One of the first posts on this blog was entitled “Why do paperbacks cost less than hardbacks? It answered the question thus—

Well it’s obvious isn’t it?  It costs less to bind a paperback than a hardback.

This is true, but not altogether unambiguous.  What we normally think of in these situations is a combined run, hardback/paperback, where the 500 hardbacks have a stamped case and no jacket, and the 2000 paperbacks have a four-color cover.  Actually, what makes the hardback more expensive in this scenario is the quantity not the specs.  If you did the whole run as unjacketted stamped case hardbacks, your overall cost would be lower than if you did the whole run as a paperback*.

Now you’ll say that’s ridiculous because we actually need the book to appeal to two distinct markets: the libraries who want a more durable version and will pay more for it, and the public who won’t pay nearly as much.  You want to be able to publish the book at $100 for the few and at $35 for the many.  Being able to show the same “profit” by pricing all 2500 at $48 won’t work: because your knowledge of the market tells you that $35 is as much as the masses will pay and $48 is less than you could get from librarians.

In that paragraph is embedded the truth that we tend always to overlook.  Paperbacks are cheaper because we (expect to) sell more copies of them.

Still true, but it’s beginning to be historically true rather than absolutely true. As we move more and more over to digital printing the economics behind book manufacturing shift under our feet. Part of the reason why longer runs were always “cheaper”† for publishers is the fact that with offset or letterpress there’s a lot of cost incurred just getting the machine ready before a single copy is printed. This is called makeready, and is an essential part of book manufacturing cost structures until is ceases to be with the development of push-button manufacturing processes.

Today (or maybe next week) I might be inclined to answer the question by saying hardbacks cost more than paperbacks for just two reasons:

  • 1. the small materials difference, and, more significantly,
  • 2. because that’s how we’ve always priced them.

Nowadays many traditionally published books never get a hardback edition at all, and are published only in paperback. This goes even more strongly for self-published books, where of course many don’t even have a paperback, just being ebooks. For years you’ve been able to find paperbacks in your local public library: used to be we (academic publishers at least) would publish a hardback edition for the libraries and a paperback for the rest. The trick of subsidizing the paperback price by overstating the hardback price probably doesn’t work any more. I expect the hardback’s days may be numbered, though there remains one important reason for its survival — many (most?) authors get a higher rate of royalty on sales in hardback as against paperback, and given that the hardback’s price is also going to be higher, authors will initially do better off hardback than paperback sales — at least until the volume of paperback sales ramps up. But no doubt such clauses in author contracts will wither if/when the hardback does.

† I should perhaps add that the link between price and expected sales quantity hasn’t gone away. No matter what format, the more you sell the lower you can set the retail price, as your overhead costs (the other fixed cost element in book pricing) are gently amortized. For book pricing, see Costing.