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.
- And, no, I don’t think that’s a good thing. [↩]
- Remember though surpassing Magic or Madness‘s sales is a very low bar. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- Thank you, Bloomsbury! [↩]
- Bloomsbury was excellent at spreading the ARCs of HTDYF far and wide. [↩]
- Which, let me tell you, is a marvellous feeling. [↩]
- Being a paperback series had a lot to do with the success of Gossip Girls, A List, etc. [↩]
- Or depression or whatever you want to call what the world is experiencing right now. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- Judging from the foreign language editions of mine and Scott’s books I’d say most countries in the world are predominantly paperback. [↩]
- Though usually the third life in mass market pb is because it sold well in trade. [↩]