The Perilous Path to Paperback

Elizabeth Bluemle - February 14, 2017

Recently, we were approached by a local school to create a monthly book-order flyer for students. It’s been a fun challenge to come up with the perfect mix of new and established books for ages preschool through eighth grade, but in my travels through the various databases I use, I’m starting to feel anxious for all of the hardcover books I see that would be perfect in paperback but may never make it there if hardcover sales don’t support them.

On the publishing side, I’m sure there are various valid reasons not to simultaneously publish hardcover and paperback editions of children’s books, but I wonder if some of those reasons are left over from older publishing/sales models and may have become outdated. Many graphic novels now come out in simultaneous editions, and as any bookseller can tell you, that has only helped sales. Institutions (schools and libraries) still want to buy the hardcovers, and children and families gobble up the paperbacks. The marvelous Roller Girl, for example, would not have become the bestseller it is if it had only been available in hardcover.
In a world that spins ever faster, books need to catch their audience right away. A book that would be embraced by families eagerly in a less expensive paperback format, may languish in hardcover in this economy of diminished dollars. I am concerned especially for diverse books; there are several dozen wonderful picture books from the past four years that I wanted to look at for inclusion in this flyer, but they still haven’t come out in paperback. And because customers really really really want paperbacks and don’t have as much to spend on hardcovers, the hardcover versions don’t sell in huge numbers, the numbers that would justify turning a book to paperback.
In putting together this flyer, I wanted to offer high quality books that appeal to kids and are affordable by families with a broad range of disposable income for books. I wanted to offer young readers the thrill of new releases alongside the more established titles. But in running searches through the usual bookselling databases, it was hard to find the great new paperback reissues, drowned out as they are by floods of TV tie-in books and mediocre consumer junk, the kind most kids will always gravitate to at school book fairs because they look fun and easy. I’m all for potato chip reading (my term for junk-food reading indulgences), but when the paperback supermarket has eight aisles of Lay’s to every one aisle of (also delicious) full nutrition, well, that’s not great for anyone but the potato chip companies.
I know that some books that are only available to bookstores in hardcover are turned into special-run paperbacks solely for the Scholastic Book Club, which hurts independent booksellers in numerous ways, the most important of which are: 1) it is an unfair market advantage, and 2) families, understandably, are convinced that these books are available to buy in paperback (because they are, from a single source), and that bookstores are trying to make them spend more by buying hardcovers. Argh!
So why are so many hardcovers that have been out for a couple of years still unavailable in paperback? I’m thinking of fun, family-friendly, easy-to-sell-in-paperback books like Jim Averback and Yasmeen Ismail’s One Word from Sophia (Atheneum), Sonya’s Chickens by Phoebe Wahl (Tundra), Lizard from the Park by Mark Pett (Simon & Schuster), Lion Lion by Miriam Busch and Larry Day (Balzer + Bray), and Little Melba and Her Big Trombone by Katheryn Russell-Brown and Frank Morrison (Lee & Low). And wonderful, award-winning books that families who can’t afford hardcovers really should be allowed to get their hands on, like Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson.
I’m also talking about nonfiction books families would love, like Firebird by Misty Copeland and Christopher Myers (Putnam), Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton by Don Tate (Peachtree), Emmanuel’s Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah by Laurie Ann Thompson and Sean Qualls (Schwartz & Wade), and Wangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted a Million Trees by Franck Pravot (Charlesbridge).
Publishers, how do you decide if a book is worth trying in paperback? Why does it often take such a long time for paperbacks to come out? And what makes simultaneous releases so rare?
Booksellers, what titles do you think would move briskly in your stores if only a paperback edition were available?
Readers, what hardcover books are YOU still waiting for in paperback?

11 thoughts on “The Perilous Path to Paperback

  1. Cresson

    Yesterday, I had this conversation with a friend who was reading All the Light You Cannot See–one of the best books that I ever read. I have waited more than two years for it to publish in paperback. It’s plain greed on the publisher’s part not to release a successful book in paperback.
    When I worked in book departments as a student, hardcover books were released in paperback within six months. Recently that has transitioned to a year or more. More than two years is ridiculous!
    I give a lot of books as gifts, but it has become more expensive through the years! The best books are now becoming inaccessible to the reading public, priced out of the market as hardcovers approach $30 and paperbacks $15 or more!

  2. Meghan Dietsche Goel

    It’s interesting. We see very little demand for paperback picturebooks in the store. Our market is almost entirely for hardcovers. We do bring in the paperbacks to give options, but the demand is nowhere near the same. We do see interest for them is in our bookfairs–which probably speaks to what you’re looking for with your school flyer!
    I completely agree with your point about ROLLER GIRL becoming a bestseller because it came out as a simultaneous paperback. I think in graphic novels, that’s a big deal. We had huge success with NARWHAL, UNICORN OF THE SEA by Ben Clanton, which was our 3rd bestselling title for the holidays this year, and it was the paperback option that really flew out of here. In YA, interestingly, a number of series only see success for us in hardcovers, as they build avid fanbases who all read the book in the immediate window after release. It can be an entirely different equation to see which of those series also build lasting paperback sales over time.
    I also just want to throw a note out about transitioning appropriate picture books to board books. Board book sales for us are soaring. I was just lamenting to my sales rep that THERE WAS A TREE by Rachel Isadora is unavailable in hardcover. This is such a great book for youngsters that I would love to see in board book. (My two year old demands it every night and loves “reading” the rebus elements.)

    1. Sarah Prineas

      We’re seeing the same thing at Prairie Lights (I sell books there one afternoon a week). Lots of hardcover picture book sales, I suspect because parents and grandparents buy them as gifts. Not as big a call for paperback picture books. And we sell TONS of board books. I don’t have numbers to back this up, but I’ll bet we sell as many board books as all the other kids books put together.
      And I’d like to put in a word for ONE WORD FROM SOPHIA, which I looooove and have handsold like crazy.

  3. Carin Siegfried

    This is always a problem. The standard is for the paperback to come out a year later but sometimes they stay in hardcover forever because of good sales (Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil is a memorable example) but most of them it’s because their hardcover sales never justify a paperback edition, as you surmise. It would be so helpful if the reviewing publications would commit to reviewing paperback originals. That’s the #1 reason that books that would be perfect TPOs are published in hardcover instead, and then look like losers. Also publishers only get one bite at the apple with a TPO (or simultaneous pub). It’s hard to go back to a book and say, the title isn’t working or the jacket needs a complete rethink or the publicity needs to go a completely different way, without a relaunch. With a paperback release after a hardcover, it’s easy to make those calls, but if the book is out and not selling and there’s no reason to relaunch, it’s very hard to put a lot of money into a book to reposition it at that point. There’s no easy answer.

  4. Pat Fowler

    Hi Elizabeth
    We too are constantly having folks ask for paperback picture books, but we have very few “literary” picture books in paperback – just 8 by 8’s and Early Reader series from various publishers that are in high demand but not the same type of book as a full picture book. Publishers seem to be issuing books as board books instead of paperback books, though the age level of the book (ages 5 and up) would be more appropriate in paperback.
    Classics sell well in hardcover and we special order those if we do not have them on hand, but our shelves are full of beautiful hardcover books that we are forced to return after 9 months or a year. The same goes for Middle Grade and Teen Fiction and Adult Fiction. Someone hears an interview an NPR, comes in asking for a book and are very disappointed to hear that it is just out, but only available in hardcover.
    It is especially hard when the book is available as a Scholastic book club or book fair book in paperback at the same time the hardcover is released to trade bookstores. And many books seem to have international editions available in paperback releasing at the same time as US editions.
    Pat Fowler
    Village Square Booksellers
    32 The Square, PO 245
    Bellows Falls, VT 05101
    Open 24/7 :

  5. Ellen Mager

    While this has been a problem for quite a while, it has become worse with, as Elizabeth said, new hardcovers available to our customers through the Scholastic Book fairs and parents are skeptical when I explain the system. I now add, it’s illegal to sell these books in a bookstore, it seems to stop them and make them listen, be more aware of our situation. I still put paperback picture books in my school book fairs, but other than “series characters” : Mercer Mayer’s Little Critter, more commercial (but original series – not take offs written by other people) as Fancy Nancy, Pete the Cat, Berenstain Bears they rreally don’t sell without hand seller help. For me the exception is Frank Asch’s Bear series, Kevin Henkes’s books and classics like Miss Rumphius , Ferdinand the Bull and the like. As Meghan said the picture books as board books are gold. especially with the request of books instead of a card at a shower. We do sell a lot of beginner readers books with color illustrations like Fly Guy (and it’s non fiction!). With these choices, straight paperback picture book sales have decreased.

  6. Zazu GALDOS

    We sell more picture books in paperback format than in hardcover annually. Unsurprisingly, the paperbacks do better in the summer and the hardcovers fare a bit better in December–the cheaper option is the everyday one for parents; the expensive one typically reserved for gift-giving. Keeping that in mind, it would seem reasonable to put out some books in both formats at the same time!
    We’re often bemoaning the fact that a hardcover staff pick has to be returned though no paperback is out (which is the norm). Frankly, I don’t think comparing hardcover to paperback sales when it comes to children’s picture books is as helpful an indicator is it may be with adult books– it feels a lot harder to spend so much money on a book the child will “grow out of “. In the few cases I can think of where a staff picked hardcover made it to paperback, the paperback FAR outperformed the hardcover, and that’s with much less visibility/merchandising to boot. In fact, every once in a while, I’ll pass on a new hardcover picture book–not because it didn’t look good, but because it felt less marketable as a higher priced hardcover than it would have in a different format.

  7. Carol B. Chittenden

    What’s the role of agents in this? Don’t they owe it to their authors to nudge titles into paperback reissue? They are, I’ve been told, instrumental in signing contracts with Scholastic, which can guarantee an extra several thousand (tens of thousands?) sales in inexpensive paperback.

    1. Elizabeth Bluemle Post author

      Scholastic book club paperbacks are a separate animal; those titles are not available to be sold in bookstores. My own picture books were available in paperback through Scholastic when they were only in hardcover to the trade, and kids didn’t understand why they could get them at school a block away but couldn’t get them at my bookstore. I would be surprised if agents had much of a role in getting books to regular sales channels in paperback; it seems like a marketing/sales decision. If I’m wrong, agents, weigh in!

  8. Cindy Kane Trumbore

    Thank you for mentioning nonfiction writers. From a writer’s perspective, I would seek school appearances more aggressively if I could provide books with a lower price point. Children want to come away from an appearance with a book, and not every family can afford a hardcover.


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