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Q&A: Hardcover vs. Paperback-Which option is better?

Q: “My publisher has asked if the 5th edition of my book should be published in hard or softcover? The first four editions were all hardcover. Do you know of any reasons to favor one over the other?”

A: Don Collins, the author or co-author of seven school mathematics textbooks, and former Managing Editor of Mathematics at Merrill Publishing:

“The answer to this lies in the royalty agreement. If the agreement is so much for each text sold, then by all means go the paperback route. However, most publishers base their royalty agreements on dollar volume. In this case certainly since paperbacks are cheaper and do not last as long, then more of them will be sold. So one has to consider which is greater: Cheaper price X more volume or Higher price X less volume. The author sort of has to roll the dice. In most case there isn’t a great deal of difference. I don’t think you can go too far wrong either way, but if it were me I would go the paperback route.”

A: Michael Lennie, Authoring Attorney and Literary Agent, Lennie Literary & Authors Attorneys:

“I would add, it is important to take into account what the book’s primary competitors are doing re soft/hard cover, and again it cuts both ways. The hardcover might be more attractive, but a soft cover might be a boon to sales. Students are certainly price sensitive.

Other interesting questions that might give insight into your publisher’s plan: Does your publisher plan to come out with a competing hard cover? Do they intend to market differently or less aggressively with a soft cover. Are they going to B & W also? Have sales been increasing, decreasing or holding even over the last four editions?

Nothing beats getting it “from the horse’s mouth”, so have informal talks with the art director, your editor, production manager, etc. to see what they think of the plan – a marketing innovation, or just cutting costs? If the latter, schedule a meeting with someone higher up to see what they have to say. Maybe the decision is preliminary only to see what everyone says.”

A: Richard Hull, Former TAA Executive Director:

“Softcover editions generally sell for less than hardcover. Whether price of your book is an obstacle to sales and adoption is not something I can answer. But a softcover edition ‘might’ sell more copies.

Another consideration is whether your royalties are affected by the hard or soft cover edition. Sometimes publishers give a lower royalty rate for softcover editions, so that you not only make less because of the reduced per copy price, you make less because of the reduced royalty rate. Take a close look at your contract. If, say, your contract gives 5% on paperback and 10% on hardbound, your publisher would have to sell twice as many copies of the paperback at the same price as the hardback for you to come out even, and even more if the price were lower.

One solution is to have editions in both hardback and paper, giving instructors and students the option of a cheaper edition or one that will last longer.

Paperback editions also can be poorly put together, or well put together. You might want to look at a paperback recently issued by your publisher to see how well the binding holds up. I think paperbacks are better now than in earlier days, but I have had them literally fall apart when they were opened. A hardback will tend to lay flat when opened because it is sewn in signatures. A paperback may or may not, depending on how it is assembled: if in signatures, with a strong and flexible glue that holds the spine and cover on, it should be equivalent (although will tend to show wear and tear more quickly).”