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Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Hardbacks vs. Paperbacks

By Steven Pressfield
Published: May 27, 2015

Paperbacks and hardbacks: this is an area, I confess, that I’ve been absolutely clueless about.

The paperback edition of "The Lion's Gate"

You write a book. It gets published. The hardcover comes out. Then a year later comes the paperback. The paperback always has a different cover. If the hardback had a classy cover, the paperback usually has a slightly-less-classy cover. But maybe (you hope) it’s a more commercial cover.

Sometimes your book appears in its second life as a “trade paperback,” meaning a quality piece of workmanship, on good paper, weighty, only slightly smaller than the hardback. Other times it shows up as a “mass-market paperback,” which is small and cheap. Sometimes the paperback takes off like a rocket. Other times it fizzles on the launching pad.

If you’re self-publishing or indie-publishing (or if you’re like me and Shawn at Black Irish Books), you can’t afford to bring out a hardcover. You go straight to paperback. That sounds as unsavory as “straight to video,” but actually it can be a real positive. These days, when so many people do their reading on Kindles and iPads, there’s virtually no stigma to a paperback. In fact the paperback may be a big plus in that its price is not as daunting as the $24.95 or $29.95 for most hardcovers.

This week (yesterday actually), the paperback of my most recent book, The Lion’s Gate, came out. I LOVED the new cover. I loved the look of the whole book. I started getting excited. The hardback was definitely an under-achiever. Maybe, I thought, the paperback will break through. The Lion’s Gate has 234 customer reviews on Amazon, averaging five stars. But sales are barely moving the needle.

I knew that my publisher, Sentinel/Penguin, had been doing some serious thinking about this “second bite of the apple.” I asked my editor, Niki Papadopoulos, if she wouldn’t mind sharing some of Penguin’s thoughts with our blog readers, for their (and my) edification.

Here’s my mini-interview with Niki and Adrian Zackheim, who’s the publisher at Sentinel/Penguin.

SP: Why publish a paperback?

The hardback cover

AZ: Every different format of a book offers an opportunity to reach a new audience. Ebook, audio, hardcover, trade paperback, mass market paperback, movie tie-in editions—all these formats are sold and marketed in different ways and places. Each new format allows us to reach different types of readers.

NP: From a practical standpoint, publishing a paperback edition of a book gives us the opportunity to lower the price point and attract more price-sensitive readers. That’s a logical reason. Sometimes, we want to try a different package and see what happens. It’s really all just a mix of tradition, superstition, gut instinct, and publishing voodoo. But you probably guessed that by now, Steve.

[SP to readers: Those final three sentences are a subject for a whole other post, which I'm gonna do next week. Marketing a book (I don't care what anybody says) is an art, not a science. Not even the biggest, savviest publishers know for sure who's going to buy a particular book (unless it's a memoir by Hillary Clinton or Sarah Palin), let alone why or what will motivate them to buy. More about that next week.]

SP: What was Penguin’s thinking on having a new cover? And why this particular cover?

AZ: When we published the hardcover edition of The Lion’s Gate a year ago, we were really excited about the immediacy of the reading experience—the inside-the-cockpit, under-the-helmet stories of the actual soldiers who fought and won that war. We wanted to play that aspect up in the package. So we went with a cover that emphasized the level of immersion the reader has in the story.  You’re right there in the jeep with the soldiers, heading into the unknown.

For the paperback, we made a conscious decision to package the book more like Steve’s other works. By going with bolder type and colors, along with a step-back page showcasing all the great reviews the book garnered in hardcover, we’re making the book look more like an action-packed military adventure story—which it most certainly is, too.

SP: How do publishers think about marketing a paperback versus marketing a hardcover?

NP: That’s a great question. A new work of serious nonfiction is almost always published in hardcover first, and this format will signal the newness of the book to the media. Traditional media outlets are more open to covering a book that’s new, because its publication is an event of sorts. Book review sections in newspapers, guests on The Daily Show, and so on—it’s all books in their first six to eight weeks of life.
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Posted in Writing Wednesdays


Additional Reading: On Writing

Bambi versus Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose and Practice of the Movie Business

by Mamet, David

Technically this isn’t a book about writing. It’s about Tinseltown and David Mamet’s love-hate relationship with it. But, along with Mamet’s witty and cantankerous evisceration of show biz, Bambi vs. Godzilla delivers masterly and extremely useful insights on getting movies made, surviving criticism, paying the rent and in general surviving Hollywood while retaining some scrap of sanity and integrity. Mamet is not just any writer. When he takes on a subject, you get it in context succeeding context—commercial, aesthetic, moral, ethical, legal, Talmudic, Tantric and Vedic. It’s like reading Thucydides if he’d loaded his stuff into a ‘65 Mustang and split for the Coast.

Ernest Hemingway on Writing

by Phillips, Larry W.

Papa never actually sat down and wrote a book about writing. Rather, editor Larry Phillips has compiled 140 pages of hard-core Hemingwayisms from the author’s books, stories, and letters. Great material, particularly the fragments of correspondence to Scott Fitzgerald.

First Five Pages, The

by Lukeman, Noah

As an agent and editor, Noah Lukeman read thousands of manuscripts from aspiring writers. He got to where he could tell in the first five pages if a submission was worth his time. In this gem of a book, he tells you the most common mistakes writers make—and how to eradicate them from your manuscript.

How To Be Inspired

by Williams, Nick

A no-nonsense how-to manual and psych-yourself-up kit, for those of us who sometimes need a swift kick in the butt to get us going.

Journal of a Novel

by Steinbeck, John

When he was writing East of Eden, Steinbeck kept a journal—just a few pages each morning, which he’d scribble as a kind of warm-up before turning to the actual manuscript. Fascinating insights into the writer’s life, inside and outside the covers of a book.

Robert McKee’s Story Seminar

by McKee, Robert

I always say that McKee is not only the best teacher of writing I’ve ever seen, but the best teacher of anything. I’ve taken this three-day intensive course twice—and I’ll take it again. Yes, McKee has been spoofed (in the movie Adaptation) and lionized (in a New Yorker profile.) But that’s because he’s the best. Full disclosure: McKee and I are friends. McKee wrote the foreword for The War of Art. McKee teaches this class in cities all over the U.S. and Europe, even as far away as Israel and Singapore.


by McKee, Robert

This is the book that goes with Robert McKee’s Story Seminar. Terrific for writers in all media, but take the “live” McKee first. You’ll get more out of the book if you’ve heard the man deliver his stuff in-person.

Three Uses of the Knife

by Mamet, David

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