A Wenchling has asked how books come to be published in hardcover, mass market paperback, or that midpoint format, the trade paperback. Since this is publishing, the answer isn’t simple. The kind of book, the genre, the author, and the publisher are all part of the equation.
In the broadest sense, the choices are made from marketing considerations. Or to put it in bottom line terms, publishers put the books out in the formats they hope will make them the most money, which is perfectly sensible.
There’s a direct relationship between price point and profit margin: the more expensive the book, the more the publisher makes per copy, but the fewer copies are likely to be sold. A mass market original will make less profit per book, but should sell lots more copies—unless the author is a big bestseller and a zillion people will buy her in hardcover. A paperback author who sells well will generally be moved into hardcover eventually.
Sometimes thrillers with a lot of potential will be published in hardcover and take off like a rocket, but romance is overwhelmingly a mass market genre. A lot of romance readers like to own their books, and they read a lot. Women also tend to earn less money than men do, and they can buy four or five paperbacks for the cost of one hardcover. Not only can a reader buy more books, but she’s risking less if she tries a new author and doesn’t love the work. The average woman will think once, twice, thrice, before buying a $25 hardcover by a new author even if it’s heavily recommended.
So why are my books in hardcover? Truthfully, it’s something of a fluke. When I moved to Ballantine ten years ago, the new head of the romance program wanted to make a splash, so she came up with the idea of doing a little hardcover sized to fit into a mass market book rack. The idea got lots of publicity, and as the launch book, my story, One Perfect Rose, made the New York Times and Wall Street Journal hardcover bestseller lists. Yay, team!
But little hardcovers never because a standard format because they cost almost as much as a full sized hardcover (lovely paper and binding), but it wasn’t possible to charge as much money for them. Ballantine did only four books in that format. They generated publicity, but were never became a standard type.
Still, my books remained in hardcover. A fair number of copies are bought by libraries, and enough dedicated readers are willing to spring for the higher price to make the format profitable for the publisher.
Did my content or quality change when I went from mass market original to hardcover? Not that I noticed. The day may come when my publisher decides my book will work better as mass market originals, and that’s okay. There are bestselling romance authors who have moved into mainstream and still write both paperback originals and hardcovers. As I said above, it depends on the book, the author, and the publisher.
What about the other genres? Science fiction and fantasy has become more of a hardcover genre, probably because mass market retailers like supermarkets and general merchandise stores no longer stock much paperback sff. The audience for such books is wide spread but not large, so the mass market retailers can make more selling backlist titles of mainstream bestsellers. Small genres like sff, Westerns, and subgenres like traditional Regency have been squeezed out of the wholesale outlets.
So sff sells well in hardcover, with a lot of copies going to libraries, and sff mass market paperback reprints are generally found in bookstores only.
(Note: I’m making a lot of generalities here!)
Mystery tends to be split between hardcover and paperback originals. Again, libraries are huge customers of mysteries—they are one of the largest categories for circulation, I believer. But a lot of mystery series are launched as mass market originals, too. If they sell well, eventually they’re moved into hardcover.
So what else comes out in hardcover? Most non-fiction and “serious” fiction. Traditionally, book review sources like the New York Times reviewed pretty much exclusively hardcovers. The publisher might not sell a huge number of books in that format, but the title will end up in some libraries and if it gets good reviews to plaster on the cover, it should sell well in paperback later.
So why are some books reprinted in paperback and others not? Again, it comes down to what the publisher thinks will sell. Some hardcovers are reprinted into the larger, more expensive trade format, especially if they are more literary in style.
Hardcovers usually have larger type so they’re easier to read, and the production quality is better so the bindings should last longer and the pages won’t turn yellow before you get to the end of the book. On the other hand, if you drop one in the bathtub, it makes quite a splash.
Trade paperbacks inhabit an interesting niche between hardcover and mass market. The contents are more likely to be similar to a hardcover, and reviewers like Publishers Weekly review them side by side with hardcovers. The paper and binding are good, but the price point is ten dollars or so lower than hardcover, which is quite appealing. Thus a book like Susan Holloway Scott’s Duchess is in trade paper with an eye catching cover, and lots of people will buy it who might be put off by a hardcover price. (Lots and LOTS!!!) There are bestselling authors like Philippa Gregory who built an audience in trade and have now been moved into hardcover.
Trade paper has been quite trendy in the last few years, and became the format of choice for chicklit and books that bridge the gap between mainstream and literary. I have a historical romance writer friend who was moved into trade because of her beautifully crafted, rather literary prose. She’s done well, too.
I’ve been in a couple of trade paperback books. One was a collection of five of my Christmas stories, Christmas Revels, because the publisher felt like trying the format. A year later, it was reprinted in mass market. The romantic sff anthology Irresistible Forces was in trade for two years before being reprinted in mass market this past January. I have no idea if the books benefited by being in trade, but trade paperbacks are often kept on the shelves longer.
As you might gather, choosing a format is as much art as science. Me, I just write the books. As long as they’re out there for my readers to enjoy, I’m fine.