Why buy hardcovers? Or putting it another way: Why buy paperbacks?

I see these questions and variations thereof pop up regularly on the reading forums I visit on the web. Sometimes they’re posted in an attempt to start an earnest discussion about the pros and cons of each, while at other times the asker wants to convince the other forum members that one rules and the other sucks. I’m sure most book lovers know the pros and cons of each, so I’m not going to bother listing them here, but I do want to tell you about my own preferences.

I prefer to buy paperbacks when I am new to the author, I’m not sure I will want to keep the book after I have read it, all my other books in a series are paperbacks (e.g. J.D. Robb’s In Death books), or I have little money to spare on books.

I prefer hardcovers when I am going to give the book as a present, when I know I am going to want to keep and reread it, when I need to replace a paperback I have read to tatters, and when I can’t wait for the paperback. I don’t give any thought to resell value or collectability or how the books look on the shelf, but of course I appreciate all of these things, just as I do all the other advantages of hardcover books.

The biggest downside to hardcovers for me is that they are bigger and heavier than paperbacks and so are harder to stuff into a purse or hold in your hands while reading. For example, all but one of my Terry Pratchett books are hardcovers and I’m working on getting the one exception in hard covers as well, to complete the collection. This means that I can’t take them with me for lunchtime reading when I go to work because they take up too much room in my purse – especially the big three novel volumes. But it’s not a big problem because there are so many other books out there that are smaller and just as funny that I can take with me.

I do miss the days when hardcover novels were available in different sizes – for example I have old pocket size hardcover editions of Three Men in a Boat and The Three Musketeers (admittedly, the type in that one is tiny) – but nowadays it’s generally only children’s and young adult books, handbooks and novelty books that are hardbound in sizes smaller than octavo. I think it’s probably because a larger size justifies a higher price because it makes people feel they are getting more for their money.

The other big issue I have with modern hardcovers is that some of them are really perfect bound books wearing fancy clothing. I don’t mean the hardcover/paperback hybrids that have thick, sturdy bookboard covers like a hardcover but a flat, glued-on spine like a paperback, but those that at first sight look like genuine traditional hollow-back bindings, even down to the headbands. Then you open them and wonder where the thread is, or look at the spine end of the textblock and wonder why the book doesn’t seem to be put together from signatures. Then suspicion rears its ugly head and after a look-see you realise that you are holding something, which while it may be less easily damaged on the outside because it has hard covers covered with bookcloth or fake leather rather than coated paper, is not going to last the 300 years you expected it to, but will start shedding its pages at about the same time as a paperback of the same age because it is not sewn together but perfect bound, i.e. it’s a stack of single pages glued together at the spine like a paperback. No one is going to tell me that the publishers use a different and better glue for such books than that used in paperbacks. Nope, I’m afraid it’s the same wonderful stuff, the kind which, at the worst, will lose it’s grip on the pages as soon as someone tries to open the book enough to make lie flat when open, and at the best will do the same after drying out for 20 years or so.

Of course it’s all done in order to increase the profit margin by having fewer and less energy demanding steps to go through in the binding process, but I know that I personally would pay more for a sewn book than a glued one, even if it had a soft cover.


the bookbinder said…
Read your blog with interest. top points.

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