Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Paperback or Hardcover? How a publisher makes the decision.

I somehow missed this excellent piece by my friend Moonrat over at Editorial Ass. Moonrat (see how I cleverly avoid the use of a gender pronoun right there?) discusses the editorial and publisher decisions that go behind determining whether a book will debut in paperback or hardcover, and why.

One of many things that Moonrat addresses is the myth that a paperback book doesn't get review coverage, therefore a paperback debut is doomed to failure. As a publicist who for years gleefully smashed this ridiculous notion by getting major review attention for writers like China Mieville, Richard K. Morgan, Alex Irvine, Elizabeth Moon (her Speed of Dark was a paperback original, unlike her hardcover space operas; Elizabeth Hand reviewed it on the front page of the Washington Post Book World) and more - all of whom were published as paperback originals at Del Rey - I was thrilled to see this. It continues to baffle me that people in the industry who really should know better - agents, editors, publishers, publicists, marketing folks and authors - still adhere to and perpetuate the very 1977*-notion that a book must debut in hardcover or it will be an abject failure.**

In fact, forcing a new author to debut in hardcover - particularly a new novelist - is often the fastest way to drive that author into obscurity permanently, because low hardcover sales will set the sales model for the sales estimates of the next book, even if the next book is a paperback original, thus ensuring that fewer copies are ordered. (Moonratty goes over the concept of modeling in-depth in the essay.)

Anyway, go read the essay now.

*In 1977, Del Rey published Terry Brooks' debut novel The Sword of Shannara as an oversized trade paperback, with illustrations by the Bros. Hildebrandt. It became the first ever trade paperback work of fiction to hit the New York Times bestseller list. However, Lester Del Rey was told repeatedly that the book would not be reviewed unless it was in hardcover; to combat this, Del Rey published a miniscule number of hardcovers to send to reviewers. His strategy worked and The Sword of Shannara was reviewed by Frank Herbert in the New York Times Book Review. (If you can find one of those rare hardcover editions of TSOS, by the way, they are probably worth a fortune.)

**This is tied into that other great publishing myth: Reviews sell books. They don't.


Heidi the Hick said...

Is there a reason why a book isn't released in both hardcover and paperback?

I always go for the hardcover if I can get it. I know they're heavy and take up more shelf space but they feel more real. Maybe I'm old fashioned; I prefer real CDs to digital files too.

I just think with books it might be good to give the buyer a choice right there at the beginning. Is it cost prohibitive to print up both right away?

Andrew Wheeler said...

Heidi wrote: Is there a reason why a book isn't released in both hardcover and paperback?

It's been tried, on and off, but, generally, if there are two editions of the same work offered in the same market, the lower-priced one will get the vast majority of the business.

This applies not only to end-consumers, but to libraries and booksellers -- so the more expensive edition gets forced out of the market. Think of it as the bookworld's version of Gresham's law.

clindsay said...

Heidi -

You can't print on speculation. If the chains will buy more copies in paperback than in hardcover, they should only print paperback. A publisher can't print a few thousand hardcovers "just in case". They would end up being destroyed or remaindered, and making the already-thin margin of profit on a book even thinner. (And trust me, it's a VERY thin margin.)

Some business publishers sell their books on a subscription-based model. IE, their customer orders and pays for - in advance - a copy of a particular business book. The publisher then prints the number they actually need and sell direct to consumer, bypassing bookstores entirely. It actually works very well. But fiction is another matter entirely.



Ryan Field said...

A friend just told me she's buying Carrie Fisher's new book...when it comes out in paperback.

Savvy Sharon said...

My own bookshelves are crammed with paperbacks; I prefer their size when reading. I have a few special "treasures" in hardback, but I usually buy soft cover.

As a writer myself, I have always taken into consideration the fact that if my favorite paperback wears out, I can buy a new one, and this helps put money into the coffers of those who produced it--from writer to agent to publisher (at least until it goes out of print; then I help keep the used bookstores in business).

Plus paperbacks fit into my purse better, and leave more money in my wallet so I can enjoy that mocha and Cinnabon while I'm reading. ;-) The price difference between hard cover and paperback is sometimes the deciding factor in whether or not I purchase a book.

Lee Wind said...

It was a good essay. Thanks - such good stuff to think about!


acpaul said...

I generally only buy hardcover for authors I know and love.

In that case, I want 1st ed, and I'll try to get it signed.

Otherwise, the book retains little value 20 years later. And I do buy the pb version for a reading copy.

Authors I haven't read before I only buy in paperback. Why spend $30 on a book that I might not like?