Are Hardbacks Necessary?

At the risk of goring some sacred cows, I’m going to say no and here’s why. In the past, major publishers followed this model: Initially produce advanced reading copies as plain paperbacks. Then the official release came as a hardback. Six months later, the trade paperback version was released, assuming the hardback had been selling well enough. At some later point, they might bundle it as a mass market version, or they might go directly to mass market if the book was a genre directed toward the grocery store market.

As booksellers, my wife and I dislike hardbacks because:

  • They’re expensive—maybe $10 more expensive than the trade paperback
  • They’re heavier—our military customers have to move often and need to keep their household weight allowances light
  • They’re bulkier—again a concern for people who must live in smaller quarters

So why do publishers produce hardbacks? Primarily for the library market. Hardbacks are sturdier—better to survive the ins and outs of library patrons. They are also produced for the book clubs. Why are hardbacks necessary for book clubs? In the 90s, Doubleday’s Military Book Club took on two of my books where they became bestsellers. Mine were trade paperbacks and sold well despite that. There is also a very small market of folks who just prefer hardbacks—almost an elitist thing.

In this past, producing hardbacks must have been worth it, but I don’t think that is the case anymore. Libraries have services that can coat paperbacks with a heavy plastic coating that protects them as well if not better than hardbacks for less cost. I know one mystery publisher that initially only produced hardback versions. Although they had good mysteries, we could not sell them because of their cost. They are now producing trade paperback versions, which is encouraging us to offer them in their own section in our bookstore now that they are more affordable.

If you are a self-publisher or a small press, you might want to consider either not producing a hardback version or accompany it with a trade paperback version at the same time. The library market just isn’t that large, and they have other choices to harden their books. Adding the stiff cardboard and fabric covering and a fly cover with panels, which increases cover design costs, just isn’t worth it.

As I said, I’m goring sacred cows here, and I know many may have other viewpoints. Please feel free to wade in on this issue. But, remember the necessity of also producing ebooks and audio books is greatly increasing the complexity of book production for publishers.

This is a cross-posting from Bob Spear‘s Book Trends blog.