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The hardback/paperback gap

29 August 2011

The advent of ebooks and consumers' reluctance to accept the high price of hardbacks are having an impact on the traditional relationship between hardback and paperback publication.

Traditionally, one year has been the norm and publishers have stuck to this for many years, in spite of the growth of sales of paperback editions. Publishers in both the US and the UK would argue that for the right book there is still a substantial market for the hardback, especially if it is well-promoted and sold at a large discount off the retail price, as many hardbacks are these days.

But this gap is beginning to close, with publishers feeling that it would be better to get the paperback out as soon as the hardback edition stops selling. This can be six months after publication, or even less, and has to be carefully judged on a book-by-book basis.

Jane von Mehren, the publisher of trade paperbacks at Random House US says: 'I'm looking to do it more and more. We feel as though there is this trade paperback book buyer that we want to make sure is still getting served. The idea that someone would wait for a year is an assumption that we should no longer make. So we're looking at shortening the window.'

It is really rather remarkable that in an era when most people buy their books in paperback, books should not go into paperback directly. The economics of this are difficult to judge. The hardback edition makes more profit per copy, but it is only really worth doing for books which will make some impact in hardback, either in terms of a solid hardback readership, which is most likely to be for a bestselling author, or because they will garner reviews.

There are exceptions though. Leslie Gelbman, the president of mass-market paperbacks for Penguin Group USA, has said the hardcover edition of The Help, which was on the best-seller list for 103 weeks, was selling so well that Penguin waited more than two years before producing a paperback.

Stieg Larsson's third book in the Millennium series, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, has yet to be published in paperback in the United States, more than a year after being released in hardcover (having sold 2.5 million copies in hardcover and 1.1 million in e-book form.) The publishers don't want to put it in paperback when it is still selling well in hardback and ebook. But will the eventual paperback sales measure up, or will the ebook sales have eaten into them?

For ebooks, with their low prices, are having an impact on both hardback and paperback sales. If the ebook is made available at the same time as the hardback, there's an obvious risk that it will undercut it. It may also be a substitute for the paperback, thus cutting into the book's later paperback sales.

There's the recession to factor in too, which is having a negative effect on sales overall. In short, all of publishers' certainties about different editions and pricing seem up in the air at the moment, with nothing certain and many challenges to the traditional order. This is not necessarily good news for authors, though, as publishers scramble to deal with major change.