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.