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Hardbacks have another chance

21 November 2011

Many of us who have worked in the publishing business have long expected hardbacks to be superseded by paperbacks. But over the years hardbacks have been surprisingly durable in their grip on the book-buyer, with various come-backs affecting how much they are produced.

Although it’s obviously going against normal pricing rules, the more expensive hardback edition survives partly because of the gift market and partly because readers don’t want to wait to read their favourite novelist. But why not publish that novel straight into paperback? Won’t the bigger effect of one big promotion sell the most books if it can publicise the book on first publication, just when a mass audience can buy, and at a lower price But will it generate more revenue than having a succession of editions, starting with a hardback, then perhaps carrying on with a trade paperback edition and then finally putting the book into mass market, or what the Americans call rack-size paperback?

It’s not always clear what the best course of action is and many publishers work it out on a book-by-book basis. UK publishers will be glad to see James Daunt, the new boss of Waterstone’s, backing the hardback edition, whereas in the recent past it was Waterstone’s 3 for 2 offer which tended to encourage many publishers to think they needed to put books into paperback as quickly as possible.

It’s surprising in the light of other changes to reflect that the different hardback and paperback editions still have the same relationship as they always did. Years of trade paperback publishing hasn’t really altered this. People still prefer to give hardbacks as gifts and they will still buy favourite bestselling authors in hardback to read and keep. But for the beach or reading on the daily commute, paperbacks have obvious advantages.

The American market has long seen paperbacks as disposable and it’s fair to say that they do tend to have a more downmarket look than UK paperbacks, which often have a higher level of art direction going into the cover and can be printed on better paper too. But some people think American publishers produce better hardbacks and the hardback market has survived far better in the US, probably because there’s more disposable income, which allows for a wider market for hardbacks.

Simon & Schuster publishing director Suzanne Baboneau said: "It's good to have the option of another edition up your sleeve; to do the hardback, and then be able to tweak the jacket and add quotes when you do the trade paperback edition and then the mass market paperback. It means you can give a book that extra push." She added that, though there was little price differential between formats, "subconsciously publishers and agents love a hardback, and reviewers do too—it's something about the colour of the boards, the flaps, the feel of it for book buyers."

Of course the ebook is also changing the hardback/paperback relationship, but that’s another story.