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Sayonara, Hardcover; or, Making the Format Fit Today’s Customer

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Sayonara, Hardcover; or, Making the Format Fit Today’s Customer

by Amy Collins MacGregor and Bethany Brown

A few months ago, a fiction book buyer from one of the large chains leaned over at lunch and asked for a favor. “Would you please tell all your publisher clientsto stop publishing fiction in hardcover?” he said. “It’s not helping them. And, in fact, it is hampering their chances of getting on my shelves.”

This anti-hardcover observation was not new to us. As consultants to publishers, we had heard it before from librarians and booksellers, but this was the first time we had heard a national chain buyer express it.He went on to say, “With so many small presses pitching books today, publishers should be focused on placement. They cannot get good placement for hardcover books. Hardcover sales are hemorrhaging. If publishers want a shot at getting into our stores, they needto stop publishing in hardcover.”

This conversation led us to wonder: Are the days of launching a book in hardcover over? Articles and interviews with independent, chain, and library buyers provide anecdotal evidence that people aren’t buying books in hardcover the way they used to. But is there hard evidence to support this conclusion?

Figures to Reckon With

Drawing on data from many major book retailers, Nielsen BookScan reports that paperback unit sales rose 2 percent in 2008 while hardcover unit sales dropped by 3.6 percent. Although these may seem like small percentages, keep in mind that most of the tracked hardcover sales were of bestsellers and that these numbers include all of 2008, not just the recessionary last quarter.

BookScanalso reports that hardcover sales were down more than 28 percent in the last quarter of 2008 and are still falling. Overall, in terms of books that it tracks, hardcover unit sales for 2008 were down 3.6 percent, while unit sales of trade paperbacks rose 2.0 percent last year, and sales of mass market paperbacks rose 2.4 percent.

Yes, there may be exceptions, but if you want to maximize your chances of sell-in and sell-through, it looks as though you’d be smart to rethink your hardcover publishing program.

Historically, launching in hardcover has been more appealing than launching in paperback. Both authors and publishers tend to think of hardcovers as big books with an air of legitimacy and to honestly believe that they will bring in more dollars. They believe that libraries will order more books in hardcover. They also believe that they cannot get reviews with paperbacks.

All these ideas are outdated and not representative of today’s publishing environment, which is why many publishers are rethinking their hardcover publishing programs.

Peter Lynch, editorial manager of trade books at Sourcebooks, Inc., analyzes the options this way:

“The two important factors to keep in mind are the economy and the opportunity to launch. With hundreds of thousands of new books being published each year, the challenges of making a new book stand out to the reader, and be the one book they pick, are immense. By publishing the book in hardcover, you are asking the reader to not only choose your book, but also be willing to pay an extra $6 to $10 for it in relation to any other option on the table, just for the nicer binding. In an environment where people are watching every dollar they spend, it’s extremely difficult to ask people to make that choice, especially for a book or author they aren’t already familiar with.”

In fact, big frontlist books (both fiction and nonfiction) are now being released in paperback by smart publishers who understand the changing landscape of publishing. Reviewers now regularly read and review trade paperback books.Libraries, which have less money than ever before, often prefer trade paperbacks, and the ever-shrinking number of librarians who prefer hardcovers can be served with short hardcover print runs or print on demand.

Tony Proe, whose sales group has been selling to Barnes and Noble as well as independent bookstores for over 20 years, sees buyers today passing on many hardcover books that would have been stocked if released in paperback. “Paperbacks are definitely becoming more and more preferred,” says Proe. “This is even more true at the national chains. I recently was selling a hugely promoted mystery novel published by a well-respected, midsized publisher. The B&N mystery buyer bought enough for a small test, but told me that if the book had been released in paperback, he would have ordered 10 times as many.”

Midsized to large publishers are seeing their hardcovers passed over. Sell-in and sell-through are even less likely when small presses stick to their hardcover publishing plans.

“Keep the customer in mind when choosing the format,” Dan Schreffler, head buyer at Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza in Albany, NY, told us. “Today, when many American consumers do not have the money to spend on hardcovers and more expensive formats, too many books are being published in hardcover that should have been launched in paperback. Most fiction could have gone straight to paperback and been given a nice trade package. There are so many choices today, including e-books. Publishers should consider publishing in less-expensive formats.”

“Hardcover sales have been dropping for years,” Schreffler adds, noting, “The preference for a change to paperback will become glaringly obvious to publishers soon, but I’d hope that they would want to get out in front of this trend.”

Find the Fitting Format

Is it time for you to take a hard look at your assumptions about publishing in hardcover? Do you publish books in hardcover that are out of date by the time you release the more cost-effective paperback edition? How many more units would have sold if that same book had been in a more affordable format when the content was new and the topic was hot?

Of course, there are times when publishing a book in hardcover is a good idea. Many books are not offered for bookstore shelves alone. You may be publishing a book destined for corporate sales, or you or your author may be a speaker who plans to sell the book at workshops, conferences, and conventions. Additionally, the lush coffee-table book may demand a more expensive treatment. In circumstances such as these, the hardcover format might make sense, and the higher price might increase profits.

But if you are concerned for your older readers who prefer hardcovers because of the bigger type, print your paperback with a larger font. These readers may be struggling with shrinking retirement funds and even less likely to spend extra money on a hardcover book.

The bottom line: Publish in hardcover when it makes sense, but don’t publish in hardcover just because that is how it has always been done. It doesn’t make sense to launch a hardcover book primarily because of an author’s ego or because of some outdated ideas of legitimacy. In short, publish smart. We need to identify our readers and make sure we are creating the books that meet their desires and specifications, not ours.

Amy Collins MacGregor and Bethany Brown are publishing consultants with The Cadence Group, an independent firm dedicated to helping small and new presses make the right choices in the ever-changing world of publishing. They can be reached at project@thecadencegrp.com.



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