Paperback vs. Hardcover: How Should You Print Your Book?

If you’re taking the reins on how your book is being printed, you’ve probably already come to face-to-face with the many available options. We’ve talked before on the Big Bad Book Blog about print-on-demand versus traditional printing, but we thought it might also be helpful to discuss binding style. Paperback, hardcover, mass market—everyone has seen these formats in bookstores, but how do you decide which is right for your book?

Let’s start by clarifying a few terms:

Paperback (also called soft cover or perfect-bound) books usually have a cover made from paperboard or a very thick stock, and the pages are attached to the binding with glue. When we talk about paperback books, we typically mean trade paperbacks, which are the typical 6 x 9 or 5.5 x 8.5–sized books you see in bookstores. Mass-market is a type of paperback you often see used for romance novels or thrillers. Mass-market books are usually smaller in trim size and fatter with a thinner, lower-quality stock and cover.

Hardcover (also called casebound or hardbound) books have covers that are sturdier, usually made from thick cardboard wrapped in cloth. Here the pages can be glued or sewn into the spine, making the spine more flexible so that the book can lay flat when opened. The book title and author's name are often stamped onto the cloth binding, and hardcover books typically come with printed dust jacket with artwork.

So if you’re making arrangements to have your book printed, how do you decide which format is best for your book? Here are the three main determiners.

Cost to Consumer

The retail price a consumer will pay for a book is largely dictated by the format, and retail buyers have strict guidelines about how a book can be priced. A paperback book is often significantly cheaper than a hardcover book (for more on price, see this post). Because hardcover is more expensive to the consumer, you could encounter readers who just don’t want to pay $21.95 for a book they could otherwise get in paperback for at $16.95. This bears repeating—if you print in hardcover and subsequently price your book higher, you risk losing sales because of the high price point. This consumer choice in price is also important considering the rise in ebook sales, which cannibalized hardcover sales in the last quarter of 2010, according to Bowker. That said, there are many reasons a consumer might prefer a hardcover book, including durability, style, and longevity.

Genre

Genre is one of the biggest indicators for format. Books that can be found in hardcover are frequently in the genres of business, coffee table/art, first-edition fiction, or collector’s editions of classics. Traditionally, fiction comes out first in hardcover and later in paperback. This is changing due to the economic climate, and to stay competitive many fiction titles, especially from newer authors, are coming out in paperback to entice readers with a lower price point. Penguin recently released a beautiful set of hardcover editions for people looking for that classic aesthetic that only hardcover brings. Topics with rapidly changing information, like health, technology, science, and politics, are usually released in paperback (or ebook) formats, so that new editions can be released and consumed more quickly. Of course, these are broad generalizations meant to provide a little guidance, and doing research on comparable titles can help inform your decision on the proper binding for your book.

Printing Cost

Printing hardcover is more expensive than printing paperback, so if you’re on a tight budget, you might get more books for your buck by printing paperback. The margins for hardcover books are usually better than for paperbacks because the cost to consumers is significantly higher than the cost difference in printing—it only costs a little more to print hardcover than paperback and you can charge a lot more in retail. If you do have a strong platform or fan base, or if you have direct sales opportunities, hardcover may be a good way to go. Your clients and fans may be more likely to buy your book even at the higher price point that hardcover commands since they are already interested in your content.

Other Considerations...

One other point to consider is the sale of paperback rights. If your goal is to be picked up by a traditional publisher, you may want to release first in hardcover (again, depending on the genre). If your hardcover sales catch a traditional publisher’s eye, they may inquire about the rights to your paperback version. It doesn’t really work the other way around, though, so if this is important to you, hardcover may be a good choice.

There is no magic formula for deciding what format to print your book in, and there are a lot of factors to consider. The first step is establishing what your price point will be for any format you are considering. Making sure you have an appropriate price point is imperative for accurately running the numbers on your margins. Once you have looked at printing cost versus retail cost, taking a close look at your genre and comparable titles is a good next step to making a decision on format.