Hardcover or Paperback-The Best of Both Worlds

- by Robin Burcell

How many times have you heard a reader say she only buys hardcover, her tone implying that anything out in mass market is of lesser quality, the books meant for the populace, not the crème de la crème of society?  I’ve even heard a bookseller turn his nose up at the thought of ever reading a paperback. And for the majority of us paperback writers (cue the Beatles’ song), in these days of budget cuts, ARCs—those advanced reading copies that might garner us reviews to grow our readership—are less of an option with publishers.

So what’s a paperback author to do?

There is one idea that shouldn’t be overlooked: paperback authors from big houses going with smaller presses for that hardcover.  I did it, and since then I’ve noticed several other authors have taken a similar route.  Here’s how it worked for me:

Several years ago, I was signing at Poisoned Pen bookstore in Scottsdale, Arizona.  Barbara Peterson, the owner of the bookstore and Poisoned Pen Press, told me that if HarperCollins wouldn’t bring me out in hardcover, then I should tell them that she would.  I remembered that conversation when my agent and I were discussing the hoped-for transition of mass market paperbacks to hardcover.   Harper wasn’t ready to print me in hardcover, and yet, getting reviews for a paperback seemed a near impossibility.  How does one grow one’s readership if one can’t get major reviews?  My agent approached both Poisoned Pen and HarperCollins to see if they would be interested in such an arrangement.  They agreed, and Harper licensed the hardcover to Poisoned Pen Press.

Hardcover (Poisoned Pen Press)

My first hardcover, FACE OF A KILLER, was released in October 2008 under the Poisoned Pen Press label, and the paperback followed two months later.  (Quite a bit different than the standard one year later in the usual hard/soft deals.) This allowed libraries to purchase copies, which opened up a whole new set of readers.  And the reviews? Did coming out in hardcover actually make a difference?

Paperback cover (Harper)

It did.  I was reviewed by journals that had never even looked at one of my books before: Booklist, Library Journal (starred review), and the now defunct Kirkus, as well as Publisher’s Weekly.  There were also more online reviews than in the past.

THE BONE CHAMBER came out December of 2009 under the Poisoned Pen Press label in hardcover, and was followed in January 2010 in paper from Harper.  Again I was reviewed by the bigger journals that had overlooked the earlier paperbacks.

Hardcover (Poisoned Pen Press)

There are things to think about should you decide to try this route.  Carefully choose your hardcover press.  I chose Poisoned Pen Press because in mysteries they have a good reputation among the big reviewers (as evidenced by the many starred reviews PPP gets from their original publications that

The Bone Chamber

Paperback cover (Harper)

they purchase and edit themselves).  This was important to me. (And I doubt Harper would have allowed the deal to go through otherwise.)   Be aware that it won’t be a huge print run, mostly to libraries and collectors. The advance is paid to your main publisher, not to you directly.  And the artwork on the cover will be different, so if you are also trying to brand yourself, you have to keep this in mind when creating promotional materials.  (I had a book trailer made with the HarperCollins cover on it, and couldn’t find a way to get the Poisoned Pen cover in to fit.) But those are minor quibbles compared to the benefits of growing your readership to a new market.

How do I feel about it as a writer?  I think it was the best of both worlds.  There were some glitches in the process that suddenly cropped up unexpectedly because we were dealing with two houses, such as editing schedules.  But all in all it was a positive process.  Definitely more reviews, which I hope equate to more sales.

So, I’m wondering if this is something that has crossed your mind?  Any thoughts on the pros and cons of this?  Or is there another way you’ve increased reviews?


  1. I prefer buying in paperback because that format fits into a purse or pocket whereas hardcover is a pain to haul around. These days I buy or re-acquire in hardback those I want to keep forever.

    However, I recently solved both problems, plus the problem of what to do when your keeper is a ratty paperback you can’t find new? I bought a Sony reader and have happily downloaded many old beloved pbs. Which is off the point, I know, but is a growing 3rd alternative.

  2. I’ll admit to being one that likes paperbacks best, just because they’re lighter. You’re right about the growing 3rd alternative, though. It’ll be interesting to see how the e-book market evolves.

  3. Robin,

    Valuable information for a new writer, such as myself. I have heard so many different views on this topic, and you have clarified things quite nicely.

    I prefer to collect my favorite authors in hardback!

  4. Hi Robin

    I used to be one of those readers who only bought hardcovers, but as my library has grown to well over several hundred books, hardcovers have been too cumbersome. I’ve started donating my hardcovers to my local library, and buying paperbacks for my keepers shelf. Some authors only are released in paperback, maybe as their careers grow, hardbacks will be in their future. And some authors don’t want to release in hardback.

    I don’t know which is the best, but I do know that I will continue to buy books in any shape that they come in. I have started to pick up ebooks as the selection becomes larger. It’s a great medium for reading on the go and when it inconvenient to have a book out. It’s also a great way to receive ARCs, much less expensive that sending out a hard copies.

    Dottie :)

  5. Glad you’re now converted, Dottie! Just think of all the good books you would have missed, had you only bought hardcover!

  6. As a reader, I much prefer paperbacks. I prefer the smaller size and I prefer the smaller price. I read A LOT, and I read fast, so I am always looking for more authors and more books. When a hardcover is twice to three times the price of a paperback, picking up HC means I have to put back one or two books by other authors. I limit my HC purchases to absolute favorite authors. In fact, I won’t even look at the HC racks unless I’m looking for a specific new release. Even then, there is grumbling involved.

    I’m interested in ebook readers, but so far, the prices for the books are higher than paperbacks and until I can buy any book I want from any source I want regardless of the model of reader I have, I won’t make the investment.

    On the other hand, as an aspiring writer, the day that my stuff might come out in hardcover would probably set me off to Happy Dance Land. Smile.

  7. I’m with you on the smaller size/price thing, Shawn.

    As far as e-readers, I think that they will be evolving as time goes on, so that they aren’t so proprietary. The interesting thing I hear is people complaining about paying anything but a nominal fee for a book, because they think that it costs nothing in the electronic form. The truth is that the production costs of the book still remain the same. And that is far more expensive than the paper or cover of a book.

    Eventually it will all even out in the wash… I hope!

  8. I’m still in limbo between paperpack and hardcover. There are definitely advantages and disadvantages to each, which makes it difficult to say which is better. I am very anal, so my books are always mint condition- hardcover or not. I used to believe that hardcover were the best and would buy as many hardcover as possible. Cost isn’t the deciding factor for me. However, lately, I have realized that paperback books generally look and feel better (if that makes sense!). They are also more portable. Some books come in hardcover first then paperback so sometimes, I don’t know if i have the patience to wait 6 or so months. I also like a set of books either hardcover or paperback – not mix and match. Did I say I am anal?!! I am actually Googling whether to buy books in paperback or hardcover and came across your blog! If only there is black and white, yes and no, paperback or hardcover answers to everything haha. Oh gosh, I take this whole thing a little too seriously!