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Publishing 101: Breaking Down the Different Book Formats

There’s a lot that goes into the trajectory of a book’s life outside the manuscript itself. Sometimes, a brand new cover and categorization will launch a book into a whole new life. Other times, it’s issuing the book in a new format.

Oftentimes, we think of books as coming out in hardcover first, and then in paperback a year later. At least, this was definitely my idea of things before I started working in publishing. But every book is unique and follows its own path.

For instance, if you’re familiar with the history of Swoon Reads, you’ll know that some books come out in paperback first, rather than in hardcover. These are called paperback originals. Many of our Swoon authors launched their careers in this format.

A lot of books do come out in hardcover first. There are jacketed hardcovers, which are books that have a case and a removable dust jacket that wraps around it, and there are paper-over-board editions, which are books with the cover art pasted directly onto the case.

Some books have both a hardcover and paperback edition. As a paperback editor, I’m a big fan of the format. Paperbacks are portable, bendable, and affordable. But what I didn’t realize before working in publishing is that not every book comes out in paperback, and there’s no set timeframe for when a book’s paperback edition gets scheduled.

What are the factors that go into deciding what formats are created for each book and when? Well, there’s a lot of them, but a couple of big ones are audience and utility (many cookbooks are done in paper-over-board because cooks don’t want dust jackets flapping off the case and into a bowl of tomato sauce) and production considerations (books with a lot of thick inserts sewn into the binding, for instance, might not hold up well without a hard case).

And then, there are some books that for whatever reason, really seem to be finding their audience in their original format, whatever that may be. In those cases, publishers will often opt to stick with the format that seems to be working until a new demand arises. Maybe a book that was formerly read by mostly fans of literary fiction wound up drawing new readers because it was included on a list of best novels in the adult romance genre, where paperbacks are the primary format. Demand for a new format can even arise years after a book’s original publication, which could mean that a book that’s lived exclusively in hardcover for a decade might be scheduled on next season’s paperback list.

Like people, stories each live their own unique lives. And when it comes to format especially, the “typical” trajectory isn’t as typical as you might think.

Got questions about publishing? Let us know in the comments!

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Val O.

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