A Question for Big Publishers - Why Do We Have to Wait for Paperbacks? - by Ali Bacon

Big books from monthly book-clubs (growing dusty!) 
In my childhood everything- even Mallory Towers! -  was in hardback, and in my early married life I indulged in a book club (remember them?) which delivered a chunky novel once a month.
          I think I can pin down my change of heart over hardbacks  to when I asked my young teenage daughter for a copy of the newly published Donna Tart (The Little Friend) for Christmas, on the basis it wouldn’t be too big a drain on her pocket money. Being out of the book-buying habit at the time, I'd missed that it was only out in hardback and was filled with guilt as I unwrapped the unwieldy and expensive brute.
          From then on, I have never chosen to buy fiction in hardback. (Non-fiction, poetry and illustrated books are a different matter). A novel in my mind is either e-book or tree-book, and a tree-book is a paperback. A hardback takes up too much room, is awkward to hold and always costs more. If I desire a brand new book, I try the library or wait for the paperback. I may even read the e-book and buy the paperback afterwards. The only exception to this rule, is when a friend is launching a book from one of the big commercial publishers. I want to own a (signed) copy and I want to support my friend and fellow-writer. There is no alternative except to buy the hardback. My question to these publishers is, WHY ON EARTH NOT?

Interrogating Google here and here doesn’t really help me understand this publishing model, and the answers that come back look distinctly out of date.
          1) Hardbacks make more money per copy. Publishers want to sell as many hardbacks as possible before going to paperback. This is compared to films being available only in cinema before going to TV/DVD.
          BUT it’s admitted that sales of hardbacks can be ridiculously low. Why delay approaching the mass-market? And sorry, I don’t really get the comparison with films where big screen/small screen are utterly different experiences.

          2) Libraries want hardbacks.
          Looking along most library shelves, I say 'not any more'. They buy paperbacks and additional dust jackets if necessary, presumably still at lower cost than a hardback.  
Local library - not many hardbacks now

          3) Publishing in hardback is a sign of confidence in the author. Reviewers of literary fiction therefore only accept hardbacks.
          Well hang on. I have looked at a number of smaller publishers like Saraband, Salt and Sandstone Press, all of which have featured in literary prize lists recently, and unless I’m mistaken they usually issue straight to paperback. If there are any reviewers out there who refuse to look at something from a literary publisher because of the cut of its cloth,  I think we should send them back to the century from whence they came.

          But maybe I'm the one who's out of step. To check I'm not the whingeing minority I conducted an ad hoc survey by asking my Facebook 'friends' two questions. 
          a) If money were not an object, would you buy the hardback of a novel or the paperback?
          b) If your favourite author has a new book coming out, would you buy the hardback or wait for the paperback?
          46 people had responded at the last count, not always in detail to each question, but in a way that makes it easy to give a working analysis.
         14 people expressed a degree of love for the hardback, whether or not they could always afford one.
          31 stated a preference for paperbacks. Of these quite a few did say they would splash out on a hardback but only for the sake of getting a new book more quickly.  I tried to leave e-books out of the equation but one respondent said they read everything on Kindle.
By the way the respondents were a mixture of real life- friends and online writing/reading contacts - a reasonably diverse bunch. 

           NOT JUST ME THEN!

          Yes, there are lovers of hardbacks, but why should the rest of us have to wait? Here are a couple of suggestions as to how publishers with the wherewithal might keep both camps happy. 
          1) Issue hardback and paperback simultaneously. I imagine this might be an option restricted to proven best-sellers with a dedicated fan base. Hardback could then have ‘special edition’ status. 
          2) Make the first paperback print run special in some way and/or do not offer discounts during a ‘hot-off-the press’ period. Keen readers will pay a higher price to get it quickly (well I would).  This would preserve the higher mark-up rate and discounting could be offered down the line.

At Corvus, psych thriller
goes straight to paperback
          I’m not sure how many publishers still favour the ‘old’ model  across the board. I notice Atlantic issue hardbacks in the Corvus imprint but not others and there is generally some differentiation between 'commercial' and 'literary' fiction. But I know at least two of the big six are still using the hardback-first model and I still don’t understand why. 


Maybe the people I should have asked are the authors who have won these deals. The big publishers still issue advances on sales. Is the author, cash in hand, happy to wait a year for mass-market penetration? 
          Do they like the opportunity for a second paperback launch? 
          How does it feel to be categorised as 'commercial' and sell paperbacks to  your readers from the off, or win the 'literary' accolade and have only a hardback to offer? 
I'l be happy to stand corrected on the feeling that this model is elitist and outdated. 

Of course I can see I might be asking this question in the wrong place. Here at Authors Electric we are mostly one-man bands doing our own thing and as far as I know don’t issue non-illustrated fiction in hardback.  But we are market driven as much as anyone else. Check out the books on our author pages. If you fancy a paperback you won't have to wait!

Paperback, obvs!
Ali Bacon lives in South Gloucestershire and writes contemporary and historical fiction. Her coming of age novel A Kettle of Fish was published in 2012 and she has recently had stories shortlisted for the Exeter Writers Prize and The Magic Oxygen Prize. Last year appeared at the Cheltenham Literature Festival and in a one woman show in Scotland. She is currently working on a collection of linked short stories inspired by early photographs. 


Bill Kirton said…
It's a tricky one, Ali. As a reader, I love hardbacks. Even though the words I read in them are identical to those in the paperback or screen versions, the tactile experience of the hard cover and superior paper quality add to the pleasure. As a writer, however, i question their value. I was published back in 1995 by Piatkus. They brought out the first two in my Jack Carston series but, at the time, they didn't do paperbacks. Chuffed as I was at being in print at last, I still realised that the likelihood of people being willing to shell out £16 on a hardback crime novel by someone they'd never heard of was slim - and so it proved.
Bill Kirton said…
Of course, I should add that, once one is into the story, the tactile aspect is irrelevant. If the narrative grips, it wouldn't matter if it was traced in spaghetti on a chopping board.
AliB said…
thanks, Bill. Interesting to hear your experience. I suppose at one time a hardback was a 'real book' to me, but now I find them generally cumbersome, except maybe a slim volume of poems or short story where that dust cover and solid spine do feel good.
AliB said…
People may be interested to know I contacted Sanjida Kay, Bristol writer and author of Bone by Bone and the Stolen Child, both published by Corvus. She says:
"TheStolenChild pub by @CorvusBooks, is a mass market paperback - so cheaper than hardback, bigger than pbck; the pbck is out in September!"
and her own views on the paperback question:
"If I can't wait, I buy a hardback, but generally, the price puts me off and I do hang on until the paperback comes out, or buy an ebook."

Thanks Sanjida!
Brian said…
Sometime in the 90s I stopped buying hardbacks - too expensive, too bulky, too difficult to hold. By the mid Noughties I had stopped buying paperbacks - too expensive. Then came Kindle. Now I have a a library of more than 200 books, most of which I read on my phone. As a pensioner I once again have access to reading, without having to wait for the library a) to get a copy, and b) to be open.

I have also had the pure joy of being able to publish my own books, two of which had been turned down by agents and publishers. One has just sold its 1500th copy (bringing me MUCH more than a legacy publisher would have paid me); the other has sold a very satisfactory 500 copies so far - both sell regularly. I am a very happy author.
Susan Price said…
Congratulations, Brian!
It's only a matter of time before we have print-on-demand hardbacks...
Anonymous said…
The price difference does matter. The real problem is that paperbacks are seriously underpriced because people expect books to cost less than a cup of coffee and a magazine. Publishers hope to recoup a good proportion of their production costs by issuing a hardback first, since buyers accept a more realistic price for a nicely produced (and giftable) book. Even if the hardback doesn't sell all that many copies, it still helps financially, which just shows how cheap paperbacks are! E books perhaps afford the best answer to readers, publishers and authors since they cost very little to produce. Still, there's nothing like the feeling of a book in your hand.

Popular posts

The Bloodcurdling Antics of Two Soulless Egomaniacs--by Reb MacRath

Wasted Journeys to Westminster? Julia Jones

A Few Discreet Words About Caesar's Penis--Reb MacRath

My New Bloody-Good Good-Blooded Book -- Reb MacRath

What a Difference Two Years and a Month Make…