On the readers' highway through the world of books, next to stunning vistas of the imagination, you also pass the burnt-out wrecks of shiny new predictions. For instance: no one but a blockhead publishes sci-fi. Novels are dead; film is the future. Ink is for antiquarians; the paperless society has arrived. Etc. This new century has seen a boom in prototypes for a brave new world.
The decade since the millennium has sponsored a spike in anxieties about a viable literary culture. This much we know: the book business is being redefined by digital technology as the music business before it, though in a significantly different way.
If there has been one prediction, on which there's been virtual unanimity, it is that the hardback is toast, and bound books deader than a box of doornails. The smart response to any suggestion that the hardback harks back to a golden age will be variations on Monty Python's dead parrot sketch ("It's rung down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. It is an ex-parrot"). In short, conventional wisdom has declared the hardback an ex-book.
This column, perversely, has always maintained the opposite. Hardbacks, as I have written on many occasions, have a good future. Technological change is discontinuous. The typewriter did not eliminate the pen, nor the motorcar the horse. In the same way, hardback publishing, inheriting centuries of literary wisdom, will not be eliminated and might even flourish. There are signs that this prediction is coming to pass.
This month has been dominated by news about Fifty Shades of Grey, an online bestseller by an unknown writer launched as an ebook by the virtual publisher Writer's Coffee Shop. Less well reported, but far more significant, is the news that hardbacks are flourishing, especially when, as with Murakami's IQ84, they are designed to appeal to high-end literary collectors, with beautiful typography, fine paper and a library binding. In the UK, the hardback imprint Everyman reports a sales increase of between 25% and 40%, in line with figures across the sector.
Moreover, the new data shows that, as book sales soar, it's the paperback that's in real trouble. During the first three months of 2012, 11.3 million paperbacks were sold, compared to 14.9 the previous year. Year on year, sales of paperbacks are down by almost 25%. Paperback chiefs are being fired. Supermarket editions such as Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code will soon be a thing of the past. Simultaneously, the Pew Internet and American Life Project reveals that ebook consumers typically read more ebooks than their print-conscious predecessors. The latest sales figures for ebooks are off the chart.