Hardcover versus Paperback Redux

Recently I observed that back home in Australia, the vast majority of books are published in paperback. Hardcovers are exceedingly rare. But here in the US of A there’s a huge emphasis on hardcovers.

When I first asked about it I was told that paperback originals don’t get reviewed. Thus the hardcover is more prestigious because it generates more attention. Many good reviews can lead to awards, and best book of the year listings, and lots of sales. A paperback original goes into the world unheralded and unreviewed and thus disappears into oblivion.

I’m not convinced this is as true as it once was or that prestige is as important as people think it is. I believe that fewer and fewer buyers of books are paying attention to what old media reviewers say. Partly this is because the book review section has been disappearing from newspapers all over the USA, just as newspapers have been disappearing.1 And partly because there is such a long lag time for reviews of YA in old media. Whereas there are blogs, whose reviews I respect and trust, reviewing YA before the books are even out.

How To Ditch Your Fairy is my best selling book. It had very few reviews in old media venues. It’s won no awards, nor been shortlisted for any, and has made precious few best book of the year lists. Magic or Madness won awards, was shortlisted for others, had starred reviews, and was very widely reviewed in old media places and made lots of best book of the year lists. HTDYF has already outsold MorM in hardcover even though it’s been out for five months and MorM‘s been out for four years.2 I suspect (hope!) that HTDYF will do better in paperback.3

What HTDYF has had more than any of my other books is a smart publicity and marketing campaign4 that has generated plenty of word of mouth. I’m convinced that the word of mouth has especially been pushed along by all the blog coverage5 While HTDYF didn’t get much old media coverage, it was extremely widely reviewed in new media places. There are so many online reviews I’ve lost track of them all.6

The majority of bloggers don’t care whether a book debuts in hardcover or paperback. They are not going to refuse to review a paperback original because it’s not prestigious enough. They don’t think they’ll be sullied by its mere presence. They just care whether they like it or not. I suspect this partly because that’s how I feel— after all I’m a blogger who sometimes reviews YA—but mostly because I’ve seen it in action.

Debuting in paperback can be an enormous start to a series or a career. Off the top of my head I can think of two series that got a massive kick in the pants because they were paperback debuts: Scott’s Uglies series and Naomi Novik’s Temeraire books.7 At US$10 or less the first books in these highly addictive series were cheap, attractively packaged, and there was a less-than-a-year wait for the next book in the series, which was also a cheap paperback. Readers got hooked—at which point the evil publisher switched to hardcover.

Which leads me to the second reason publishers like hardcovers: the profit margin is higher. In order for a paperback to be profitable it has to sell vastly more copies than a hardcover book. How much more? An average royalty for hardcover is 10%, and for paperback 6%. So pbs are a smaller percentage of a smaller amount of money, which means on average you have to sell three times as many to earn out. Let me show you the maths: Say you have a $10 pb, that’s 60c per copy. If the advance was $20,000 you’d have sell more than 33,333 copies to earn out. If your hc retails for $17, you’d only have to sell 11,764 hardcovers.

That’s a huge difference and a big incentive for both publisher and author to want hardcover. In fact, I think this is the only solid argument for going with a hardcover.

However, you’ll only earn out faster if the hardcover sells. When a hc costs close to twice what a pb costs people are less likely to buy them—especially in the middle of a recession.8 Book sales are down across the board in the USA. I predict that if sales keep going the way they are9—hardcovers down; paperbacks down a bit, steady or, in some cases, climbing—we’re going to see a lot more paperback originals.

Overall, that’s probably a good thing, especially for debut authors. And also for series where the books are already written—that way the books can come out cheaply and in quick succession. This has long been a successful formula for romance and mysteries. I won’t be surprised if the USA winds up like Australia and the UK with very few hardcovers at all.10

Here’s one reason it can be a good thing: Guess what frequently happens to books that don’t sell in hardcover? They aren’t published in paperback. They don’t get their second shot. This has happened to many wonderful books, which despite awards and glowing reviews didn’t sell, and thus the publisher decides that a paperback version is not viable. Holly Black’s first book Tithe didn’t sell well in hardcover, but sold spectacularly in paperback. What if her publisher hadn’t taken the risk?

On the other hand, if a book is a paperback original that’s typically the only chance it gets. If it doesn’t do well then that’s it. At least with hardcover a book has a pretty good shot at a second life as a paperback. And often it will go from hc to trade pb to mass market pb. Three chances to go out there and sell.11

As you can see it’s a complicated set of decisions a publisher has to make when they’re figuring out whether to go hardcover or paperback. You have to sell way more copies for pbs to make a profit. But expensive hcs can kill a book. Keep in mind that the majority of books do not earn out.

I’d love to hear what youse lot think. I’m especially interested to hear from those making this decision and from those of you who’ve had different experiences in one format over the other.

  1. And, no, I don’t think that’s a good thing. []
  2. Remember though surpassing Magic or Madness‘s sales is a very low bar. []
  3. Especially with it’s fabulous new cover. Hint: look at the top of the left-hand side bar. Or go here for a bigger view. []
  4. Thank you, Bloomsbury! []
  5. Bloomsbury was excellent at spreading the ARCs of HTDYF far and wide. []
  6. Which, let me tell you, is a marvellous feeling. []
  7. Being a paperback series had a lot to do with the success of Gossip Girls, A List, etc. []
  8. Or depression or whatever you want to call what the world is experiencing right now. []
  9. I know this link leads to an article on sf book sales but all its links go to reports of sales across the board. It was the most recent round up I could find. []
  10. Judging from the foreign language editions of mine and Scott’s books I’d say most countries in the world are predominantly paperback. []
  11. Though usually the third life in mass market pb is because it sold well in trade. []


  1. Shane on #

    It’s interesting to know that hardcover profit margins are much higher than paperback. Interesting and I suppose should have been fairly obvious but I never clued in.

    I still buy the majority of my books in paperback form as it allows me to…buy more books total!

    I’m spreading the love 😉

  2. Tim on #

    I was gobsmacked when I found out that YA/Teen books get published in hardcover in America. I didn’t even realise this until about a year ago, when I was watching John Green talk about Paper Towns and saw that he was holding a hardcover book. My only experience ever of a hardcover non-adult book had been with really, really well-known books; such as Eragon/Eldest, and Harry Potter with the only exception probably being the Series of Unfortunate Events. I was under the impression that, for YA books, it was the exception rather than the rule. The first YA books that actually owned in hardcover were a copy of Suite Scarlett and Paper Towns that I’d ordered off Amazon.

    As a consumer of books I prefer to own hardcovers, I like the way they feel in my hand and the way they look, but to be honest when given a choice I’ll normally go with a paperback because they’re cheaper – the difference can be a good $5-$10 sometimes. Particularly given that books in Australia are seemingly already relatively expensive in comparison to America.

    But I’m not sure how it would work from the kind of marketing perspective that you mentioned. Typically in Australia I find that if a YA book comes out in hardcover there is probably something special or exceptional about it, whereas paperback is more the norm. That said, I don’t know how this would actually impact upon people’s decisions to buy said books – they might see a hardcover as too “high class” for them, or they might think there’s something special worth buying in it.

  3. Amber on #

    I didn’t know paperbooks weren’t reviewed! But, I hardly ever pay attention to reviews anyways, unless they are on blogs I read, as you mentioned.

    I personally prefer paperbacks. I did buy Extras in hardcover but only because all the three before it were/are in paperback. I don’t like the extra cost and generally I like the feel of paperback books better (I’ve heard this is weird).

    I didn’t know outside the US books are usually paperback. It definitely makes a lot of sense to me. And, as you’ve alluded to, YA readers mostly don’t care about reviews, so even if books stop getting reviews they will still sell. Word of mouth is the best in spreading anyways – I only read the Uglies and the following books after hearing from several people how good they are.

  4. Justine on #

    Tim: Something I didn’t mention is that YA hardcovers here in the USA are much cheaper than adult hcs. Around $17 as opposed to being around $24. Some believe that’s a factor in why YA sales aren’t down anywhere near as much as adult sales.

  5. Amber on #

    Librarians need hardcovers. Mass-market pbs get wrecked much more quickly.

  6. Meeks on #

    I love this topic since it’s one I’ve grappled with as an editor and an author. Of course, as an author, there is always (for me, at least), the sense that a hardcover will be taken more seriously, but indeed, institutional reviews don’t tend to affect book sales. And I do like to remind myself that an inexpensive paperback is more likely to find its way into an actual young adult’s hands, as well.

    My first (and to date, only) hardcover novel, EMILY GOLDBERG, met the same fate as MAGIC OR MADNESS, and almost didn’t make it to paper. Whereas my agent feels strongly that it would have been more successful if it had been published as trade paper to begin with. My most successful books have been my Simon Pulse Romantic Comedies, also paper, and certainly my most prominent release to date has been Bradford, which is–yup–a paperback series. When I sold SO PUNK ROCK to Flux, the decision was made to pub it in paper even though it was more “serious” than my romance and series work because that was the format and price point that my “fans” (such as they exist) have come to expect. That book comes out in July, and it will be interesting to see if and how the market responds.

    At the end of the day I suppose my feeling is that format doesn’t dictate a book’s sales at all, but that being said, we both know that quality doesn’t necessarily translate into sales figures, regardless of format.

  7. Mallory on #

    I think you hit it right on the nose. We will be seeing a lot more paperback originals in the coming years in the US. And that’s not such a bad thing. Almost everyone waits for the paperback of a book to buy it, unless it is a favorite author that you just CAN’T WAIT for the paperback to read it, or get it at the library. Just a reminder of the history, pre-Harry Potter the children’s book world was all about paperbacks…Goosebumps anyone?

  8. Lauren McLaughlin on #

    Justine, you are a fountain of wisdom. And here’s to more paperback originals. I personally can’t stand hardcovers. They’re annoying to read. I like to get my hands on a nice paperback, break the spine and it read it one-handed.

  9. Diana Peterfreund on #

    Adult hardcovers are generally $23-27 dollars, Trade paperback are $12-14. Children’s HCs are $16-18, their tpb are $8-10. It’s a huge difference. I buy more YAs in hardcover because they don’t cost much more than an adult paperback.

    Royalties for adults: 10-15% on hardcover, 6-8% trade, 8-10% mmpb. Children’s is 10% hard 6% soft, which I found shocking when I first sold into children’s.

    Children’s books are also widely sold into libraries which is why you see so many hardcovers. I was recently in a bookstore with a romance writer friend and we found a YA regency romance that had been either mishelved or cross shelved in the adult romance section, and my friend was mouth open shocked that a debut author was in hardcover — shocked to the point that she wouldn’t even listen when I tried to explain that it was far more common in YA. She was too busy being shocked about the hardcover — YA romance or no.

    It made me understand why my romance writing friends had the reaction they did when I debuted in hardcover.

    My first book was hard/soft, its sequels were trade paper originals. The paperback sold way way better than its hardcover, which is why my publisher switched formats on me. Yes, the royalties have gone way down because I went from getting $3.45 per book sold to $.70 ($.98 on the last book, as the price point rose from $10 to $14), but the readership has gone way up. In addition, the format change helped my books get into venues that focused on trade paperback books. like Target, which sells a LOT of books! And I haven’t noticed a huge drop off in reviews. My hardcover was not reviewed by PW, but its two follow up paperback originals were. To balance that out, only my hardcover was reviewed by Kirkus. My hardcover and third paperback were reviewed by the NYO, and my second book by USA Today.

    I do think you’ll find my first book more often in libraries, but that also may be because the first book hit a library recommended list.

    I find I like my big fat books in hardcover — less likely to break. But I don’t really prefer one format over another in most cases and will buy whatever is available.

    One thing I have noticed is there is a definite readership switch — there are readers who think I never had another book out because they don’t read paperbacks, and there are readers who are big fans of my series, but wouldn’t recognize my hardcover if it bopped them over the head.

  10. Sheryl on #

    I agree with Amber that, as a librarian, I really like to buy books in hardback. I don’t even like to buy publisher library bindings or vendor bound books because a large percentage of the time, they don’t have a synopsis. Madapple has literally never checked out of my library even though it has a great cover and prime display space, and I think it’s because the library binding version I have doesn’t have a synopsis. I wouldn’t mind if paperback versions came out a little bit sooner, though.

    Crank by Ellen Hopkins also debuted in paperback, I believe.

  11. David S. on #

    Yes, the American fetish for hardcover novels (whether they be YA or not) is odd and looking increasingly uneconomic (like their car industry).

    People simply will not pay such a premium for a form of entertainment that is static ink on dead trees, contains no whizz-bang electronic components, and has no video, game or interactive aspects. Books are up against DVDs (and downloadable TV shows and movies), computer and console games and the internet!

    In Australia of course the hc game was lost long ago, with hc costing upwards of $45 ($60+ not being that uncommon) it’s simply no contest – who’d risk that sort of dough for an unknown author who’s book they might not like? Hardcovers can and probably will survive a bit longer for textbooks and reference books (don’t think we’ll see many coffee table ebooks in the next few years), but for fiction they’re dinosaurs.

    However, novels (and short story collections) can survive, even thrive, if they adopt lower cost production and distribution methods, and pass the savings on to their customers. Until the last of the “dead tree-only” readers die off they need to go to tpb and mmpb for virtually all fiction, while for the upcoming “if I can’t access it or download it from the net I don’t want to know about it” generation (who will be the majority sooner than most people seem to comprehend) cheap widely available, DRM-less ebooks available on every phone, music player and other screen(s) the customers have are the first part of the answer. The potential here is to sell orders of magnitude more copies in ebook form than hc, but only if they’re priced right (i.e. low).

    The subsequent parts of the answer probably involve interactive stories, embedded video and games, and various types of serial releases more like the days of Charles Dickens than current book publishing practice. There’s lots of room for innovation here and a bright future for reading, writing and even publishing if they’re willing to experiment and try new approaches.

  12. AliceB on #

    I think Amber’s point is key. The largest institutional buyers of YA (and middle grade fiction) are libraries who get a much longer shelf-life out of hardcovers than out of paperbacks. Historically, libraries were *the* biggest buyers of children’s books, not individuals — and they still provide a significant portion of sales. They also care about traditional reviews. Not getting a review makes it much more difficult to be purchased by a library.

    The shift to children buying their own books coincides with the rise of the YA market. So it may be the case that more YAs will be released in paperback originals. But I can see how publishers, who still want to court the lucrative library market, would want to keep them happy, too.

  13. Victoria on #

    This is exactly what happened with the House of Night novels. The first few all came out in paperback alone. But the most recent one is out now in hardcover. I really want that book, and I’ve read all the others, but because I’m a poor college student, I now can’t afford it.

    Most of the time, though, I’m forced to buy hardback, because that’s all the bookstore carries for young adult. Every time I go into Barnes and Noble, the only ones they have in paperback are series. Borders has more paperbacks, but there still aren’t enough.

  14. Mary Elizabeth S. on #

    As a buyer, I go paperback whenever I get the chance. I’ll buy hardcover if it’s a book I really want (usually because I’ve heard about repeatedly, or it’s by a favorite author), and don’t want to wait for the paperback (or risk that there might not be one). But when browsing, I’m definitely going to pick an unknown paperback over an unknown hardcover. Sometimes I might even pick an unknown paperback over a known or semi-known hardcover, if I’m even a little uncertain about the hardcover.

    In response to David’s comment on the e-book front, I must say I disagree. I know a lot of kids who own about 5000 mp3s but maybe 5 CDs, which you’d think would mean they were pretty comfortable with electronic products. Yet very few of them read e-books. In fact, many of those who read the most actually never read e-books, unless they’re free and something they really want to read.

    These are mostly teens and pre-teens. In regards to the generation behind them, unless parents start reading e-books to their toddlers, and buying electronic instead of print for their grade-schoolers, I think it’s going to become more of a split, rather than e-books replacing print ones. The kids who don’t want to know about it if it’s not electronic are likely the ones who wouldn’t read the book anyway, even if it was an e-book. They’re the ones who, when offered a freebie with their new electronic downloads subscription, will say “10 free songs or 1 free book? I’ll take the songs.” Which sadly is what many people (of all ages) would say now, too.

    I know that sounds like I’m ranting, but it’s only because I just had this print vs. electronic conversation with a friend, and it’s still on my mind.


  15. Mary Elizabeth S. on #

    I didn’t see Victoria’s comment. Hope no one minds my double-posting.

    I’m not buying the House of Night hardcover, either, though I bought all the paperbacks. My reason is different than Victoria’s (I was willing to buy the books in paperback, but the series just isn’t appealing enough to me to warrant hardcover), but the result is the same.

    I’m thinking exactly like Victoria, though, with the “City of” books (started with City of Bones). They’re good, and I want to read them, but now that I know they’ll eventually come out in paperback I’m willing to wait, for purely monetary reasons.

    ~Mary (is shutting up now)

  16. Lisa on #

    From a practical stand point I prefer paperbacks… unless its something like Harry Potter that I know Im going to want to reread multiple times without falling apart, I’d much rather have a paperback book that won’t make my arms fall of trying to hold it.

  17. sylvia_rachel on #

    Although I know hardcovers are more durable, I much prefer paperbacks for reading: they are smaller, lighter, and cheaper, which means I can carry them around more easily (I do most of my reading while in transit from place to place) and buy more of them. Those hardcover (non-reference) books I do own generally were gifts, or something I really wanted to read that didn’t look like coming out in paperback ever, or bought second-hand or from the clearance table at Indigo.

    Though for really big fat books, you might as well go with hardcover or TPB, because a MMPB of a book that was 700 pages in hardcover is likely to be really unmanoeuverable.

  18. Joe M on #

    Good topic Justine, and one I’ve been thinking about for years, and more heavily the past six months as the economy turned south. It’s a difficult one to get a handle on as so many like-minded topics come to mind, like affordability. But to get back to the original meat of your post, to debut in HC vs Pb, like many things, there’s no one right answer.
    HC sales in the children’s and teen market are robust, and have remained so. That’s the real impetus behind most modern publishing decisions. I can point out a lot of different anecdotal reasons why, but the end answer was usually because the readers were willing to get the book now rather than wait. Then you add in the well known history of libraries preferring hardcovers, and you have a really strong case to go the hardcover release route. Add in that a good deal of word of mouth had happened through librarians and that this same word of mouth translated into retail sales, and it’s even harder to deny it.
    Now in the case of MoM vs HTDYF, well, I’d say it’s partially because you’re better known now, partially because your blogging and appearances have gotten you here, and that you’re publisher is a really good one, run by very savvy folks. (And yeah, that new cover does kick butt!)I think right now publishing is in a state of flux, one that hasn’t fully reached the children’s and teen market fully, and may never. But I do think that releasing paperback originals is easier these days than it was say three years ago. Meeks pointed out her romantic comedy series works have sold well. I know that first hand! And at the time, they were a breath of fresh air because there were too many HC’s on the shelves and they were all screaming for attention, and here came this fun series, released in the spring and summer, and it was cheap. I don’t have the research to prove that a lot of those purchases were add on buys to a HC or two, but that’s my guess. And so I think there’s a lot of room for commercially oriented fiction being debuted in paperback. Heck, I think Del Rey method of releasing Naomi Novik’s series, three books, back to back in paperback, was very smart, and that it can, and should be repeated in teen fiction.
    The trouble is, for authors, the advances and royalties will be smaller with a paperback debut, but a smart agent can help you maximize this scenario. So if you’re a writer who can be prolific, it may just be a smart way to go.

  19. Katie on #

    I was in Australia this summer, and was really weirded out by the lack of hardcovers. Breaking Dawn (… no comment) came out when I was in Australia, and I was ready to get my hardcover copy when, to my surprise, it was paperback! I’d had no idea that hardcovers weren’t as wide-spread around the world…

  20. Kat on #

    I must admit, I love hardcovers, but I rarely buy them due to price. Plus, since I mostly read romance fiction, most of my autobuy authors don’t have hardcover releases. (More annoying are those who switch from mass market to releasing in hardcover first–not only does it screw up my shelving aesthetic, it feels like punishment for loyal fans.)

  21. Jamie on #

    I have hardcovers from a couple of hundred years ago that are in great condition, but the oldest paperback I have is from 1965. It is already in deplorable condition but I can’t find another copy of it so I will keep it. I understand that new hardcovers aren’t printed to the same standards they were 200 years ago and are only made to last about 30-50 years on average. (only)

  22. Corey J Feldman on #

    I like harcovers but mostly for how they look on my book shelves but the Kindle is changing the way I read and buy books. Very easy to browse and buy and lends itself to impulse buys. Last night is a perfect example. It was about 8pm and I really wanted to read Kat Richardson’s third book in her greywalker series but had no intention of leaving the house. I grabbed my kindle and was reading the book in seconds.

    I thought it would be years before I said anything like this, but I truly prefer reading on the kindle. Being able to sync the kindle with my iphone to have quick access to my e-library is incredibly convenient. With the leather cover it even has the tactile feel of a book. Now if Amazon could just find way to add that intoxicating paper smell I would be in heaven.

    My point is I wouldn’t be surprised if in the near future their is a third level HC, PB, E-book. I still buy hardcovers, but if I have a choice between a PB and kindle book, I choose the Kindle.

  23. Turista on #

    Hardcovers should be outlawed. There is no good argument for them. Nobody has the space or strength for these dinosaurs. We saddle little school children with 40-50 pounds of textbooks and most people and most book buyers wait for the paperback versions.

  24. David on #

    Every one is commenting on preference of hard cover verses paper back when purchasing books. The question I have is: on a true story novel, what in the cover or by line do you think makes a person say “yes” I want to read about this? Is it the title, the artwork on the cover, i.e., like anything else something jumps out at you and makes you want to buy it. Thanking you in advance for your feedback.

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