Hardcover, Paperback, or In Between?

Guest Post by Irene Watson

Whenever a book is published, the author has to decide whether to print a hard cover, a paperback, or both, and in recent years, a hybrid version—the French flaps cover—has appeared. Deciding which cover to use depends on an author’s budget, the type of book, and the book’s audience.

In the past, the decision about a book cover followed a steady pattern with traditional publishers. Most big name traditional publishers would print a book in hardcover, and then some months later, the paperback version would come out. This process was followed for a couple of reasons. A new book, especially by a well-known author, was a collector’s item. The first edition of a hardcover book was something to treasure, and it was often of the highest quality and made to be aesthetically pleasing, including having a dust jacket. People who wanted a book they could treasure for the rest of their lives would buy a hardcover book. But not all readers could afford hardcover books, so a cheaper mass market paperback would eventually follow. Depending on how much value the readers perceived that the book would hold for them, they might opt to buy the hardcover or they might wait for the paperback. On occasions where the hardcover did not sell well, the paperback edition was never released.

As the world of publishing has changed in the last couple of decades, more publishers have begun to bring out only paperback versions for books perceived not to be of such great lasting value, especially in terms of genre books like romance novels and mysteries. This move saves the publisher money and also makes the books available to a target audience that might not have paid as much for a hardcover of a mystery that can be read in just a few hours.

Now that self-publishing has become so popular, and because traditional publishers are struggling to remain financially stable, more and more books are being printed solely as paperbacks because it’s the most affordable choice. However, hardcover books are still chosen for significant titles by traditional publishers, and some self-published authors also choose hardcover books, often in addition, but rarely in place of paperbacks.

In choosing a book cover format, authors should think about the way the book will be used, the practicality of the cover choice, their own printing costs, what price the market will bear, and how potential readers will view the cover. Following is a breakdown of guidelines for choosing a book cover format for self-publishers.

If you are publishing your first book, you probably should keep your costs low until you know your book will sell, so you are better off opting for a paperback over a hardcover book. That said, there are some exceptions to this rule. Hardcover books are often a good choice for:

·    Children’s Books—because children might be rough with their books so these covers will give the book greater endurance.
·    Cookbooks—because a hardcover book can more easily lay flat on a kitchen counter for quick reference while cooking.
·    Coffee Table Books—hardcover books are easier to hold than paperback books because coffee table books tend to be larger than the average size of 6×9 or smaller used for most paperback books.

While most nonfiction titles and novels will do best as paperback books, you might also ask yourself what perceived value your readers will find in the book. How important is your book, and how important will your readers perceive it to be? Putting your ego aside, you need to understand that your readers are probably not going to place as great a value on your romance novel as they will if you write a biography of Mark Twain. The type of cover you use will speak to the reader, telling him how important your subject is. Remember, readers do judge a book by its cover.

One final advantage to a hardcover book is the amount of “selling” text you can place on it. It is possible to print a nice looking hardcover book without a dust jacket so that the front and back material are the same as if you printed a paperback. However, most hardcover books are printed with dust jackets, which allow for more text to be printed on them. A good formula for text on a dust jacket is to fill the back of it with testimonials you’ve collected from other authors or experts in your field. Then the inside front flap can provide a description of your book that might even run over onto your inside back flap. The inside back flap can also provide space for a short biography of the author and room for a color author photo. Room for more text means more space to sell your book to the potential reader.

That said, if you’re like me, you may find the dust jacket gets annoying while you read the book. I have a tendency to remove the dust jacket while I read, but if readers do that, it doesn’t hurt anything once the book has been sold.

Finally, think about the cost to you and the customer. A paperback book is more affordable to authors and readers. However, a hardcover can be produced sometimes for as little as four dollars more, and that cost can be passed onto the customer by selling the book for five dollars more so you still make a profit on the hardcover. The question is simply: Will people be willing to pay five dollars more for the hardcover edition?

The paperback cover is most affordable, and except for the few exceptions listed above, it is probably the best choice for any book, especially novels and self-help books and other nonfiction titles. Again, your book will be judged by its cover, so people may perceive your paperback book as of lesser value—meaning they might actually think the content is of less value too—than if it were a hardcover. However, there is no longer any sense that people are “slumming” by buying paperbacks. I don’t know the percentages for a fact, but I would guess that at least 90 percent of books are printed solely as paperbacks today, especially among self-published books.

You have a little less space on a paperback cover to write text that will sell the book, but you can generally fit on the back cover all the information that you would include on the inside flaps of a hardcover’s dust jacket. If you wish to include testimonials, you can place them inside the front cover as the opening pages. I have mixed feelings about placement of testimonials. Many readers will read them in choosing to buy the book, but others will go to the book description first—most people will buy the book because the topic interests them more than because someone famous said the book is great—but having both can only help so it’s up to you whether or not you feel your testimonials deserve back cover space. Often you can fit just one or two short testimonials on the back cover with the description and author bio to balance everything out.

French Flaps
I’m seeing more and more books published with French flaps. This format is basically a hybrid. It is really a paperback book, but the flaps are an extended part of the paperback cover that fold inward to serve as a dust jacket without being removable. French flaps provide the same space as a hardcover for book descriptions without the expense of a hardcover with a dust jacket. A book with French flaps does cost more than a paperback, but depending on how many books you print, it will probably cost you less than a dollar more per unit.

I believe a lot of authors are choosing to use French flaps because they believe this format makes their book look more professional or significant than if it were simply a paperback. Readers may be impressed with the look of French flaps and even see them as a novelty, but frankly, I find such books annoying to read—the flaps have a tendency of wanting to flip up, making the book somewhat unwieldy. This format feels pretentious to me, like such books have delusions of wanting to be hardcover books.

Making the Choice
Personally, a standard paperback is good enough for me with the few exceptions of books I’ve listed where a hardcover is p
referable. While I have offered some guidelines here for choices, no two books are the same and special circumstances may exist that would make one cover a better choice than another. Every author must choose for himself which book cover will best suit his book to promote its value as well as be most desirable in format and price to potential readers.

Irene Watson is the Managing Editor of Reader Views, where avid readers can find  reviews  of recently published books as well as read interviews with authors. Her team also provides author publicity  and a variety of other services specific to writing and publishing books.


Posted on May 13, 2012, in Publicity & Writing, Writing & Publishing. Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. We have seen that overwhelmingly that libraries will always purchase the hardcover edition if it is available. So I would urge everyone to have a hardcover edition, even if it is only Print On Demand. Yes, you can do POD hardcover, the only difference is some cardboard and glue. Librarians know that paperbacks burn out quickly and become ragged after a couple of loans. Patrons don't want to pick up a raggedy book.You also did not mention Case Lamination for hardcover, which is much cheaper than dustjackets and 1000% more durable. Case lamination means like what is says: a paper cover is laminated right over the boards so there is no loose flapping dustjacket. LSI doesn't allow flap text on case laminated books, so that is a small downer, but only if you actually sell your books in brick-and-mortar stores, which most people don't any more. I mean those who are self-publishers which your article is about.

  2. Josef Partners

    A thorough primer for self-publishers.

  3. I heard from some that after putting out a hardcover, the ones that doen't sell, publishers retrieve those unsold books, take off the cover and put on a soft cover. Sounds like an efficient thingto do if it's true.

  4. Excellent presentation of points to ponder with regard to making a cover-formatting decision. When I published my first novel, I really wanted it to be printed in hardback format, for all the reasons you mentioned. However, after a reality check, I accepted the fact that people (other than my mother) probably wouldn't be willing to pay extra money for hardback book to read a novel by a first-time author. I've also come to realize that people don't look down on paperback novels the way they used to and besides, lots of readers are buying the e-book version, where only the front cover matters. Even libraries don't care if the book has a hardcover or not. So printing in hardback is out for me… until I become a lot more famous, anyway!

  5. There are also some service bureaus who will rebind paperbacks as hardcovers and sell them under a new ISBN to libraries. This is a perfectly legal use because once they buy a book from you it is up to them what to do with it.Don't confuse hardcover with "library binding". A library binding is an extremely tough binding and can handle years of abuse. Usually it is just a solid color like olive drab with the title and author embossed.

  6. I agree with BonSue. As an independent writer not far into the game, it's paperback and ebook editions for me. When BonSue and I are famous writers, we can publish hardcover collector editions and watch them fly out of the POD machines.

  7. Except for the 20 'special edition' paperback copies I had printed by Sir Speedy for friends and family (which were every bit as good as those produced by Lightening Press), my last book–Lilith: Demon of the Night–was published only in the Kindle and EPUB eBooks formats. The savings in time and money were astounding. I most likely will not publish in paper formats again.

  8. I had a hardback, all-in-one edition of my Adelsverein Trilogy done, long after the indivitual paperback volumes were done, just as an option for libraries, and for those fans who wanted a hardcover version. It makes a book about the size of a brick, though – and it's correspondingly expensive. But – it's there as an option for readers who want it.

  9. Theodore,The main advantage of having a printed version is that you can sell eBooks for more money. If your printed book lists for $19.95 then you can have your eBook listed at $8.95 and people say "WOW, I'm saving 60%, that is very cool". However, if you don't have a paperback book, they will not pay $8.95. They will pay only $4.95 which is the going rate for ebook-Only books. There is a lower premium placed on eBooks that have no printed version. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news.

  10. I write children's picture books, and for me there is no option for hard cover, or even having the title and author's name on the spine of the book (which makes it hard to get it on book shelves at Barnes & Noble, for instance. Lightening Source says it's not available for books with less than 60 pages or something like that.) Nevertheless, I would not choose hard cover, even if it were an option. I love the quality of the softcovers on my books – they are definitely sturdy enough for children and small enough to be tempting to young readers. (My children would always find the smallest books in the library, because they were easy to hold and carry.) But the most important feature is that softcovers make the books more affordable. If your book is too expensive, not many parents will allow children to purchase it. I've watched parents at Barnes & Noble book-signings direct their children to the "sale" table – where they are allowed to select a book within their budget. I know that children's books are different than novels, but it's important to think about your potential buyers before paying extra to provide a hard cover. (I personally prefer soft cover novels since they are easier to carry with me, to read whenever I get a spare minute!) This is all my opinion, by the way. Just saying…

  11. Victor, with all due respect, I doubt you will sell many eBooks at $8.95. Today's consumer wants everything for nothing. It's the American way. I'll take my chances and sell my eBooks for $3.99 and take 70%. Ted

  12. We're selling hundreds of books per month at the $8.95 pricepoint. Don't sell yourself short believing eBooks are worth nothing. Many major publishing houses are releasing books even above $10 per copy. If you want to leave money on the table, that is your prerogative.

  13. I agree with Victor. My e-books sell for $9.99. I don't plan to reduce that price just because there are cheaper books available.

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