New books: Why hardcover first?

Why are newly published books printed in hardcover first and then only reprinted in paperback form if they’re popular enough? It would seem that paperbacks would be cheaper to produce, cheaper to ship, etc.

Higher markup (meaning more quickly realized profits) on hardcovers.

200 years ago, a book would be first circulated as a chapbook (a cheap paperback in pamphlet format) to see how well it did. Once it had achieved enough sales, it would be reissued in hard cover to garner the business from people who wished to own a “permanent” copy.

About 100 years ago, publishers began experimenting with new merchandising techniques that led to the introduction of marketing hardcovers by way of massive displays of the product and the practice of returning unsold copies to the publisher for credit that were then resold at discounted prices as “remaindered” books.

The current theory (and, generally, the practice) is that a “hot” new title will be sought by interested parties at the higher price of a hard cover. Once that audience has been exhausted, then the more thrifty (and more patient) buyers will be offered paperbacks.

Hardcovers look more attractive, and are usually put in a different section up the front of the bookstore.

Softcovers dont seem to hold up as well on a shelf, smaller, and dont get noticed as much.

Cheaper to produce but they also make less money. There has been a trend for new books to come out as trade paberbacks – generally a 6x9 size or thereabouts with better quality paper than the mass market paperbacks. they sell for $12-$15.

An awful lot of children’s books debut as softcovers. So do most computer books, and a significant percentage of annual reference books (rg, almanacs). I suspect that all of these are simply a matter of reader preference in the various categories.

It’s also very much of a prestige issue. Hardcovers are serious; softcovers are not. Major book reviewing venues will not review a book first published in softcovers except for odd and extraordinary circumstances.

Opinion makers have the same prejudices, and look upon softcovers as a second-rate product (a self-fulfilling prophecy). Advertisers and marketers can also do more with the promotion, publicity and sheet amount of cover space the biggest hardback has.

Hardbacks are also worth more money to authors because they get a higher percentage of a higher cover price. And handcovers cannot be sent back to the publisher under a full money-back guarantee as mass market paperbacks can.

It’s a bit like the way Hollywood used to roll out movies. If a movie was difficult or needed to build a audience through word of mouth, it would be released in a few theaters in large cities in the hopes that critics and influential theater-goers would talk the movie up so that it could be debuted in a larger number of theaters. This is still done for many independent and art films.

While most books are available pretty much everywhere at once today, the idea of building up word of mouth, especially through the independent (non-chain) booksellers and the reviewers often works very well. This creates a secondary market for so-called trade paperbacks, which are cheaper and normally sell many more copies. Mostly because the distribution chains for them have shrunk to nothingness, only a tiny percentage of books make it to the final step of mass market paperbacks. Those are almost exclusively today for genre books: bestsellers*, science fiction, mysteries, romance, westerns, books whose audiences are assumed to be “consumers” of books as much or more than “readers” of books, another reason why the big important books don’t hang out here any more than they have to.

And also there are several book clubs - which sell way more of these books than most people realize - who deal in hardcovers because they look better to their audience, many of whom don’t even bother to read the book but want it to display. They say the Stephen Hawkings A Brief History of Time was the least-read bestseller in all history.

The book industry is as rational as Hollywood but with a far worse understanding of where the money comes from and goes to.

  • Yes, bestsellers are a genre of their own these days. A few literary fictions and some heavy non-fiction books also sell tons but the rest of these books are more about their authors or their subjects than about their contents. Which is why you see the same names on the bestsellers list year after year no matter what the quality or value of the latest book might be as long as it feels just like all the rest.

That’s not correct, or at least it wasn’t three years ago when I last worked for a publisher.

I’ll give you the first part… many of the standard practices don’t make good sense for publishers… but wat do you mean by the second part of that sentence? Who doesn’t understance about the money?