence in the value of the book-as-container. As I said earlier, most of your time with a book is spent not reading it, and the quality-bound, beautiful, durable (and sometimes collectible) container has a new lease on life in this world; it serves an aesthetic purpose while it’s not being read.
What all this rambling is trying to show is that hardcover books are a better container than a trade paperback, and a digital file is a cheaper medium for content than a trade paperback.
The trade paperback no longer has a purpose in the publishing world. The trade paperback is dead.
Opinions and counterarguments from people in the actual publishing industry who have an actual clue about it, as opposed to my ill-informed rambling, are very welcome in the comments section below.