The Point of the Paperback

April 2, 2013 | 15 books mentioned 16 9 min read

“Why are they still bothering with paperbacks?” This came from a coffee-shop acquaintance when he heard my book was soon to come out in paperback, nine months after its hardcover release. “Anyone who wants it half price already bought it on ebook, or Amazon.”

Interestingly, his point wasn’t the usual hardcovers-are-dead-long-live-the-hardcover knell. To his mind, what was the use of a second, cheaper paper version anymore, when anyone who wanted it cheaply had already been able to get it in so many different ways?

I would have taken issue with his foregone conclusion about the domination of ebooks over paper, but I didn’t want to spend my babysitting time down that rabbit hole. But he did get me thinking about the role of the paperback relaunch these days, and how publishers go about getting attention for this third version of a novel — fourth, if you count audiobooks.

I did what I usually do when I’m puzzling through something, which is to go back to my journalism-school days and report on it. Judging by the number of writers who asked me to share what I heard, there are a good number of novelists who don’t quite know what to do with their paperbacks, either.

Here’s what I learned, after a month of talking to editors, literary agents, publishers, and other authors: A paperback isn’t just a cheaper version of the book anymore. It’s a makeover. A facelift. And for some, a second shot.

About ebooks. How much are they really cutting into print, both paperbacks and hardcovers? Putting aside the hype and the crystal ball, how do the numbers really look?

The annual Bookstats Report from the Association of American Publishers (AAP), which collects data from 1,977 publishers, is one of the most reliable measures. In the last full report — which came out July 2012 — ebooks outsold hardcovers for the first time, representing $282.3 million in sales (up 28.1%), compared to adult hardcover ($229.6 million, up 2.7%). But not paperback — which, while down 10.5%, still represented $299.8 million in sales. The next report comes out this July, and it remains to be seen whether ebook sales will exceed paper. Monthly stat-shots put out by the AAP since the last annual report show trade paperbacks up, but the group’s spokesperson cautioned against drawing conclusions from interim reports rather than year-end numbers.

Numbers aside, do we need to defend whether the paperback-following-hardcover still has relevance?

“I think that as opposed to a re-release being less important, it’s more than ever important because it gives a book a second chance with a new cover and lower cost, plus you can use all the great reviews the hardcover got,” says MJ Rose, owner of the book marketing firm Authorbuzz, as well as a bestselling author of novels including The Book of Lost Fragrances. “So many books sell 2,000 or 3,000 copies in hardcover and high-priced ebooks, but take off when they get a second wind from trade paperback and their e-book prices drop.”

What about from readers’ perspectives? Is there something unique about the paperback format that still appeals?

I put the question to booksellers, though of course as bricks-and-mortar sellers, it’s natural that they would have a bias toward paper. Yet the question isn’t paper versus digital: it’s whether they are observing interest in a paper book can be renewed after it has already been out for nine months to a year, and already available at the lower price, electronically.

“Many people still want the portability of a lighter paper copy,” said Deb Sundin, manager of Wellesley Books in Wellesley, MA. “They come in before vacation and ask, ‘What’s new in paper?’ ”

“Not everyone e-reads,” says Nathan Dunbar, a manager at Barnes & Noble in Skokie, IL. “Many customers tell us they’ll wait for the paperback savings. Also, more customers will casually pick up the paperback over hardcover.”

Then there’s the issue of what a new cover can do. “For a lot of customers the paperback is like they’re seeing it for the first time,” says Mary Cotton, owner of Newtonville Books in Newtonvillle, MA. “It gives me an excuse to point it out to people again as something fresh and new, especially if it has a new cover.”

A look at a paperback’s redesign tells you a thing or two about the publisher’s mindset: namely, whether or not the house believes the book has reached its intended audience, and whether there’s another audience yet to reach. Beyond that, it’s anyone’s Rorschach. Hardcovers with muted illustrations morph into pop art, and vice versa. Geometric-patterned book covers are redesigned with nature imagery; nature imagery in hardcover becomes photography of women and children in the paperback. Meg Wolitzer, on a panel about the positioning of women authors at the recent AWP conference, drew knowing laughter for a reference to the ubiquitous covers with girls in a field or women in water. Whether or not publishers want to scream book club, they at least want to whisper it.

“It seems that almost every book these days gets a new cover for the paperback. It’s almost as if they’re doing two different books for two different audiences, with the paperback becoming the ‘book club book,’” says Melanie Benjamin, author of The Aviator’s Wife. Benjamin watched the covers of her previous books, including Mrs. Tom Thumb and Alice I Have Been, change from hardcovers that were “beautiful, and a bit brooding” to versions that were “more colorful, more whimsical.”


A mood makeover is no accident, explains Sarah Knight, a senior editor at Simon & Schuster, and can get a paperback ordered in a store that wouldn’t be inclined to carry its hardcover. “New cover art can re-ignite interest from readers who simply passed the book over in hardcover, and can sometimes help get a book displayed in an account that did not previously order the hardcover because the new art is more in line with its customer base.” Some stores, like the big-boxes and airports, also carry far more paperbacks than hardcovers. Getting into those aisles in paperback can have an astronomical effect on sales.

An unscientific look at recent relaunches shows a wide range of books that got full makeovers: Olive Kitteridge, A Visit From the Goon Squad, The Newlyweds, The Language of Flowers, The Song Remains the Same, The Age of Miracles, Arcadia, and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, as did my own this month (The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.)


Books that stayed almost completely the same, plus or minus a review quote and accent color, include Wild, Beautiful Ruins, The Snow Child, The Weird Sisters, The Paris Wife, Maine, The Marriage Plot, The Art of Fielding, The Tiger’s Wife, Rules of Civility, and The Orchardist.


Most interesting are the books that receive the middle-ground treatment, designers flirting with variations on their iconic themes. The Night Circus, The Invisible Bridge, State of Wonder, The Lifeboat, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Tell the Wolves I’m Home, Tigers in Red Weather, and The Buddha in the Attic are all so similar to the original in theme or execution that they’re like a wink to those in the know — and pique the memory of those who have a memory of wanting to read it the first time around.


Some writers become attached to their hardcovers and resist a new look in paperback. Others know it’s their greatest chance of coming out of the gate a second time — same race, fresh horse.

When Jenna Blum’s first novel, Those Who Save Us, came out in hardcover in 2004, Houghton Mifflin put train tracks and barbed wire on the cover. Gorgeous, haunting, and appropriate for a WWII novel, but not exactly “reader-friendly,” Blum recalls being told by one bookseller. The following year, the paperback cover — a girl in a bright red coat in front of a European bakery — telegraphed the novel’s Holocaust-era content without frightening readers away.

“The paperback cover helped save the book from the remainder bins, I suspect,” Blum says.


Armed with her paperback, Jenna went everywhere she was invited, which ended up tallying more than 800 book clubs. Three years later, her book hit the New York Times bestseller list.

“Often the hardcover is the friends-and-family edition, because that’s who buys it, in addition to collectors,” she says. “It’s imperative that a paperback give the novel a second lease on life if the hardcover didn’t reach all its intended audience, and unless you are Gillian Flynn, it probably won’t.”

There’s no hard-and-fast rule about when the paperback should ride in for that second lease. A year to paperback used to be standard, but now a paperback can release earlier — to capitalize on a moderately successful book before it’s forgotten — or later, if a hardcover is still turning a strong profit.

At issue: the moment to reissue, and the message to send.

“Some books slow down at a point, and the paperback is a great opportunity to repromote and reimagine,” says Sheila O’Shea, associate publisher for Broadway and Hogarth paperbacks at the Crown Publishing Group (including, I should add, mine). “The design of a paperback is fascinating, because you have to get it right in a different way than the hardcover. If it’s a book that relates specifically to females you want that accessibility at the table — women drawn in, wondering, Ooh, what’s that about.

The opportunity to alter the message isn’t just for cover design, but the entire repackaging of the book — display text, reviews put on the jacket, synopses used online, and more. In this way, the paperback is not unlike the movie trailer which, when focus-grouped, can be reshaped to spotlight romantic undertones or a happy ending.

“Often by the time the paperback rolls around, both the author and publicist will have realized where the missed opportunities were for the hardcover, and have a chance to correct that,” says Simon & Schuster’s Sarah Knight. “Once your book has been focus-grouped on the biggest stage — hardcover publication — you get a sense of the qualities that resonate most with people, and maybe those were not the qualities you originally emphasized in hardcover. So you alter the flap copy, you change the cover art to reflect the best response from the ideal readership, and in many cases, the author can prepare original material to speak to that audience.”

Enter programs like P.S. (Harper Collins) and Extra Libris (Crown Trade and Hogarth), with new material in the back such as author interviews, essays, and suggested reading lists.

“We started Extra Libris last spring to create more value in the paperback, to give the author another opportunity to speak to readers. We had been doing research with booksellers and our reps and book club aficionados asking, What would you want in paperbacks? And it’s always extra content,” says Crown’s O’Shea. “Readers are accustomed to being close to the content and to the authors. It’s incumbent on us to have this product to continue the conversation.”

Most of a paperback discussion centers on the tools at a publisher’s disposal, because frankly, so much of a book’s success is about what a publisher can do — from ads in trade and mainstream publications, print and online, to talking up the book in a way that pumps enthusiasm for the relaunch. But the most important piece is how, and whether, they get that stack in the store.

My literary agent Julie Barer swears the key to paperback success is physical placement. “A big piece of that is getting stores (including the increasingly important Costco and Target) to take large orders, and do major co-op. I believe one of the most important things that moves books is that big stack in the front of the store,” she says. “A lot of that piece is paid for and lobbied for by the publisher.”

Most publicists’ opportunities for reviews have come and gone with the hardcover, but not all, says Kathleen Zrelak Carter, a partner with the literary PR firm Goldberg McDuffie. “A main factor for us in deciding whether or not to get involved in a paperback relaunch is the off-the-book-page opportunities we can potentially pursue. This ranges from op-ed pieces to essays and guest blog posts,” she says. “It’s important for authors to think about all the angles in their book, their research and inspiration, but also to think about their expertise outside of being a writer, and how that can be utilized to get exposure.”

What else can authors do to support the paperback launch?

Readings have already been done in the towns where they have most connections, and bookstores don’t typically invite authors to come for a paperback relaunch. But many are, however, more than happy to have relaunching authors join forces with an author visiting for a new release, or participate in a panel of authors whose books touch on a common theme.

And just because a bookstore didn’t stock a book in hardcover doesn’t mean it won’t carry the paperback. Having a friend or fellow author bring a paperback to the attention of their local bookseller, talking up its accolades, can make a difference.

I asked folks smarter than I about branding, and they said the most useful thing for authors receiving a paperback makeover is to get on board with the new cover. That means fronting the new look everywhere: the author website, Facebook page, and Twitter. Change the stationery and business cards too if, like I did, you made them all about a cover that is no longer on the shelf.

“Sometimes a writer can feel, ‘But I liked this cover!’” says Crown’s O’Shea. “It’s important to be flexible about the approach, being open to the idea of reimagining your own work for a broader audience, and using the tools available to digitally promote the book with your publisher.”

More bluntly said, You want to sell books? Get in the game. Your hardcover might have come and gone, but in terms of your book’s rollout, it’s not even halftime yet.

“The paperback is truly a new release, and a smart author will treat it as such,” says Randy Susan Meyers, author The Murderer’s Daughters, her new novel The Comfort Of Lies, and co-author of the publishing-advice book What To Do Before Your Book Launch with book marketer and novelist M.J. Rose. “Make new bookmarks, spruce up your website, and introduce yourself to as many libraries as possible. Bookstores will welcome you, especially when you plan engaging multi-author events. There are opportunities for paperbacks that barely exist for hardcovers, including placement in stores such as Target, Costco, Walmart, and a host of others. Don’t let your paperback launch slip by. For me, as for many, it was when my book broke out.”


is author of the novel The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. (Crown/Random House, 2012), and a 14-year contributing editor with Conde Nast Traveler magazine. She can be found online at and @nicholebernier.


  1. This is interesting. I’ve been noticing, though, a definite trend in my own book-buying – such an acute dislike of the paperback cover (especially as compared to a really *wonderful* hardcover design) that EVEN IF I’ve deliberately waited for the paperback release, and EVEN THOUGH I actually much prefer the in-the-hand feel and reading experience of the trade paperback format over the unwieldy heft of the hardcover, several times now I’ve opted for the hardcover either because I strongly preferred that cover or because I sooo much disliked the PB design. Looking at your ‘full redesign’ examples, ‘Olive Kitteridge’ and ‘Arcadia’ are the only ones where I don’t mind the PB cover – and with two others (‘The Song Remains the Same’ and ‘The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.’) where i don’t particularly like either cover, that still leaves five where I *strongly* prefer the HC design. To my eye, the PB redesigns look significantly dumbed-down and cluttered-up, or in the case of ‘Harold Fry’, all the quirky charm of the original design has been simply been subtracted from the PB, leaving an insipid nothingness that conveys nothing. It’s frustrating, and not something I would’ve expected to matter so much – but clearly, if I’m repeatedly choosing against my preferred format in favor of the preferred design, it DOES really matter to me.

    And maybe it’s worth noting that in addition to being an avid lifelong reader, I’m also an artist – and thus perhaps the visual aspect matters more to me than it may to someone else. In any case, it does seem like a fairly recent thing – didn’t it used to be more typical that the book design was simply the book design, the same across all editions? I can understand that the PB release is now seen as a sort of reboot opportunity, but if the result is that everything gets slipped into uniformly forgettable play-clothes then I’m not sure where the advantage is supposed to be.

  2. Someone has to say it: DON’T JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER! ;-)

    I actually prefer the drab, uninformative covers over the busy, frenetic covers.

  3. I hate ebooks and I’m not fond of hardcovers (too unwieldy). Trade paperbacks all the way. I usually like paperback redesigns but, of course, there are always exceptions. Case in point: Nathan Englander’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.” Loved the hardcover design; find the paperback unbelievably ugly and don’t understand what they were thinking. But I bought it anyway.

    “The Marriage Plot” is an interesting example to use, because the first version of the trade paperback was not like the hardcover at all–it was a hazy watercolor of three people. I would love to know what caused them to apparently revert back to the previous design in later printings.

  4. There are a lot of intriguing covers here, and I just want to say there is a lot of talent out there in the book cover design business. When the hardcover and paperback covers are different, they seem to evoke a different mood, but the positive thing is all encourage some kind of imaginative relationship with the story (piquing a reader’s curiosity). The ideal scenario for an author is to have both books on the shelf so readers can choose. The worst covers are the ones that get slapped onto books after they have been turned into movies; they typically leave very little to the imagination and make it impossible to read without imagining the faces of the actors–even if you are reading the book before seeing the movie.

  5. An addendum to my piece: I find it fascinating that the issue of paperback redesign is moving in both directions — not just for books following hardcover release, but backlist the publisher believes can get more traction. See today’s news item re. GONE GIRL author Gillian Flynn’s past books:

    “Broadway is repackaging Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects and Dark Places, to be released this month. The new editions will come with new jacket art and have print runs of 50,000 each. Flynn’s first two books, according to Random House, have sold over 800,000 copies together (print and e-books combined), with over 600,000 of those sales occurring since her megaseller Gone Girl went on sale in June 2012.”

  6. Having read Wild in various formats including the library’s pre-recorded player, cd’s , hardcover, downloadable cd’s, and a paperback, the one i chose the most is listening to it on the player at bedtime. The one i want to own beyond that is the paperback for relaxation time. I do love the hardcovers but they’re not affordable for me and the library hardcovers are treasures to me. I would promote paperbacks in bookstores for sure and especially the local independent bookstores to keep them on their feet and drag in a few more customers.
    I know many people who are into audiobooks and my partner reports many working peeps who use ebooks/kindles, etc while commuting on the bus, or audiobooks for to and from work in the car. My mommy friend plays books while her kids ride with her that are kid friendly like Harry Potter books. She reads actual hard and paperbacks when off duty and relaxing at night. The designs/marketing does sell to me but ultimately it’s the reviews that draw me in to some that I’d never seen nor would have imagined reading. I find review spots to be the best marketing via places like social media, online book sellers and news review type venues (mostly online) like NPR and the likes.
    Interesting topic since I was contemplating this when buying the paperback at the book signing. I wondered if it’d be offensive to the author that I bought the paperback over the hard cover for signing and yet for the cost I could afford to buy another book and with the two, i just had to buy the third. Add-on sales in retail are just as market-worthy as first glance visual marketing.

  7. I was more wondering why they bothered with hard copies? They are more expensive. I always way for the paperback to buy a book.

  8. I almost always buy paperbacks. When an interesting book comes out for the first time in hardback I make a note of it, and check back a few months later for the paperback version. Hardbacks are to cumbersome. To your friend I would ask, “Why bother with the hardback?”

  9. Except for brightly illustrated coffee-table books,I am convinced hard back books are on the way out, being replaced by eBooks and soft backs. Much of this conversion is due to mobility. Soft back books can be easily transported in briefcases and carry-on luggage and reading tablets like Kendle and IPads can store unlimited books. Also, cost is an issue. I see people more relunctant to spend $25 or more on hardbacks. My first novel, TOLTEC, was released in softback and eBook and none in hardback for the reasons mentioned above. Most of the younger generation have become adept in tablet readers and there is no doubt, as they get older, they will be reading most of their novels in eBook format. Hate to say it but I believe hardback novels are the horse and buggy of the book industry.

  10. Paperback versus Hardcover for me is a matter of size and weight. I really don’t like carrying around a heavy large book, plus there is the space required to store the larger books since I keep my favorite books for years and usually re-read them at least twice or three times or more.

    Then paperback versus eBook. I’ve never had a paperback die from being left in the car (Florida sun) for a few months. I don’t think an eBook reader would do to well for swatting some of the bugs we have. Since we sometimes go camping my paperback has never had the batteries die, nor in an emergency can you use extra pages from an eBook as kindling to start a fire. Then of course, there is that other camping emergency use for extra pages best left unsaid.

  11. I too keep all my paperbacks and storage space is a problem so the a format paperback is ideal. I do use an e reader (ideal for holidays!) but all my favourite authors are waiting to be reread like old friends

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