Thursday, March 4, 2010

Collectible Paperbacks

With the book industry very obviously in check, I think that we're in the middle of an interesting trend in publishing with regards to how publishers work with the format of their books. Physical book sales are down and publishers are scrambling to hold on to those of us who still buy. And with sales down, we're seeing an increase in effort put towards book design. If we're going to pay $25 or higher for a book, it should look and feel like a special book---and we're seeing that more and more. Roberto Bolano's 2666 was stunning in its first formats--simultaneously published as a large hardcover and a slipcased 3-paperback set. Haruki Murakami's US hardcovers all feature wonderful jackets by the great Chip Kidd. UK publishers are frequently offering their books as signed, limited editions with collectors in mind. That most recent Michael Chabon book even had some kind of decoder ring attached to its jacket.

If I were one of those readers on the brink of buying a Kindle, this sort of stuff would probably keep me buying physical books... but I'm not on the brink of buying a Kindle. It hurts to say, but as a devoted book buyer I think there's a lot of greatness that can be taken away from the tricky position of the publishing industry has found itself in. While they're hustling for new buyers, us collectors are rewarded for our commitment.

What I find fascinating is the work some publishers are putting into their paperbacks. Many small presses have found that with a good design it's possible to make a relatively inexpensive paperback edition into that covetable tome that we buyers are looking for these days.

One of my favorite new publishers is Chin Music Press out of Seattle. After about four stunning hardcovers (including Todd Shimoda's Oh! which I highly recommend) they released Big In Japan by M. Thomas Gammarino. Big In Japan is the first in a new line of paperbacks that Chin Music calls their "Kami" editions--I'm told a few more Kami books are due out this quarter and I'm looking forward to seeing how they turn out. As you can see, Big In Japan is a beautiful little book; it's fairly light reading, but I'll shelve it proudly.

Let's also take a look at Peter Mendelsund's work on Osamu Tezuka's Black Jack, published by Vertical, Inc. When Vertical started printing Black Jack they were very clear that this was going to be a monumental undertaking, reprinting all 18 volumes of Tezuka's comics. While this may seem just as daunting for book-buyers (a $300 commitment over the course of three years) they've crafted each of these volumes into something so wonderful to hold that I actually rush out to the bookstore whenever a new volume is released (I've actually marked my calendar for Volume 10).

As a special offer to fans of the comic, Vertical worked with Diamond Distributors to create special limited-edition hardcovers of the first three volumes. Although these limited editions have their perks (a hardcover-only story per volume), as far as their design is concerned I wish they were printed in the original paperback format. Frankly, I think the paperbacks are far superior.

Lastly, to steer away from Japan, here is a line of adventure novels Coralie Bickford-Smith designed for Penguin UK. I've talked about a couple of her projects in previous posts, so I'll let the books speak for themselves here.

Why don't we see more well-designed paperbacks? I think publisher's need to re-think their understanding of format and shake this notion that the paperback is what happens when the hardcover sells out. Just as the thriller/mystery genre cranks out those pocket-sized mass market paperbacks, why can't literary presses work in the opposite direction and make a more elegant, shelf-worthy paperback like the the ones above? If hardcover book prices are creeping higher and higher, someone needs to reclaim that $16-$22 price range and create more softcover books we can all be proud to own.

Currently reading:
Point Omega (Delillo)
Adolf (Osamu Tezuka)

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