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Why Do Publishers Still Issue Hardbacks, Given That They’re Not That Popular Anymore?

In its ongoing efforts to beat the "print books good, ebooks bad" drum, on Sunday the Guardian asked Philip Jones of The Bookseller why he thought print books were still being published. (Yes, this is kinda like the priest asking the choir leader why church is great, but that is the Guardian for you.)

With consumers spending 327 million pounds a year on ebooks in the UK (in 2016) vs 70 million on hardbacks, the latter format really isn't that popular any more.

But it is still holding on and according to Jones, it is less about the content in a book or what you can learn from them than it is about a hardback book's value as decoration or as a status symbol.

Yes, hardbacks are still popular. Hardback fiction brings in about £70m annually (roughly 20% of the printed fiction market), according to sales data from Nielsen BookScan.

But the format’s worth is about more than just its monetary value. The hardback is a mark of quality and a demonstration of intent on behalf of the publisher: it shows booksellers and reviewers that this is a book worth paying attention to. In fact some literary editors will still only review fiction (on first publication) if it’s published in hardback. Similarly, a hardback signifies to authors and agents that this is a book their publisher cares about, so much so that some agents (and authors) will insist upon it.

Size also matters: hardbacks are bigger than paperbacks, they take up more space in bookshops and are more visible – whether in window displays or on bookshop tables. The hardback is the prop forward of the book world: it bashes its way through a crowded marketplace giving the book/author a foothold before the pacier paperback races through. Hardbacks are also more profitable for publishers: they will often sell at twice the price of their paperback equivalent but do not cost twice as much to produce. If a hardback becomes a bestseller, the publisher will often delay the paperback release even though that limits the book’s sales potential.

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However, there are no signs that the practice is coming to an end: last year sales of hardback fiction grew 11%. When the ebook arrived 10 years ago, some pundits suggested format did not matter. But they were wrong. A beautiful hardback is a joy, something to cherish, shelve and pass on, and readers are prepared to pay for that just as some people still prefer the cinema over television.

Even though I am someone who prefers to read my books rather than fondle them and show them off, I do have to agree with Jones.

Hardbacks are a status symbol in a way that ebooks are not, but how much longer do you think that is going to last?

Millennials have neither the room or the inclination to invest in print libraries as status symbols, and we have no reason to expect that future generations will be different.

Do you think print books will still be status symbols 20 or 30 years from now, when Millennials are in their mid-60s and Gen-X have (hopefully) retired?

image by “Caveman Chuck” Coker

Nate Hoffelder: @https://twitter.com/thDigitalReaderNate Hoffelder is the founder and editor of The Digital Reader. He has been blogging about indie authors since 2010 while learning new tech skills weekly. He fixes author sites, and shares what he learns on The Digital Reader's blog. In his spare time, he fosters dogs for A Forever Home, a local rescue group.

View Comments (22)

  • The only hard backs I enjoy are art or illustrated books. Fiction reading for me has always been paper back preferred. So easy to carry around and light. Hard back is uncomfortable to tote on a vacation or even to read in bed. I think the hardback will be dead before the paper back. I also love to read ebooks on my kindle, too.

  • Let's not forget that hardcovers are one of publishers' biggest cash cows. They only cost about 50% more per copy to manufacture than a paperback, but sell for up to four times as much. Even if Amazon likes to discount them like crazy, publishers still get their full half-of-the-cover-price wholesale cut. Even if hardcovers only make up 20% of all paper book sales, they're the most profitable 20%. Something like the Pareto Principle applies.

    This is why paperback editions are usually windowed to a year or so after hardcovers hit, except for things like movie tie-in books where the important thing is having all the copies of whatever format faced out so their covers can serve as miniature movie posters. They don't want to cannibalize those super-lucrative hardcover sales with cheaper editions. That's also why they threw such a snit-fit over Amazon pricing new release ebooks at $9.99; they were hitting publishers right in the biggest part of their wallet.

    As long as those economics don't undergo some kind of major change, hardcover books will still have a very central place in major publishers' publishing and promotional strategies.

  • Hardbacks will still be around in 30 years. The trend that fewer hardbacks will be sold will ensure that someone will still buy them (to have something others don't have).

  • If I read a physical book, I prefer hardback. It's more comfortable to hold, and the cover doesn't do that bending curve thing.

  • In recent years, many of the trade publishing pundits in the US have considered the ebook a replacement for the paperback, not the hard cover, and that the trade paperback (soft cover book the size of a hard cover) would also replace the paperback. The trade and ebook both are more profitable, and bookstores can't rip off the trade's cover to send in for a refund which is an expensive business practice for publishers. Yet, paperbacks remain because publishers are so hidebound and bookstores are unwilling to change a process that is lucrative for them.

    • I have to disagree with the idea that "heavy" readers prefer hard cover books over ebooks. My own admittely anecdotal evidence suggests the opposite, and suggests that heavy readers read more once they switch to ebooks. That's certainly been the case for me. And I read more than 100 books per year.

  • I don't buy hardcovers because of status. I buy them because I prefer them. For a while I bought a lot of ebooks, but that didn't last long. I found it less enjoyable to read an ebook than a hardcover. More importantly, I found that I retained the story/content better in print than ebook. I expect hardcover books will be around for decades to come because there will always be a sizeable minority of readers who will prefer the totality of the print experience over that of the ebook experience.

    A more interesting question, at least to me, that does not get asked or answered is this: How many ebooks does the average ebook reader buy (actually spend money purchasing, not simply acquire) in a year versus the number of print books an average print book reader buys during the same period? My personal experience was that even when reading ebooks I would buy (pay money for) 4 to 6 ebooks a year whereas, on average, I buy 125 to 150 hardcovers (for myself, my wife, my grandchildren, and my uncle) a year. Just in the past few days I bought 9 hardcovers and zero ebooks.

    I have no doubt that the casual reader probably reads more ebooks than print, but I wonder what the noncasual reader's buying habits are. The one thing that seems to be true is that "heavy" readers (ie, readers who read 1 or more books every couple of weeks) seems to be a shrinking group.

  • Nate,

    I think hardcover books will still be around. A niche product like LPs. It'll be a special order/custom design cover. The reader or buyer can choose the cover, fonts, illustrations, etc and personalize the book.
    Why not? It doesn't diminish the story or challenge ebooks.
    My stance is choice and the freedom to decide what book format you want is important.

  • A truly pointless argument. For me it's about the story, not the container. But others see it very differently, which is fine. There is room for both of us. If enough people continue to love hardbacks and are prepared to pay for them, they will continue to be available. Hopefully quality POD hardbacks will make their appearance for these people.

    Though, of course, why the windowing? It seems to me that those who cherish hardbacks, who record their reminiscences in their pages through abuse or otherwise marking them, who regard them as a status symbol or who require more durable print books will buy them anyway. In the meantime please issue the ebook first so those of us who only care about reading them can get on with it and do so.

  • I’m on the board of a local library, and it’s hard covers and more hard covers. They do last a long time, and the library can usually repair a volume cheaper than replacing it.