One of the big pieces of news recently was Barnes & Noble and the way they are changing how they are purchasing for their stores. 

To summarise, B&N is removing corporate level support for debut and midlist authors by not ordering such works in hardcover. Now, supposedly, on a branch level, the branch managers have more control so that they can purchase and adjust inventory to better suit their own stores, but there’s some conflicting information that this might not be true in practise. More details in this Twitter thread.

For many reasons, a lot of debut authors and midlist authors have decried this move, especially PoC authors. There’s a lot of reasons for that, you can do the research into it, but the focus on this article is going to be on something else.

Before we go ahead though, let’s discuss why hardcovers are printed before paperbacks.

Hardcover Profitability

Really, the answer should be simple; because of… *drum roll* profit! Here’s a great article talking about royalty rates for ebooks but they do a breakdown of hardcover and paperback royalty rate profits too. 

In particular, it’s worth noting that most traditional publishing royalties break down (for a good contract) at roughly:

  • Hardcover sales: 15%
  • Trade paperback sales: 7.5%
  • Mass-market paperback sales: 5%
  • eBook sales: 25%
  • Audiobook sales: 25%

Basically, you can see that the publisher is going to earn more from a hardcover print run and sale than they would with a paperback run. That amount can be significant (using the writersunion’s numbers but a trade paperback royalty rate of 7.5% instead of 10%, but a hardcover royalty rate of 15%, that’s still nearly a dollar difference. If they are able to do 10% on hardcover, that’s more like $3!).

Now, remember; the math on earning out and when a publisher profits is very different from ‘earning out’ for an author. The numbers vary significantly. This Twitter thread is a good (if incredibly high advance) breakdown. So’s this post.

There’s other discussions like bestseller list, facing on bookstores, awards and other prestige items, but I don’t have time to get into that. Just know that hardcovers are useful for publishers for a variety of reasons.

Ebook Profits by Trad Publishers

Now, look up ahead at the TWUC’s post about digital royalty rates. Realise that no one (and this includes Brandon Sanderson) have a royalty rate of >25%. There are numerous contract clauses in place that stop publishers from doing so (mostly, they can’t give anyone a higher rate without having ALL their big authors get it) which, well is horrible.

It’s why hardcovers are out so long before too and ebook prices can be so much higher for so long, since the goal (either way) is to sell books with the highest profitability for the publisher. Not necessarily the author. 


Direct to Paperback?

Now that B&N won’t necessarily carry all these hardcovers, will publishers shift to a smaller hardcover print run whilst simultaneously doing a paperback release for the mass market? Will that then drive down ebook pricing?

I don’t know. You might hope so, and I think; in the short-term, you might see some publishers doing that. A few imprints, a few of the smaller/middle sized trad publishers. After all, if there’s more paperback support (more space dedicated); they might do well.

But then, eventually, others will catch up – potentially with a shorter hardcover exclusive period or just going straight to paperbacks; and everyone will be fighting once more for shelf space.

How about Independent Bookstores?

The pandemic was not great for them, as many of you might have guessed. However, there’s been a nice rebound since restrictions have been removed, with bookstores beginning to grow in size and sales. 

Will the new changes in B&N mean a greater emphasis on independent bookstores? Probably. Will it decrease the effect of word of mouth? Most likely. Works that were marginal already at B&N, midlist writers and the like might just find that they can only rely on independent bookstores and…

The Elephant in the Room

In the end, the shift to less hardcover in B&N means that publishers are going to have to rely on Amazon to help move their books. Because, between the delay in printing and publishing (and oh boy, is there a huge delay with paper production being a major roadblock); the need to get pre-orders in early means that they’re going to rely on Amazon’s and Amazon’s orders to set their initial print run.

Especially if the buzz has not started for the book yet, because it’s still a year out.

Truthfully, I don’t really know how all this will play out. I’m indie published. I can watch what is going on here, but it’s all theoretical. In the end, it’ll be other authors, other individuals who will be suffering and making the decisions here.

Still, there’s a sea of change in how and what format books are getting published, and that’s just in print. For digital… that’s next week.

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