Are Hardcover Books on Life Support?

One of the reasons writers give for wanting a real, live, honest-to-goodness contract with a traditional publisher is that they want to see their work in hardcover. Paperbacks are all very fine, but there’s nothing like the heft of a hardcover to make you feel like you’ve arrived. Or so I hear.

Anyway, the point is that it used to be a given: if you got an agent and signed on with one of the Big Five, you were guaranteed that your book would be in print in some form or fashion, usually hardcover followed by paperback. But Publishers Weekly reported this week that as the number of brick-and-mortar bookstores dwindle, and as e-books become more popular, agents are beginning to see this change – to the point that eventually, a dead-tree edition may not be guaranteed.

Or at least, agents are beginning to worry about such a change. The article itself is somewhat vague on this point. And spokespeople for Penguin Random House and Hachette, at least, told PW it’s business as usual for them so far.

But one industry insider – Richard Curtis of e-book publisher E-Reads, who is also an agent – is quoted as saying he thinks it’s already happening. He says publishers might reevaluate some books they already have under contract with an eye toward releasing them as e-books only, if they think they won’t be able to sell enough print copies to recoup their investment (read: get a decent return on the royalty they’ve already paid the author).

This is bad news for traditional authors, because (according to this article) trad publishers pay higher royalties to their authors on dead-tree books than they do on e-books. That’s because publishers typically price their e-books lower than their print books.

But what does this mean for indies? For one thing, if trad publishers stop guaranteeing their authors hard-copy editions of their work, it’s one more reason to give up chasing a traditional contract. The biggest thing the trad publishers have going for themselves right now is that they have the ability to get a physical copy of your book into your local Barnes & Noble or Waterstones. As an indie, you can hire a professional editor and cover artist. And when it comes to marketing, even trad-pubbed authors are largely on their own. But getting a bookstore to stock an indie title is often an uphill battle. If a trad publisher can’t even guarantee you that, what’s the point of spending years beating your head against the wall to get a contract?

If you really, really, really want a hardcover edition of your book, will print one for you. And you get to set your own price and keep all your royalties.

Going indie is looking more and more like the smartest choice.

Author: Lynne Cantwell

Lynne Cantwell grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan. She worked as a broadcast journalist for many years; she has written for CNN, the late lamented Mutual/NBC Radio News, and a bunch of radio and TV news outlets you have probably never heard of, including a defunct wire service called Zapnews. But she began as a fantasy writer (in the second grade), and is back at it today. She currently lives near Washington, DC. Learn more about Lynne at her blog and at her Amazon author page.

26 thoughts on “Are Hardcover Books on Life Support?”

  1. Personally I think hardcover books will remain a specialty market – as in coffee table books or niche books that folks will want to keep visible on their shelves. For most books it will either be e-book only or e-book and softcover. I think genre will influence which of the latter options is taken but I do not believe that paper is passe.

    1. I agree, Yvonne — I don’t think it’s ever going to go away completely. Certain categories, particularly nonfiction, just seem easier to manage with a physical book. Like, say, cookbooks — it must be frustrating to have the screen saver kick in just as you’re in the midst of the complicated part of the pastry and your hands are covered in dough.

  2. This has been happening for at least a year. A friend of mine signed a contract a while back with one of the big houses that said they’d release her book in paperback if e-book sales warranted the expense. As you said Lynne, even less reason to chase after the trad contract.

    1. Thanks for the confirmation, D.V. It just seems mind-boggling to me that the big publishing houses would chip away at the things that still make a trad contract attractive to authors.

  3. Many have said that the hardcover or paperback will one or another vanish with the e-book revolution but I believe as an Indie author that persistence pays off. Computers are obviously part of the future but old traditions are difficult to break so until the baby boomer age is gone, I do not believe the paper edition of books is passé. Thank you for such an interesting read.

  4. Funny how things have turned on their ear. My very first book was published in hardback (a children’s picture book) and back then in the eighties, you were supposed to sell a certain number before a softback was considered.
    Now, it’s becoming the other way around. If your e-book does well enough, you do the softback and then maybe think about a hardback if your book is a bestseller. I think today’s way is more logical. My hardback picture book was way too expensive to sell well for an unknown author. If we’d started with the cheaper version it would have had more chance.

    My story gained its immortality in the end, not by any kind of book, but by audio-file on radio, read by a not-so-good actor with skills I could have improved upon if they’d given me the job myself. I never get a bean from those radio readings. The book itself is a very rare item. I’ll sell you one of my own last few copies for $200 though. He he he.

  5. It got made with me being hardly aware it happened. I may have signed something – don’t know it was so long ago. Then it just started playing on air. People started phoning me every time they heard it. Back then it never occurred to anyone to make their own audiobook. Maybe I should do it now.

  6. I can see why the Trad Pubs are doing away with hardcovers from a financial point of view – they don’t sell that much because they’re super expensive. Of course, having priced themselves out of the market a long time ago, it’s way too late to make concessions now. R.I.P.

    1. LOL! I agree that hardcovers seem to be needlessly expensive. I have at least one friend who buys them, though, because she says the print in paperbacks is too small for her to read. I keep telling her to just buy an e-reader already. 😀

  7. Lynne, I think it’s all true. And all good. My small publisher is embracing the “green” print on demand publishing trend. Old-school Big Publishers (and many chain bookstores) find it hard to follow suit.

    Personally, I like the lightness of a paperback. I can still stick it in my bag. I do feel that pull as an author, however, to seeing my book in hardcover. Guess we need to roll with the times. I’m sure there were many who mourned the passing of a horse and buggie to the smelly loud autos.

  8. Frankly, I never understood hardcover books. Big, heavy, bulky, can’t slip in your pocket, very expensive…
    But indie writers can have them if they really, really want to. An LSI account costs money and is a pain in the butt to do, but they produce hardcover books for you.
    For less trouble, you can do it on Lulu.

    1. We used Lightning Source years ago for the nonfiction book I was involved in, but it was early days for POD and I don’t know whether hardcover was even offered back then. I agree with you that Lulu’s probably the better alternative for most indies.

      1. I looked into Lulu and discovered that if you want the hard cover books distributed to, there is a “per title” fee on most sizes.

        1. FYI: LSI has done a great job for me and my books are available in both paperback and hardcover from them. There is an established cost on them as the paperback and no other fees.

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