Pub Rants

A Very Nice Literary Agent Indulges in Polite Rants About Queries, Writers, and the Publishing Industry

Hardcover vs Original Trade Paperback

STATUS: It’s been a bit of a long day. Right now I’m just reading as I’m still a bit behind on client material and requested manuscripts. I don’t think it’s actually possible to get ahead so a perpetual state of being behind is pretty much normal.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? ALL I WANT by Toad The Wet Sprocket

Basically the conversation about whether to publish a debut in original trade pb versus hardcover relates to literary fiction or commercial literary fiction.

Why? Because there are many genres where original trade or even mass market publication for a debut is widely acceptable and the issues of support really aren’t in question.

For example, publishing romance, thriller, and debuts in SF&F often happen in the mass market version without too many blinks of an eye. In fact, in these genres, it’s often a reverse process. An author can start in mass market and move “up” to trade or hardcover.

For those of you who are confused, mass market is the pocket size publication of a work. Trade paperback is the same size as a hardcover (for the most part) but simply has a soft cover rather than the hard (and a lower price point).

Lots of terrific women’s fiction and commercial mainstream projects are published as original trade pbs and work great.

The trick is deciding about a debut in the literary realm. Do you go for hardcover with all the “prestige,” the marketing/pr backing and the reviews (but the higher price point—which lots of readers perceive as too high) or do you go for the trade pb? Right now there are still vestiges of reluctance to fully support an original trade pb in this realm.

Thus the dilemma. Forgo the higher price point and the stronger royalty percentages to satisfy reader desires (and if you do the math, authors earn less money with trade pb until the tipping point), or go for the hardcover, get more support and have a higher chance of earning out that advance (or the greater risk of failure if it doesn’t work).

See the issue?

Now I think publishing is evolving because so much good new literary stuff is coming out in original trade pb and succeeding but yet, there are still these hesitations (as the failures loom greatly)—and for good reason.

If we are going to revolutionize the industry and move more to this format (which I’m certainly not opposed to), then let’s re-examine all the facets of it—including the marketing/pr, the print runs, the royalty structures, and gasp, even maybe the advances paid for works that will be pubbed in original trade pb.

I’m lobbying for a holistic approach to the question—rather than simply examining individual facets. Publishing, traditionally, doesn’t work this way. By examining recent history, this is not a nimble industry which makes it interesting for agents to navigate and thus why the BEA panel was so fascinating to attend.

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19 Responses

  1. doortoriver said:

    This is a veeery good question. I have to wonder how things like cover art and material quality (paper thickness, etc.) factor into this, as well. I know in my own experience, I’ve picked up books in each of these categories, and ended up putting them back down for a variety of aesthetic reasons that had nothing to do with price or size.

  2. Anonymous said:

    As a reader, I DESPISE hardcovers. I can’t afford them so I’m forced to either wait or fuck the author over, which is to say I buy the book, read it and return it, or simply download a pirate copy. It’s not like the industry doesn’t know people are strapped for cash these days. If I can’t buy it, I’ll get it another way.

  3. Kristin Laughtin said:

    I love trade paperbacks partly because of personal preference for unknown reasons, and partly because with hardcovers, I always worry about ruining the book jacket. But I never considered the advance/royalty aspect of it– while perhaps a trade paperback may eventually sell more copies than a hardcover version would, for a while the author will be making less money since the price is lower. Hmm.

  4. Jessica said:

    One of my favorite authors had a new romance come out in hardback. I waited for paper back. And waited. Then I saw it at the library and rented. The point is, if I’d seen it as a mass market first I would have bought it. Great post, Kristin!

  5. nightsmusic said:

    This is interesting and I didn’t fully understand how the decision is made but I have to say, I am not ordinarily a hardcover buyer, for several reasons. One is of course, the expense, but another is that with the limited room I have, 2000 paperbacks take up much less space than their equivalent hardcovers. I also love the ‘feel’ of a paperback. I can roll the pages a bit, thumb the edges of the page while I read, it’s easily transported and fits into my purse where a hardcover doesn’t, I have no book jacket to worry over tearing (because let’s face it, the book jacket is designed to keep the book itself pristine. If I remove the jacket to carry the book around, I’ve defeated the purpose).

    I don’t mind lending a paperback. Some people aren’t as nice to their books as I am and I’ve gotten some back in terrible shape, either because the person is simply hard on their books or they have a small child with a crayon and set it down in the wrong spot, allowing said child access…

    I do have to say though, I would buy the hardcover any day over an eBook that requires a portable reader such as Amazon’s Kindle. The sensory experience of reading is completely gone for me there. I want to touch the pages. It makes me feel more connected to the author.

    nm

  6. Bev Marshall said:

    Here’s something else to consider. My first two novels were orignially published in hardcover; the third was a two book deal so the advance didn’t enter into the decision I had to make as to whether to go softcover or hardcover. My agent and I decided softcover and what happened was, although the book was orignially conceived as adult fiction, it crossed over to YA . . . mainly because of the price I think. I doubt it would have made the YA market had it been in hardcover.

  7. 150 said:

    Seriously? The genre with the smallest built-in fan base prefers the costlier format? Jeepers.

  8. AmyB said:

    Given the number of books I buy per year, I’ve had to put a spending limit on how much I’ll spend on an individual book, which is $15 for fiction. So any novel that comes out in a $20+ hardcover, I won’t be able to buy until it comes out in paperback (which is fine, since there are always more books I want to read than I have time for). I’ll happily buy trade paperbacks though–I love that format. And I’ll buy some YA hardcovers (if under $15, and they often are).

  9. Inspire said:

    Hi Kristin,

    Great post. I’m glad I found your site. I queried you last year and you were so nice.

    I may be showing some sign of disloyalty to fellow writers, but there are many times when I buy hardcovers in either used bookstores or the Goodwill store. Goodwill sells them for 2.50!

    I like the feel of a trade paperback and the font size. The mass market novels — I don’t like the way they feel in my hands and find the smaller print a pain and have to wear my reading glasses.

  10. wonderer said:

    As a reader, I prefer paperbacks (mass market or trade) not so much because of price but because of size. I do most of my reading on public transit, so I go for smaller, lighter books. I can do this because my to-read list is so long that I don’t generally feel compelled to buy a book (in hardcover) as soon as it comes out. The only recent exceptions have been the Harry Potter books and Peter Watts’s BLINDSIGHT – I couldn’t wait long enough for the paperback editions.

  11. Southern Writer said:

    Do you go for hardcover with all the “prestige,” the marketing/pr backing and the reviews (but the higher price point—which lots of readers perceive as too high) or do you go for the trade pb?

    I never realized it was either / or. I’d say 95% of the books on my shelves are paperback. All the best women’s fiction is in trade paperback, isn’t it?

  12. pseudosu said:

    call me chicken but as a first time author i’d almost rather come out in trade paperback and have my debut make or exceed sales expectations. from what i’ve been reading it’s tough to earn out of a hardcover sometimes in this market and if you don’t hit pay dirt the first time out good luck getting #2 published. i’d rather build slow and be doing it for 20 years.
    i usually wind up buying tpb too.

  13. Just_Me said:

    Maybe it’s because I’m reading sci-fi or maybe I’m just cheap but I prefer mass market any day of the week. I won’t even glance at hard cover, I won’t pay $20-$30 for a book I can buy in paperback for $7 or on ebay in two years for $0.75

    There’s a certain arrogance attached to hard cover I think. Among the intelligentsia the hard cover book at the coffee shop is another status symbol. A way of proving you have cash to throw around.

    But there are a limited number of books that would debut well in hard cover, and those are books that will never cross over into paperback (for whatever reason). The rest, yes, big-name authors publish in hard cover and release to paperback a year or so later, that seems to be an industry standard. From the fiscal side, I understand, as a consumer I’m annoyed. But I’ll wait a year for the paperback. If the book still sounds interesting in a year, then I buy it. If the year has passed and I can’t remember why the book appealed, well, to bad, that author lost my 7 bucks and I buy something else.

  14. Carleen Brice said:

    You’ve got my vote. My debut novel came out in OTP and at first I was a little sad it wasn’t hardcover. But I definitely think the price point helped with my sales. I hope the industry soon gets behind these books as much as the hardbacks.

  15. Kathleen said:

    I’m late in the conversation… but I prefer paperback, too. Hardcover is not only too expensive, but I, also, don’t find that its durability is really worth it! I have paperbacks that I’ve read dozens of times and they’re still in fantastic shape. On the other hand, the few hardcovers that I have seem to want to tear away from the binding after a decent amount of use. They’re nowhere near as comfortable to curl up with, either… and when I’m reading in bed, laying on my side, they’re HEAVY and my arm gets tired!

    Mass Market vs. Trade… I’m a little less likely to try a new author in trade, due to the price… but since I usually do my “trying out” via the library, if I like it well enough to make it a keeper, it won’t matter so much. Then, the extra few dollars is worth the extra space they put between the inner margins and the binding. (I don’t know why Mass Market doesn’t allow for an extra 1/4″ in there!)

    As an aspiring author, I hope to get published in Mass Market… mostly because I feel it’ll be a lot easier to get new readers that way. To me, that will outweigh higher royalties in the long run.

    eBooks… I agree that they’re likely the wave of the future, and I’m almost all digital in a lot of other ways… but I haven’t gotten into it yet for my pleasure reading. I can’t afford any of the readers, and spend too much time in front of the computer as it is. Not to mention, I do NOT

  16. Kathleen said:

    Another reason I haven’t gone to ebooks… they’re too expensive! I have to pay a couple hundred for a reader, and the books are often only a dollar or two less than the privilege of holding the book in my hand and loaning it to friends? Nope. Why should I?

  17. karen wester newton said:

    I’m with nightsmusic. After twenty or thirty years of collecting, I’ve run out of shelf space. Yes, I could cull some books, but why should I have to? And mass market paperbacks are a uniform size, so they can fit in shorter shelves.

    They call it “mass market” for a reason!

  18. Ashli said:

    I also side with the mass market paperback. I prefer its smaller size: it’s easier to carry, takes up less space on the shelf, and is quite uniform in its height. Hardcovers are heavy, overpriced, a pain to lug around, take up more space, and their dust jackets are too easily damaged. To me, trade paperbacks are just a step below hardcovers in annoyance with the biggest issues being the variety of heights they come in and their still too-high cost.

    What I find particularly annoying is the wait between the hardcover and mass market paperback. What used to be a year is now two or more–and some books take even longer with a trade-sized publication in the middle. And if I already have a collection of mass market books by an author, I don’t want to suddenly be stacking trade-sized books next to them of his/her newest releases.

    As an avid buyer of books, I feel like the industry is trying to take advantage by offering more high-priced versions before the mass-market choice. Like others have stated, it turns me away or at the very least leaves me aggrivated and annoyed as I impatiently await YEARS for the mass market publication. I can’t begin to tell you how many books I haven’t read because of this issue. If I could change anything in the realm of books, this would be among my top three choices.

  19. Irascible Writer said:

    As an author who published the first two novels in hardcover it was a hard pill to swallow when my new (big) publisher announced TP for my upcoming release. There is a huge prestige issue attached to this. I will not get as many print reviews, and I will get invited to fewer events for readings.

    Ironically, I quit buying hardcovers myself because of cost. So I get it. Now we need the rest of the industry to catch up and quit treating TB authors like second-class citizens.

    Hopefully it will increase my readership.

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