Hardcover vs Paperback—What’s Your Choice?

hardcover vs softcover

All books that you have ever read fall into either of these two formats, the hardcover or the paperback. The words ‘hardcover’ and ‘paperback’ refers to the cover of the book. For purposes of this article, ‘hardcover’ and ‘paperback’ will be used interchangeably.

From the point of view of content, there is no difference but they look and feel different. They are also the product of different time frames in the history of publishing. And the reason for which they are printed is also different. This is not the final reading of the book but rather how the book is used by the reader when reading and owning it.

As an author who is thinking of self-publishing your book, this article looks at how you can decide which format you want to be published in. Let’s look at each closely.

The Hardcover  Books

The hard cover is a hardbound book that has a jacket called the dust jacket over the main cover. The board is binder’s board or heavy paperboard covered with buckram, a type of stiff cotton cloth, heavy paper, or sometimes leather. The function of the dust jacket is to protect the pages and keep them intact for a long time.

Hardcovers don’t get damaged easily so they last for years. Now moving inside, the paper on which a hardback is printed is acid-free paper. The pH value of acid-free paper is 7, which makes them long lasting. Hardcovers have dust jackets that are artistically designed. Now the jacketless hardcover version has become popular too. In this type of hardcover books, the design is directly printed on the board binding.

On the folded dust jacket, the front cover carries the blurb. On the back flap is the biography of the author sometimes accompanied by a photograph and photo/design credits.

The spine of a hardcover books are flexible. The pages are stitched together which is why it can be laid flat on any surface when opened. Many academic books are only published in the hardcover version. Books on law, autobiographies, best sellers, reference guides, and classic literary works are published as hardcover books too.

Hardcover books are published in fewer numbers than paperbacks but being priced higher they tend to bring in more profits for the publisher. They also look good on bookshelves. Some people even use them as home décor!

The Paperback  Book

Let’s look at the paperback books now. Also called softcover, paperbacks have a thick paper or paperboard cover. The pages in paperbacks are stuck together with glue rather than being stitched or stapled. They are smaller than a hardcover, lighter, and get damaged if handled roughly so they need to be handled with care.

Paperbacks can be trade paperbacks or mass-market paperback version. Trade paperback books are printed on better quality paper than mass-market paperbacks. Consequently, the latter is cheaper than the former. Usually, paperbacks are printed for short time reads. For example, they are what you buy at airports, train stations and bus stations to be read while you travel.

The books of best-selling authors are always printed as a hardcover first. That is usually an indication that their fans will ‘collect’ their books. However, books of new authors are usually printed as paperback books. Genre fiction or popular fiction is usually always a paperback.

Paperbacks also cost less to publish. It’s the go-to edition when publishers do not expect a best seller or are not willing to invest a lot in publishing a book. For example, novels, new editions, and reprints of old books.

Paperbacks are published in larger numbers than the hardcover books but they also do not usually bring in large profits. So many publishers balance the profit from the sales of paperbacks by selling more hardcover.

The History 

There is a historical reason why the hardcover book is published before the paperback. The first books were all hardcovers. The paperback came into existence in the 19th century Europe. It started in Britain and then became popular in America in the 1930s. All thanks to Penguin and New American Library which began producing well-designed and inexpensive paperbacks of older books targeting a new generation of readers who could not afford the hardcover editions. Then came the Second World War when reading became popular as a pastime. This coupled with paper shortages was instrumental in making the paperback a popular solution for publishers.

The Marketing Point of View 

From the marketing angle, if a book is expected to do very well, it is published first as a hardcover. The sales strategy is called ‘windowing’. It is a technique often used in films where the film is released in theatres first before making it to DVD. After the hardcover book, the publisher publishes a trade paperback edition. However, if hardcover sales are expected to be slow, the publisher publishes paperback originals. If the publisher has a very popular book in hand, then it extends this cycle by publishing a mass market paperback, which has a more compact size but less durable paper. So the publisher releases different formats throughout the cycle of the book to cash in on its popularity. When the popularity subsides, the interest is reawakened by publishing a low-cost version of the paperback so that more copies sell. And the book continues to be on the shelves in some form or another.

Earlier, the paperback version of the book used to come out one year after the hardcover book. In the early 21st century that gap became six months. Almost always the hardback is published before the paperback. It’s a very rare case for a hardcover edition to follow a paperback one.

When it comes to ISBN, the same title will have a different ISBN as a hardback and a paperback. This is for stock identification. As you know, the ISBN is a standardized number in the book industry.

Paperback vs Hardcover  

Now let’s look at what you need to consider as an author who is thinking of self-publishing his or her book.

1. The Cost:

The first and most obvious one. Hardbacks are expensive to produce. The cost is passed on to the reader but it can’t be so expensive that the reader doesn’t pick up the book at all. The hardback editions can cost up to five times the price of a paperback. Affordability can be a big issue. Especially if your readers read a lot and would like to own the books they read, and don’t care how they age over time, then paperbacks are your best friend.

2. Reading Experience:

Readers have their preferences when it comes to the way they want to read. Some readers like the experience of holding a paperback while reading. Not to mention it is lighter. Hardcovers also have dust jackets which can be difficult to manage for even adult readers let alone children. Some readers don’t like them much and even take them off while reading. Some even find an innovative use for the front and back flaps as bookmarks!

3. Storage space:

For some readers, storage space is an issue. In today’s age when living spaces have shrunk,
the paperback offers an easy reading and storage solution. Hardbacks take up more space on bookshelves and have a wide variety of heights. Fitting them into a bookshelf may be difficult. For the same available space, more paperbacks fit into a bookshelf than hardbacks. This is a consideration for some avid readers leading them to prefer a paperback to the hardback edition.

4. Functionality:

If a book has many informative illustrations or foldable maps, the hardback edition is more useful for readers. The paperback edition of the same book may not be as well produced. Publishers usually add extras to the hardback to make it worth the money the reader spends on it. Extras such as decorated endpapers, illustrations, maps, author’s notes, and extra content are all usually found only in hardcover editions. Ask yourself what would your reader value and make your decision based on it.

5. Readers’ Expectations:

You need to understand how your readers will be using the book and what they expect from it. Readers’ expectations are also linked to the genre. If you publish a hardback in a genre that is usually published as a paperback, then your book might come across as unnecessary. Vice a Versa, if you publish a paperback in a genre that is usually published as a hardback, your book might come across as cheap. Find out what the genre expectations are and work with them.

Hardcover editions have a resale value as well. Depending on the book and writer, its value can appreciate in time and even become collector’s items.

6. Availability:

If you want to self-publish a hardback book for sure, you’ll also need to know the printers who are willing to do it. Self-publishing hardbacks have become difficult. It’s better to research this before getting to the process of publishing. Many decisions like typesetting page dimensions, cover design, paper type, paper cost, the price of the book as well as storage and distribution depend on this important detail.

Conclusion

After you have analyzed the audience and market, you will know the edition that is suitable for your self-published book. So go ahead and leap into the world of books as a published author! Good luck on your soon to be self-published book!

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