Nathan Bransford, Author


Thursday, October 9, 2008

Hardcover vs. Paperback Debuts

Seriously, stock market? Really? You want to go? Because we can go. You heard me. You might win, but I fight dirty.

Ahem.

Reader Gregory O'Neill wrote with a very interesting question: why are some books originally published in hardcover and some originally in paperback?

Good question! There's more to it than a coin flip. (Mostly)

In recent years there has been a movement towards publishing more original paperbacks. Mass market (i.e. supermarket-rack-sized) originals had always been a way of building up writers in genre fiction, but over the years, trade paperback (i.e. bigger than mass market, smaller than hardcover) originals have gained steady popularity as well. You'll have to trust me on that because I don't have time to find the numbers to back that up. Hooray for expediency!

So what goes into the decision?

Well, there are pros and cons to both.

HARDCOVER ORIGINAL
Pros: More royalties for the author because of higher price point, more review coverage (er, in theory), sometimes treated as more "serious" and "prestigious" because of tradition, two shots at a book catching on (first in hardcover then again when it comes out in paperback -- Penguin in particular has perfected the art of turning a relatively modest hardcover run into a blockbuster trade paperback - just look at the Trade Paperback bestseller list)
Cons: Hardcovers are expensive, and it's sometimes difficult to break out an author at a higher price point

PAPERBACK ORIGINAL
Pros: People love them some trade and mass market paperback, lower price point and thus readers may be more willing to take a chance on a new author, trends younger
Cons: Less review coverage, only one shot

So, you might be thinking, if a hardcover is going to come out in paperback eventually anyway, why not just start in hardcover and then come out with the paperback down the line? Win win (win). Well, here's the potential problem with that: if a book does very poorly in hardcover, it will probably affect how the bookstores are going to place orders on the paperback. So a book that might have caught on as a paperback original could see a paperback run partially dashed if the hardcover doesn't do well.

Ultimately it's a very tricky decision that involves figuring out the target audience, factoring in how much review coverage is going to matter, and many other elements. But more and more authors are starting out on the paperback original side, particularly with books that trend toward a younger/edgier market (because young people are poor!), and for authors who are seeking to build an audience.






56 comments:

Mark Terry said...

I would also add that small presses and indie publishers have a tendency to publish in trade paperback format. I'm not 100% why that is--all of my novels were published in that format, although I have some hardcovers in foreign editions. I think trade is often chosen by small presses to avoid the mass market return machinations, ie., tearing off the cover and returning it to the publisher for a refund and selling the paperback to a used bookstore... er, strike that... pulping the paperback.

With trade, it gets returned just like a hardcover, I guess, where it can be, oh, pulped, I suppose, or tried to resell, or used as attic insulation--it's a green solution, I suppose.

Also, typical POD technology is seemingly more amenable to trade format.

Gwen said...

That is actually quite fascinating, what you mentioned about Penguin. I had worried that perhaps Penguin gets drowned out by larger publishers in the States... but it seems like they have their own way of keeping themselves on the forefront.

Elyssa Papa said...

This is very fascinating and a great blog as usual. I've read authors who started off in paperback and now their books are being released as hardbacks first. Is that because their sells as paperback authors are extremely well?

Other Lisa said...

I love trade paperback! Speaking as a book consumer, I mean. And boy, do I consume a lot of books.

Here's my take: I have an extensive reference library I've put together concerning modern China and recent Chinese history. When I can get hardback, that's what I get because I plan on keeping these books for the long haul. But for most fiction, I would just as soon buy trade paperback. It's cheaper, it's lighter (so I can throw it in a backpack and walk around with it), if it gets beat up, no worries, and I pass it on to friends without caring if it comes back or not. But it's still way nicer to hold and read than mass market.

Uh, okay, so as a reader, I find trade paperbacks exciting.

As an aspiring author, I don't have a strong opinion.

lotusloq said...

Timely topic, as ever! I really like your explanation about the pros and cons of trade paperbacks. I had been wondering about that recently and now feel like I get it. I'd still rather start with hardback, but I'd rather go with trade paperback than not being published at all. I guess that's the choice a lot of people are making.

Sara Merrick said...

I love trade paperback, too, and buy between 3 and 6 a month, picking up whatever strikes me. But my hardcover purchases are almost exclusively books written by well-loved authors, the ones where I've been waiting for their next book to come out. I rarely commit to a hardcover with a first time author, or an author who doesn't rank in my top 5.

bryan russell said...

Nathan,

When in the process is such a decision made? Beginning? Middle? End? And does the author ever have any say, or is this basically part of the financial calculus of the publisher?

Nathan Bransford said...

bryan-

The decision is usually made prior to acquisition, so the author has a say in the sense that they can say yes or no to the publisher's offer and plan.

Anonymous said...

Well, I had to look up oo trade paperback to be sure I followed this conversation.

thank goodness for google definitions...

(honestly, there is much lingo that takes some immersion to follow...)

Sempiternal said...

I noticed some of the authors who decided to go the paperback route tend to re-release those books with a different cover down the road.
Personally, if I have the money and I like the author, I try to get the hardcover versions...if possible.

Erik said...

Hardcovers are already dead in every other nation I can think of, and I believe they are about to be dead here.

The paperback was the technology of the last Depression (which started out as magazines, but the technology of binding with glue reinforced paper is the same). I think it'll take hold forever in this one. I wrote about this in my blog recently, if anyone's interested. Look for the entry "Paperback".

JulianaStone said...

I save my $$ for hardcovers that I want to see on my shelves for a long time....I love to read and spend a small fortune on books so buys paperbacks just means I get more bang for the buck...I also recently just sold my first book...it will come out in mass market paperback and I'm cool with that...I'm just starting out so I think it's something you have to work your way up to, unless the publsher thinks they have a sure fire hit on their hands...something totally different

Anonymous said...

My $0.02-

I tilt heavily toward trade paperback debuts. I'm in my mid-20s, make about 45K and always think thrice before buying a hardcover. I have to know and love the author, and I always feel cheated afterwards. Never heard that about reviewers preferring hardcovers, but it makes sense. Still, $30 (w. tax) is too much for a debut author. I'll bet many of us feel the same. Get 'em down below $7 and I'll impulse buy.

JES said...

a book that might have caught on as a paperback original could see a paperback run partially dashed if the hardcover doesn't do well

That might've been one problem for my sole hardback novel, unfortunately my first. At the time (early '90s), to say that your mystery was coming out in hardback made people ooh and aah. Everyone except actual buyers, I mean. They couldn't justify spending as much on a single book -- by a first-time author, with a strange premise -- as they could spend on 3-4 mass-market titles. And who can blame them?

Would I rather have sold 3-4 mass market paperbacks than a single hardback, even though my take in royalties might shake out about equally? You bet. Because (a) of course I'd have more paid readers, and (b) the book would have been more likely to be passed around.

"Be careful what you wish for, 'cause you might get it."

Kyle Smith said...

First time poster here. I'd like to first thank Nathan for an excellent blog, as it has been a great source of information. I'm just getting started on my first novel, but it's nice to know a lot about publishing and querying before the end game.

As a reader, I typically only buy hardcovers if it's the next book in a series I'm following, or if one of my top 5 authors. Otherwise, it's nearly always mass market. I'm not really a big fan of trade paperback.

But then, I get most of my books from the library now, as I just don't have the room to store all the purchases I was making, nor the spare money...I was typically spending $100+ every month, and I just can't really afford it.

As an author, I'd be thrilled to be published, period. Hardcover, trade, mass market...whatever gets the book out there.

Thomas Mason said...

I think that all new authors should try and get their first novel out in paperback. If it sells well, there is always time for another printing in hardcover.

I tend to buy mostly paperbacks, due to my hectic traveling schedule. If I'm in the middle of an airport, I'm bypassing the hardcover books completely. I've read quite a few new authors this way that I ended up looking for their subsequent novels.

Ana Cristina said...

I prefer purchasing my books in hard cover, especially when they're quite lengthy. They last longer as they tend to be sturdier. Case in point: I bought the Harry Potter series as paperbacks, and they're all falling apart, despite my best attempts to be ginger with them.
However, sometimes the price difference between the paperback and the hardcover edition makes a difference, as when I bought Comic Book Tattoo recently in its paperback edition (didn't want to pay the astronomical fee for the hardcover!).

jo said...

If I have the $$ at the time of purchasing and the option I will always opt hardcover. But that's rarely the case. And I usually start new authors on paperback unless the hardcover is a good deal. However, if I read a book and decide that I want to keep it for a future personal "library" I'll pick up a hardcover copy so I like to always have that option. My question is, why not release in paperback first and if it does well release a hardcover version?

Aubrey said...

Wow Nathan, another great post.

We have been thinking about book covers lately too over on our blog (this post in particular, http://myfavoriteauthor.blogspot.com/search/label/book%20cover).

Sempiturnal said something that got me thinking. Is it common if a book comes out in paperback, to change the cover and do a re-realease if it is doing well, therefore getting that double exposure still?

Aubrey
myfavoriteauthor.blogspot.com

Lynne said...

Looking at Penguin, it looks like all I have to do is put the word 'dead' in the title.

Marilyn Peake said...

Hi, Nathan,

Great blog as usual. I’ve had a few questions for the past few weeks, all related to topics on your blog today. The world’s economies have fluctuated so wildly these past few weeks, to the point where it seems we might all get whiplash or the earth might start wobbling noticeably on its axis at any moment. With the stock market bouncing around so much, world banks failing, and all the rest of it, how are publishing companies doing? Are they making plans to take on less new authors, or are they able to move ahead with business as usual? And, in regard to book formats, have the big publishing houses ever considered eBooks as the first format for a book? I imagine eBooks don’t sell in as high numbers as the other formats, but I wondered about that. I don't know if you have time to answer these questions, but I thought about them again as I read your blog today.

Stacey said...

I LOVE hardcover books. And will usually splurge if it is something I want. (I am an impulse buyer along with someone who waits for books to come out.)

Part of this is I am a stickler in wanting my books to match, especially if it's a series. I can't start buying a series in paperback, and then since I am anxious for the next installment, get the next books in hardcover. It drives me nuts. So I either wait to purchase it in paperback, buy the original in hardcover, or I have even given away my paperbacks to buy new hardcovers for a series I like.

My brother on the other hand, will not use the library and refuses to read anything until it comes out in mass market paperback. He also reads about 10 books a week, so I suppose to be able to afford that habbit he has to!

Lisa O'Neill said...

Thanks, Nathan. This issue has been weighing on me recently, and I have to admit I was surprised and intrigued by your answer. Like Elyssa Papa commented, I thought it was simply a matter of an author having to prove themselves through paperbacks, and I was wondering how some debut authors skipped that step. As always, very informative!

(It was actually my question; I just hijacked my husband's e-mail to ask it.)

Madison said...

Honestly, I don't care if my book, if it ever gets published, is paperback or hardcover. I just want my words in print. I'm not picky! :-)

Steppe said...

Got any good links for stats Nathan.

Being a noob I think a well designed middle of the road presentation halfway bewteen hard and soft seems clever. I'm allergic to cheap ink. Quality is a concern here.
Some of the middle package versions are quite storable and readable. If all else fails I get the hard if available and throw the promotional cover away.

Jeanne said...

Nathan- the stock market is having a go with me too. My strategy is to play dead in the hope it will move on, and fight with someone else. Also embrassing denial and planning to change my name to Cleopatra. Have deleted all posts from my blog about real issues and plan to write only trite, useless, homemaker mush about how wonderful the holidays are for the next 2.5 months.

As for paperback verses hardback. I only buy hardback for gifts anymore. I love hardbacks and they look much nicer on the shelves but, I only buy them for myself if that's my only option.

However, if economy continues to tank, may need to burn nice hardbound books for fuel this Winter. May burn the furniture first.

acpaul said...

I only buy my favorite authors in hardcover. I do haunt used book stores, and will give new authors a chance that way. If they're really good, I have been known to backtrack and hunt down that first ed hardcover. But then, I collect.

Scott said...

You know those classics and assorted novels from another era that were printed in hardcover but didn't get much bigger than 9 x 6 or thereabouts? Sometimes they were one solid color with slightly raised bindings and the title just got stuck in the upper-mid portion of the cover.

If I had a choice, I'd prefer my books to be published like that. They were handsome and almost...academic looking, I guess. Hardcovers are often so huge these days that they're rather ungainly to carry around, their paper jackets rip easily, and they take up tons of shelf space.

Jeanne said...

Just realized I can't spell. Can holding your breathe for three weeks cause brain damage?

acpaul said...

Jeanne,
Yes, it can. Do you need a ventilator? I can hook you up.

Deborah Blake said...

I'm a big fan of trade pbs--they seem like a nice compromise between the expense of the hardcovers, which I buy if it is a favorite author I plan to reread a lot, one in a series--I like them to match too--or, and this is one you didn't mention--I can get them from a book club so they don't cost as much. My NF books have come out as large pbs, which is fine with me. I'd love to have my fic pubbed in trade pb, though. It's good to have goals...

The other reason I sometimes chose hardcover or trade over mass market is the size of the print. As a 40-mumbly-mumbly year old, I find I often have a hard time reading the teeny tiny print used in some mass market books.

Jeanne said...

acpaul- I would have taken you up on your offer 30 minutes ago, but the Thurday edition of SNL has me laughing so hard, I think I'm going to make it. Thanks for the offer. :)

Other Lisa said...

I have to second (third) what a great post this is. And hearing from writers who have dealt with this in their own careers brings another great dimension to the discussion.

Thanks Nathan, and thanks everyone for your insights.

Angie said...

My question relates to Scott's comment above, but I don't think it's quite the same thing:

Do publishers still publish the "Book Club" format? I got several books years ago from the Science Fiction Book Club and I've always loved that small-hardcover format.

moonrat said...

two cents:

also depends on whether or not you can afford to print a paperback original, since you're absorbing essentially the same amount of overhead regardless of format.

unless you can guarantee a solid sell-in, you might not be able to afford a paperback print, since the profit per copy is so low. and since we can still count on some library sales--usually, around 1000 copies (at least, although fiction can be random)--you WOULD have been able to pay for your printing if you'd done a hc, and you won't break even with a pb.

these aren't glamorous numbers, or necessarily nice for the author to think about. but sometimes you end up making more money with fewer copies, if your career's at a certain stage.

clindsay said...

Gwen -

Penguin IS one of the larger publishers in the States. :-)

Suzan Harden said...

jo -

Since I didn't see anyone answer your question (and if they did, I so apologize for stepping on toes), YES a publisher sometimes will issue the paperback first, and if it's a wild success, then issue the hardback.

The first book in Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden series, Storm Front, was recently rereleased in hardback. Same with Kim Harrison's Dead Witch walking.

Jeanne said...

okay acpaul- have broken my vow not to write about anything real on my blog this month. What is the purpose of blogging if not to vent? I feel much better and am pretty sure I won't have to burn anything to heat the house this Winter. In fact, I think a nice big stack of new books is just what the Dr. ordered. What better way to get my mind off my magically disappearing money? Off to Barnes and Nobles- first thing in the a.m.

jnantz said...

If it makes me and my (future) agent enough money to keep getting published and establish a career, they can publish my first novel on toilet paper.

Yeah, I'd love to have hardcovers to sign at tables and such, but I just want to write for a living, and whatever format the publisher and my (future) agent think will best enable that, that's what I wanna go with.

Furious D said...

To be honest, I wouldn't complain either way, just being happy to be in print.

I but now that I think about it, I think it would have to do with the nature of the novel in question...

Naw, I'm being too philosophical, it always happens when I write after midnight. Just put me out in all formats and see what sticks. ;)

Lisa said...

If I have the option, I will always, ALWAYS buy hardcover. Maybe it has something to do with feeling that I'm building a library for myself, because I love the way they look on the shelevs. (I'm thrilled to hear the Jim Butcher books are being released in hardcover!) Trade paperbacks are not a bad option - they seem generally well-made, nice printing, all the things that are important to me.

I will not buy mass market paperbacks. The thin paper, tiny font, bendy spines, all add up to a much less pleasant reading experience. The few that I have (mostly old detective novels) look shabby even if they are only gently used. I know that I am a teensy tiny minority on this, but I don't mind. When hardcovers are extinct, I'll have a library of collectors' items.

Anonymous said...

This decision also depends on your country. In Australia, very few fiction books originate in hardback (and at rrps of $45 or more, it's understandable) - the distinction tends to be between large or small paperback (if you do large, then you can take the second bite with small)*.

Even books that come out in hb in the US are generally published here in paperback, whether larger or small format. It's partly a question of market size, I believe - the US is a large enough market for the economy of scale that can support a hb.

*Exception to the pb norm: Twilight. Originally $16.95 paperback, and when the publishers realised it was Doing Well, they switched to producing larger format paperback 'special editions' and priced them at $24.95 (with sequels at the $30 mark, large format pb).

Melissa said...

I always find it interesting to watch the progression of a Hard Cover book to Trade to Mass Market. I've noticed, recently, an upswing in Hard Cover first runs, in spite of the cost of HC.

We, who work in the book store, usually know about the book in HC, do our best to sell it, but end up catching customers when it comes into MM.

And then you get the authors like Patrick Rothfuss, who's book did nothing in our store in HC, but has been on our MM best seller wall since the day it came out.

Conduit said...

This is a timely topic for me, and has raied some questions I'm going to ask my editor.

My contract specifies my debut will be published in hardcover, with a MM paperback later on. It also itemises royalty rates for trade paperback, though, so I don't know if that means one will come out around the time of the HC version (this is all assuming we don't devolve to a new stone age due to economic meltdown before then). My local chainstores and supermarkets tend to stock trades of even the biggest new releases throughout the year, but I've just noticed them stocking HCs of all the big new titles which I guess they're pitching for the Christmas gift market.

As for buying, I'm with most of you, in that I'll buy a hardback of a book I've been waiting for. For instance, when the new Ellroy comes out next year, I'll have a hardcover on the day of publication - even if I manage to blag an ARC before then - just for the pleasrure of owning it.

nona said...

Seriously, stock market? Really? You want to go? Because we can go. You heard me. You might win, but I fight dirty.

What's going on in the market right now represents a total disconnect from reality. Time to cowboy up, ppl. I mean, really . . . this is ridiculous.

Nancy D'Inzillo said...

There is only one book on my shelf that I wish was a hardcover book and it's one that has since gone out of print. I don't think they ever bothered printing a hardcover edition of it. That said, I've been having a lot of discussions about print-on-demand lately, and while the presentation of the book isn't as nice, a book need not go out of print ever again so long as they can print-on-demand. (Excepting, of course, photography books, art books, and any book with a layout to complicated for POD technology.) I may well go looking for that very book once my current copy has deteriorated to the point where I can't keep it in one piece any more.

Lady Glamis said...

Thank you for this information. It has always been something I wondered about but never bothered looking into. Right now my book is only available on my home computer . . .

jo said...

Suzan, thank you for your reply. :)

Lisa Schroeder said...

I'll admit, I was a tiny bit disappointed when we got trade PB instead of a HC deal for my YA novel. But now I think it was for the best. My book has been selling well, and I really believe the lower price helped, along with a great cover and good shelf placement too. I have another one coming out in January, and it will be HC. I think teens are apprehensive to buy a HC from a new author, but for a second book, the ones who loved the first will buy the second. I hope anyway!

Anonymous said...

As far as YA goes, as a teacher librarian you have to Sell Hard to persuade 'em to borrow hardback, unless it's either:

a) part of a series or from an author they already know and love

Or (often less successfully)

b) a cute format of hardback - the Lemony Snickets were did well, with their raw edge pages and sense of being interesting objects.

I've had kids tell me point blank, when we've had both hb and pb, that the hb has 'more words' - they'll pick the pb every time, given the exceptions above.

So if you're a YA author, pb isn't a bad thing, from the library point of view. And I'm not sure that it would be much different in bookstores, either.

Marian said...

That was a very interesting blog post. Until now I'd never really thought of hardback vs. paperback or the marketing decisions that go into choosing one over the other.

I'm one of the poor young people :) so I won't buy hardbacks yet UNLESS it's the next George R. R. Martin novel. Hardbacks are also heavier, and since I don't have a car, it means that I'm less likely to lug the hardback to the subway. On the plus side, though, they're much more resilient than paperbacks, as Lisa said.

Millennium Housewife said...

I always presumed (which I know we are not supposed to do..) that the hard backs were by established authors and meant as a bit of a tease. In other words, we know you just can't wait to read this new book so kindly hand us £50 and you may have the honour in advance of others. MH

AnarchyJack said...

Most of the really good books that I've ever read--including academic non-fiction--I could only afford in mass-market or trade-size paperback. Seriously, my undergraduate library looks like the "unusual books" section in a used book store.

But honestly, who doesn't want to see their name embossed on the spine of a hardcover book? That's what keeps me working on my thesis.

I'd be willing to go with mass-market paperback to get started in fiction and I would keep writing even if that's all the better I could ever do. But seeing that hardcover book with your name on the spine! That's got to be an image that every writer lies awake at night thinking about.

Lily said...

Wow... I love the comments on this. I personally would not hesitate a new writer in trade paperback. With the cost of Hardcover being a little to much to bear. However that being said if I loved the author or the book that much I would buy Hardcover as a collector's keepsake.

As for ebooks..... will not go there, I like the feel of a book in my hand and I get enough of technology throughout the day. Perhaps reading an actually hard copy book will become and eccentricity.

Quinton said...

I'm glad I have found a great literary agent. :D I'm a newbie to the publishing, in themidst of writing my first book and this site is helping me out tremendously.

Poacher said...

It would be most interesting to note how many authors here prefer the A5 size covers to a typical A4 size cover for their published books.

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