Wednesday, April 7, 2010


As you can see, I've yet to grow tired of title gags. In the case of the former, a (tongue-in-cheek) reference to the UK's Tree Preservation Orders; in the case of the latter, a trade paperback original. Trade paper original! No hardcover! Trees saved!


Holloway McCandless asked me in Monday's comments why literary fiction seems stuck on the hardcover-then-paperback model of publishing (which has dominated the trade book scene for the last century) when it seems that issuing these books as trade paper originals might make more sense. The answer: it seems we're moving in the TPO direction, Holloway, but as with everything in this industry, it's going to take a little time.

Ever since books have been—well, books, I guess, rather than scrolls—they have been hard-bound. Hardback books are significantly more durable than their paperback counterparts, meaning they are more often retained in public and private libraries. (This sort of dates back to those magical "book as sacred object" days of yore.) Because the market will support (or, rather, has historically supported) a higher price for these superior quality books, publishers produce (or, rather, have produced) them because they will earn them more money. Fancy McPublisher sells Fancy McBook ($35.00 RP) to House o' Books at a 50% discount ($17.50), House o' Books sells it to you at a 30% discount (off the original $35.00, or $24.50). House o' Books makes $7.00 and Fancy McPublisher makes a profit that varies depending on the print run of the book.

Let's now assume the book in question is a trade paperback original. Because the RP of the book will be lower (almost certainly between $12.00 and $20.00), Fancy McPublisher will make less money per book. While it's true that the costs incurred for a hardcover book are slightly higher than those of a paperback (e.g. printing/paper/binding, shipping, co-op) a lot of the costs are format agnostic (e.g. employee salaries, art, permissions) and so the publisher won't be paying that much less to print trade paperbacks vs. hardcovers. Since costs aren't a lot lower for paperbacks and profits are down, publishers reason (correctly) that they should sell a bunch of hardcovers, earn a higher profit margin on them, and then get a second wave of (smaller) profits a year later when the trade paperback comes out.

They reasoned correctly, that is, until the one-two combination of a recession and a major shift to e-books hit. With consumers now less willing to purchase hardcovers, I believe publishers are now realizing that they can actually increase profits by reducing per-book margin and moving a larger number of units—that is, hypothetically sell 20,000 trade paperback copies at a $0.75/book profit ($15,000) rather than 7,000 hardcovers at $2.00/book profit ($14,000). While steep discounting on hardcovers by retailers like Amazon, Borders, and Barnes & Noble has kept publishers from moving more aggressively toward a TPO-oriented publishing model, the number of incentives are, I think, mounting.


  1. Love this post, E.
    And I'm sure I'm just one of many who always look forward to your post-title-genius.

  2. Hmmm... this is good news for me. I've never liked hardcovers. They're too heavy, too big (higher waste of paper for the same words; what about the poor trees?), and sure, more expensive. I ALWAYS wait for the paperback edition.

  3. I always buy paperback. I take pretty good care of my books, so there's not much benefit in durability for my personal collection. Also, I just like handling paperbacks more. This may be one positive the e-book revolution has brought me if we move to TPO releases.

  4. Eric,

    Aren't you leaving out the other main reason for publishing in hardcover--library sales? These can be significant for a literary book and can also help build a readership for the book after it leaves the stores. The huge hit to library budgets over the past two years--more intense than any I've seen in 30 years--may also explain why the hardback model doesn't work as well anymore.

  5. Eric,

    I wonder when publishers will make the move to EBO (ebook Originals) as indie authors have done. The same fixed costs are involved (salaries, rights, etc), but the marginal costs are minimal. In times of recession the trend to ebooks at $1.99 or $2.99 (after June 1) makes reading more accessible than ever.

    Do you think larger publishers will follow this trend?


  6. I prefer paperbacks, less cumbersome.

    My local library, carries a lot of paperbacks, especially in mysteries, it seems. The books do get rather tattered. But I wonder, if the libraries end up purchasing the most popular ones again.

    And, of course, if I end up loving the mystery series, I'll buy the books.

  7. Yay! I've been hoping for this for a while. I despise hardcover because and I get frustrated waiting for paperbacks to come out.

    @CJ West - I have a feeling this fate is inevitable. It bums me out, though, because I love the experience of reading a paperback novel.

  8. I love paperbacks! If I ever get my fiction published, I'd rather skip the hardback and trade versions altogether. (As if I'd get a choice. ;-) ) I am content to see trade non-fiction, but hardbacks are just too expensive.

  9. Hi Jenny,

    I did mention both public and private libraries, but you're right, I did sort of gloss over that component of the book's sales. Good catch!


  10. Hi CJ,

    Yes, I do think this trend will emerge within the next five years. My theory is that bestsellers will continue to drop in either hardcover or TPO with an e-book version also available, while midlist and smaller debut authors will get TPO/e-book combos or EBO.

    I also think textbooks will become largely EBO in the next five years (especially if the iPad and its improved successors take as strong a hold in the education market as Apple's products historically have, and I think they will).

  11. Interesting post!

    In reference to your hypothesis that publishers will try to increase profit margins by moving a much larger volume of TPOs rather than starting with a small volume of Hardcovers: will a switch to TPOs create that kind of increased demand for a book? Do you think that the book-buying public is large enough that there will be that many more people willing to buy a TPO than a Hardcover? And if it is, will this influx of extra-large first print runs (particularly of those books by already-known authors) lead to more of a dominance in the market by the "big names" and make it harder for books by new authors to be seen?