It’s a contemporary irony that paperback books have been celebrated for turning 80. Penguin books were rightfully applauded for lasting so long and changing reading habits profoundly. A country and western song in encomium must be inevitable.

George Orwell’s reaction to Penguin paperbacks was a minor revelation. He said that as a reader he applauded them, but as a writer he found them to be anathema. In a further quote he explained that cheap books were not good for the book trade and that a consumer with a budget of five shillings (£54.12 in 2014) would spend one shilling and sixpence on a book (£16.23 in 2014) and the rest at the cinema.

These remarks indicate two disturbing aspects about Orwell: the apparently proletarian St Francis was intuitively a rent-seeker as he wanted to retain a greater share of the budget and not lose it to the cheap format, and secondly, he displayed his class’s scorn for the cinema. His contempt for cinema may have had an economic rationale too because the remaining budget could be spent there, or at the pub for several pints of beer.

In any case, Orwell’s comments illustrate that change can be difficult for producers. The shifting digital landscape for music, movies and books is the current phase in the process.

The change in the form, price and utility of the book got me thinking about that paean to the humble paperback, the song – Paperback Writer, largely written by Paul McCartney.

In a pitch, or introductory letter, McCartney pleads his case on rather thin evidence. The story description is tenuous and in place of the total word count, the total number of pages are given, with the caveat that more are being done, so the book is incomplete. Then, with increasingly desperate promises to modify the text, all in pursuit of the ambition of being a writer in paperback, the letter collapses into some tedious repetition.

McCartney is very talented: a composer, multi-instrumentalist, and, I am reliably informed, as a drummer he has a straight synchronized funk feel, similar to Stevie Wonder. Despite these abundant and manifest talents, McCartney’s publishing pitch wouldn’t cut it now, but the basic mistakes can be fixed by consulting agents and publishers’ guidelines.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2015. All Rights Reserved.


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