Saturday Reads

How Publishers Determine When to Release Hardcover Books in Paperback

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Katisha Smith

Staff Writer

Katisha is a former military brat who studied engineering because she couldn’t hack it as a writer. You can find her on the internets talking books, movies, pop culture, beauty or whatever is floating her boat at the moment.

Here at Book Riot, we are obviously into books. We love all books equally, but sometimes prefer a certain format when it comes to reading.  Some Rioters detest hardcover books. Others love mass market paperbacks. Of course, we know audiobooks are more than just a trend. Personally, I prefer reading ebooks because I can easily highlight passages, make notes for reviews, and I always have a book on my phone wherever I go. No matter our reading preferences, we can all agree there is only one appropriate response to the ebook versus physical book debate.

Whichever of the different book formats you use to get your read on, bibliophiles know the usual publishing timeline. Hardcover books come first. Paperbacks get a set of steak knives. Everything else gets in where it fits in. Nonetheless, with all the various ways to consume books and with all of us book nerds ready and willing to give publishers our hard-earned money for books in all of their various formats, I couldn’t help but wonder: “Why do we have to wait months for publishers to release the paperback version of hardcover books?”

Why are books published in hardcover before paperback?

To channel the wise words of former NBC Executive Don Ohlmeyer, as often quoted by sports personality Tony Kornheiser, “The answer to your question is money.” The quote refers to sports, but it is no less true when it comes to the world of books. Thus, the most likely reason the hardcover of your new favorite read has yet to be available in paperback is the publisher is still reaping what they sowed.

Although hardcover books are more expensive to print than paperbacks, printing them is still relatively cheap. Like the clothes we wear and the cars we drive, the manufacturers of the goods set the prices. Books are no exception. The business of book publishing incurs high fixed costs like author advances and expenses associated with editing, marketing, and distributing a book. Publishers need to recoup those costs and selling a hardcover book for $20–30 provides the necessary revenue. The longer the hardcover book is the only available buying option, the longer the opportunity to make more money.

In addition to bringing publishers more money, hardcover books also have an inherent prestige in the literary world worth more than their monetary value. They are considered for literary awards more often than paperbacks because hardcover books show readers, booksellers, and critics this story is worth their time and attention. In fact, some literary editors will only review hardcover books. At bookshops, hardcover books command more presence due to their shape and size, which makes them easier to display and more visible to potential buyers. Libraries with their limited budgets are more likely to order a hardcover book over a paperback because of its durability.

How long until a hardcover book is released in paperback?

Although it depends on the publisher, the paperback release usually comes when sales for the hardcover book have subsided with the average time being six months to a year between the initial hardcover release and the paperback edition. With the release of the paperback version, publishers are able to create a new round of publicity for the book that can create enough fanfare to entice a new crowd of buyers along with the super fans purchasing another copy of their new favorite book that is more travel friendly.

Which book has spent the longest time in hardcover?

We might assume the book that spent the longest time in hardcover was one of the best selling books of all time, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. However, taking into account the aforementioned information about the hardcover to paperback publication process, this book has actually taken the path most traveled. In the United States, the hardcover version of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was published on September 1, 1998. The paperback was released nearly one year later.

Eleanor and Park Book CoverIf J.K. Rowling’s monster hit of a book that took the culture and the literary world by storm spent the standard time in hardcover before being released in paperback, then what book could possibly come close? The answer is complicated. There are so many books published each year, how could we possibly know for certain? However, one contender for the book that spent the longest time in hardcover is bestselling YA Novel Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell, which was initially published on February 26, 2013. In 2014, a paperback version was published in Spanish. English readers had to wait an additional four years for the large print paperback. The standard paperback is scheduled for release on June 30, 2020 according to bookselling giant Amazon. This means the time between hardcover to paperback for Eleanor and Park varies between one year up to over seven years!

Another YA superstar that is defying the paperback release schedule is The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. The hardcover was released on February 28, 2017. Approximately one year later, on September 4, 2018, when the book world would most likely expect the release of the paperback version, HarperCollins released the hardcover collector’s and movie tie-in editions. At the time of this writing, readers looking for a paperback copy of The Hate U Give must look to publishing companies outside of the United States. The only formats available from HarperCollins are hardcover, ebook, and audiobook. The global pandemic and its impact on the literary world may be influential to the lack of The Hate U Give paperbacks, but doubtful that’s the main reason.

How did these books defy the standard publication timeline?

The Hate U Give Book CoverThe most obvious reason is money. Shortly after its release, The Hate U Give was #1 on The New York Times Best Seller List for Young Adult Hardcover Books, where it remained for 25 weeks until being toppled by an obscure book that had to game the system. However, nearly 3 years later, The Hate U Give continues to be a bestseller with over 150 weeks on The New York Times Best Seller List.  There is still continued interest in the novel, and readers are still interested enough to pay top (or slightly discounted) dollar to get their hands on the book. The publisher is still raking in the hardcover dough, so there is no need parade the paperback just yet. The situation is similar with Eleanor and Park. Not only was Rowell’s Eleanor and Park a bestseller upon release, Rowell dominated The New York Times YA Fiction Bestseller List. With Picturestart acquiring the film rights to Eleanor and Park, more book sales are to be expected since adaptations often boost sales of the original source materials.

Along with being two of the bestselling YA novels in the past several years, Eleanor and Park along with The Hate U Give enjoyed popularity among the general reading public as well as the literary critics. Both books won the Goodreads Choice Award for Best Young Adult Fiction in 2013 and 2017, respectively. They were also recognized by the American Library Association as honor books for the Michael L. Printz Award. While praise from readers and reviewers are good for selling books, we know what really gets the units moving: controversy.

There has been plenty of controversy surrounding both Eleanor and Park and The Hate U Give. Although there is debate on whether challenges and bans harm or benefit authors, the success of these two books implies the fight to keep books that speak truth to power and that represent marginalized groups out of the hands of readers often has the opposite effect. Not only are young readers who feel othered hungry for stories that reflect them and their experiences, the surrounding controversy intrigues people who were not previously interested in the books. They want to know what is in these books causing all the hubbub. With all that intrigue comes an increase in book sales, publishers laughing all the way to the bank, and paperback fans waiting just a little while longer for their favorite book format.

TL;DR: Can I get the CliffsNotes?

If you are wondering when your most recent hardcover book purchase will be available in paperback, then ask yourself a few questions. Is the book at the top of all the best sellers list? Is it being nominated (and winning) all of the awards? Is that book the talk of the town in both the literary world and among the general public? If the answer to these questions is no, then you may soon be in soft-covered bliss. Did you answer yes? Then, buckle up because you could be waiting months (or possibly years). That book you are currently loving is probably a global hardcover phenomenon, and the publishers plan to squeeze every penny out of that hardcover success before releasing it in paperback.