Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Is it detrimental to have your book published as a trade paperback original?

"Dear Mr. Lukeman,

Thanks again for creating your blog, and for generously taking our questions. I have a question (which you've probably been asked before) regarding hardcover vs. paperback. My debut collection of stories will be coming out with Ecco/HarperCollins, and most likely they'll do it in paperback (they'll also be publishing my novel, which is still in progress). I knew going into the deal that they were going to publish the stories in paper, but lately I'm having the anxiety that it won't be given the same kind of attention that most debut collections (in hardcover) get (reviews, award consideration, etc.). Most of my writer friends who've written debut collections had their books come out in hardcover, and were reviewed in the major venues, and went on to a paperback release. I worry that I won't have the same opportunities. I know these things can't be predicted, so I guess rather than a question, I'd like to know your thoughts on this, if perhaps I should have gone with a publisher who would've committed to a hardcover. I'm thrilled to be with Ecco-- they were at the top of my list--but as my publication date gets closer, I'm becoming less certain about the format I've signed on to. I appreciate your response and advice. Thanks so much, and Happy New Year.
--Brin Londo ("

This is a very sophisticated question, and there is no right or wrong answer. In fact, whether to publish in hardcover or paperback is always a matter of heated debate even among publishing veterans. It is by no means a science, and anyone who says they have all the answers is wrong. That said, let me at least clarify what the issues are, and the pros and cons of both.

On the one hand, one could argue that it is always better to be published in hardcover first, for a number of reasons. First of all, there is the obvious reason that you stand to earn more money in hardcover royalties than in paperback. If the typical hardcover is $25, and your royalties escalate to 15%, you can end up making $3.75 or more per book sold. If the typical trade paperback is priced at $15, and you are making a 7.5% royalty, then you are making just over $1 per book.

And then, of course, there is the prestige and review factor. Many authors and publishers will argue that books published in hardcover are much more likely to get reviewed, and to get more reviews. Many also feel that a hardcover is more prestigious.

Finally, one could also argue that being published in hardcover gives your book two lives, two chances to make it: once in hardcover, and then again, a year later, in paperback. (As opposed to a paperback original, which only has one chance to make it.) One could argue that these two lives are crucial in making a book, since sometimes a book is published at a wrong time, whereas a year later the climate may be just perfect for a great reception.

There is some validity to all of these arguments, and one can't discount them. If your book becomes a true hit, and it sells for years in hardcover, then you certainly will stand to make much more money in royalties, for one. Look for example, at a book like THE HELP. That book has sold astronomically well in hardcover. If it had been published as a paperback original, the author and publisher would not have made nearly as much as they are making now. One could also argue that if it had been published as a paperback original, then it would not have received the critical reviews it needed to become the bestseller that it did.

All of that said, one can also make convincing arguments to publish a book as a trade paperback original. One could argue that publishing in hardcover can sometimes kill the crucial momentum that an author, particularly a first-time author, needs to build a readership. This argument can especially be made with certain types of books, and certain genres. For example, if the potential readership for a book is younger, and cannot afford $25 as easily as $15, then a publisher may take that into consideration and thus publish as a trade paperback original. Certain genres, as a whole, tend to do better in trade paperback than they do in hardcover, and that might also affect a publisher's decision. If, for example, they feel that your first story collection, or novel, is targeted towards a 20-something readership, that might tip the scales in their decision to publish as a trade paperback original.

Another argument for a trade paperback original is that sometimes a book is published in hardcover, and still gets few or no reviews. On top of that, the sales can be dismal – so dismal that the publisher won't even publish a paperback edition a year later. In that case, you are left with a hardcover publication that didn't get you anywhere. You could argue that, if the book had been published initially as a trade paperback original, it would have sold many more copies, and perhaps gained momentum, and perhaps crossed a tipping point – one which it will, in that case, never have a chance to cross.

The only thing harder to do than landing a book deal for a first time novelist is landing a book deal for a novelist already published to a bad track record. In many ways, it is easier to land a book deal for someone who has never been published, and who has no track record in the system. Once you are published to a poor track record, your numbers are permanently in the system, and it is extremely difficult to convince publishers to publish subsequent books. So another argument for publishing as a trade paperback original is that you don't take the risk of publishing in hardcover to dismal sales, and ruining your track record for subsequent books. In other words, publishing as a trade paperback original just may make a publisher more inclined to buy your subsequent books. It is more of a long-term approach, looking at your career in the big picture.

As far as the review issue is concerned, no one can say for certain that being published in hardcover will necessarily result in more reviews than being published as a trade paperback original. I have seen some books published in hardcover that received no reviews whatsoever (when they should have received many) and I've seen other books published as trade paperback originals that received many reviews. It’s true that, as a rule of thumb, hardcovers tend to receive, on average, more reviews than trade paperback originals, but it really is uneven and based on the book. So I wouldn't necessarily feel that you are jeopardizing your chance for reviews simply because it is a trade paperback original.

A more important factor than the format of the book in getting reviews is the prestige of the publisher and imprint. If a hardcover is being published by a very commercial publisher who is not critically well respected, it may not receive any reviews, whereas if a trade paperback original is being published by a prestigious press, it will more likely get review attention. In your case, Ecco is a prestigious imprint, and I'm sure that major review outlets will pay attention to your book, regardless of the format.

In your case, keep in mind that it is not easy to land a book deal for a story collection, especially with a prestigious publisher. If you had many publishers bidding on your book and several offers to choose from, then in that case, you certainly could have debated whether to go for a hardcover or paperback publication. It all depends on what your bidding situation was, and how thorough a job your agent did in shopping it around. But if your agent shopped it thoroughly and every other publisher passed, then you should consider yourself very fortunate to have landed a deal at all.

One final issue: in the long run, it is not helpful for you to compare yourself to fellow authors. There will always be authors who land bigger advances than you, receive more reviews, win more awards, and sell more books. Comparing yourself to others will ultimately make you unhappy. Just compare yourself to yourself. Focus on what you do, and make each book the best it can be, and challenge yourself to make each book better, and everything will fall into place.


  1. Thank you for this great topic -- May I ask a follow-up question?

    I have a book I'm querying now and would like it to be published as a trade paperback. I know it wouldn't sell in hardcover, basically it's a beach read. Whose decision is that to make? Do I ask the agent? Can she 'suggest' it to the publisher? Or is it the publishers decision completely?

  2. Thanks for sharing this. Great info, as always!

  3. Thank you for this! I've asked my publisher about this very thing, and since they are a small press they have a lot of positive things to say about trade paperback before hardback. My novel, MONARCH, will be released as a paperback in September, and I'm excited about that. It's really great here to see the benefits of each, and like you say, it has a lot to do with the publisher and the book.

  4. Thank you for this very thorough and helpful post. I am not yet at the stage to worry about this too much, since I am still editing my book, but it does help to keep one's eyes open and be aware of the options or lack of them. Beside, I think usually as a first time author, it's unlikely I would get much say in it.

  5. Alas, we authors always dream of our books in hardcover.

  6. This was a great post with a lot of interesting points.

    I can't remember a time when I spent $25 or more on a hardcover from a new author. I only buy hardcovers from writers I already trust to tell a good tale. Even then, I prefer paperbacks due to the lower price, especially in this economy.

    Anne, in my experience as an author, the publisher decides what format to publish your book in. I wouldn't use precious space in a query letter advising them what format is best because they make that decision anyway.

  7. I recently sent my novel to a number of agents. One got back quickly saying he really liked it and thought publishers would be interested. He wanted an 'exclusive right to consider it' and said he'd be back in touch very soon. I said 'ok' to that and haven't heard anything since.That was about two and a half weeks ago. Does this mean he's considered it and doesn't want it or what? Should I do anything further - like contact him again? Clueless!

  8. Dear Mr. Lukeman,

    Thank you so much for your thoughtful and generous response to my question regarding a paperback vs. hardcover release. I can definitely see the pros and cons of each, and I understand that each book is its own individual case. I'll cross my fingers and hope for the best for my book, and take some comfort in what you graciously reminded me of--that I have the support of a reputable publisher, and that simply selling a collection of stories is a feat in itself, given today's publishing climate, and for that I do indeed feel fortunate.

    Best of luck to you and your agency, and once again, thank you for creating this space for our questions, and for your generosity in answering mine.

    B. Londo

  9. I just couldn’t leave your website before telling you that we really enjoyed the quality information you offer to your visitors… Will be back often to check up on new posts.


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