Hardback Vs Paperback – Is this, too, a gender issue?

by |May 18, 2011

A complaint has been lodged in the UK and echoed here in Australia – women writers of fiction are not being taken seriously. Case in point: Fewer women than men are published in hardback.

This point may seem meaningless. The economy and ease of the paperback makes it the choice of any sensible consumer, anyway. Why should women care whether they are published in hardback? Especially when we consider that the number of female readers outstrips the number of male readers, that women dominate publishing from the top to the bottom (women are publishers, agents, editors, writers, reviewers, bloggers, judges, booksellers), that women read more often and buy more books than men which means they direct publishing trends by their choices and that when given the choice of hardback or paperback, few choose the more expensive option.

So what if a few male authors are published in hardback, are reviewed, sell in miserable numbers and disappear again?

There is history here. The hardback is not just a format, it is an institution. The hardback is the aristocrat of books. For centuries it was the exclusive property of the rich. The hardback is solid and made to last. It is more expensive to produce and thus more expensive to buy. A hardback is to keep. It is for works of a serious nature – History, Art, Philosophy, Science, Literature… It is to cherish. It must be delivered into the hands of posterity. And most importantly, in this case, as this is one of the reasons women need to be published in hardback, too – a hardback can be reviewed in serious journals, reviews and newspapers.

The paperback has a different history. At the end of the nineteenth century the mass production of books – first the cheap hardback and then the paperback – sparked a revolution in self-education. One might ask – would the labour movement have achieved its astonishing successes so quickly without the aid of the paperback? I don’t think so. If the hardback was the aristocrat, the paperback was the revolutionary. But such glories would not last. The democratisation of information had begun. Just as the Internet was heralded as a way for the exceptional to exchange scholarly information and quickly became a device for the dissemination of nudey rudey pictures, images of buffoons ‘planking’ and inane commentary on Twitter about the latest episode of MasterChef or Glee, the paperback was soon befouled by those it had the greatest capacity to assist. Works of a serious nature were now made available to the whole populace and what did the populace choose to read? Smut, of course. Thence forward the paperback was seen by some to be mean, low, base, unworthy of review.

In short, according to tradition, all serious writing is published in hardback. Today, much writing by women is not being released in hardback editions. Therefore, we must conclude that most writing by women is not serious.

Do you think women writers have a point here? Should they insist on being published in hardback? Is the preference of their readers for the paperback a reflection on the quality of the work contained in its paper covers? Is there a male lead conspiracy to trivialise the views of women?

Tell me what you think – leave a comment below…

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About the Contributor

While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. ​Now, as the Director of Books at booktopia.com.au, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection. His novel, The Girl on the Page, will be published by HarperCollins Australia in October, 2018.

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  • May 18, 2011 at 10:41 am

    OK, I’ll bite (and not just because you have my new novel on this post- but thanks :)) To be honest, I’d never considered the question until I saw the tweet by Linda Grant about the topic. As a newish author, I wouldn’t be up for a hardback here anyway (though I was published in HB in the US- but that’s a lot more common there), so I’m not personally offended. To be honest, I’ve never really considered today’s hardbacks an indication of quality anyway… Bryce Courtenay has a new one out every year, doesn’t he? Yet I’m pretty sure none of the three books nominated for this year’s Miles Franklin came out in that format.
    I understand and appreciate the historical context, and that novels considered likely to be ‘important’ or ‘serious’ still get the increasingly-rare HB treatment here (eg. Breath and Lovesong in the past years), but it’s not something that has ever bothered or outraged me- mainly because as a reader I find hardbacks way too expensive and thus completely irrelevant. As to the broader question though, and the related recent debates re women writers being reviewed less often than men, and the need for a female-specific literary prize, a la the Orange in the UK… maybe that’s for another blog!

    • May 18, 2011 at 1:37 pm

      The ambivalence within many of the comments on twitter suggests that issue is a dead one. People aren’t buying hardbacks in Oz because it is a stupid, clunky and expensive format. Case closed. But ideas are sticky. The prestige associated with the hardback will linger.

      As you say, in the US, the hardback lives on. The US continues to publish the hardback first even whilst other countries are publishing the first edition of the same book in a paperback.

      And further, traditions in publishing and bookselling – as we have seen with the emergence of the ebook – are hard to crack. Things move slowly. It was said in one of the articles I read recently that many of the long established and reputable papers do not review books published directly into paperback. They still believe that the paperback is for pulp fiction, disposable fiction. These review papers see the format choice made by the publisher as a sieve, sorting the wheat from the chaff. If this is true, if these reviewers are ignoring writers of quality fiction when they are pushed straight into paperback, then it does become an issue. And further, if it is discovered that more women than men are being sorted into the paperback pile… well, then we have a real problem…

    • May 18, 2011 at 3:13 pm

      I’ll admit that i did used to spend a great deal of time, money and effort ensuring that the books I wanted to buy I bought in hardcover.
      After that, I did discover that hardcover books are quite awkward and cumbersome to read. They do look good initially on the book case, but after a while, the dust jackets started to irk me and I decided to remove them all. Picture 200 odd hardcover books on my book shelf in their maiden deep blues greens and maroons. I was still left with an inability to read then in bed as they made my hands go dead.

      I for one am glad they aren’t as common now. Long live the small compact paperback. Well, as long as I’m not buying the book as an audiobook or an ebook.

  • May 18, 2011 at 3:45 pm

    Imagine if everyone who is spending time arguing about this instead spent it trying to create truly great content. What a world that would be…

    • May 18, 2011 at 3:50 pm

      Imagine all the people – living life in peace woo ho hoo oo.

      You’re right. But to get great content you need to read great content. And to encourage more great content, great content must be reviewed. And to get reviewed, it would seem, you need to be published in hardback.

      You, you may say I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only one. I hope someday you will join us …

  • May 18, 2011 at 5:56 pm

    I think it’s great that you’re raising this point – not because hard back is a burning issue, but because it might lead to more people thinking about whether women writers as a whole are taken as seriously as men by critics and reviewers. I don’t think they are. It always irks me when any one talks about there being a ‘great American or Australian or whatever writer” they are invariably talking about a man, unless the woman is dead, like Harper Lee.
    Do we have to die to be held up as icons???

    • To kKll An Author

      May 18, 2011 at 10:36 pm

      Harper Lee is still alive! Excellent points otherwise 🙂

  • May 18, 2011 at 11:43 pm

    Actually, I think the hardback is an annoying marketing ploy to get readers to part with more cash.

    For me, it’s less about gender and more about genre. Many blockbuster “genre fiction” (I hate that term) releases are hardback – just because the publishers know we’re not patient enough to wait until the paperback version comes out. The last three Harry Potter books, for instance. The last Dan Brown. The Jean M Auel novel that just was just released. All hardcover.

    Personally, I love hardbacks, but own few. The ones I do own are mostly second hand. With yellow pages and someone else’s name written on the title page in pencil.

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