What Are Paperback Books? (Compared to Hardcover)

When buying books, you may have noticed that they’re generally divided into paperback and hardcover. While these terms are relatively common, you may be wondering what, exactly, they mean. What are paperback books, and why are they given that name?

Paperback books have a cover made of either thick paper or paperboard. Additionally, these books are generally bound with glue rather than staples or stitches, and the book’s pages are also made of paper.

In this article, I’ll explore paperback books in more detail. I’ll help you understand how they’re differentiated from hardcovers and explain why hardcovers are still available despite the popularity of paperbacks.

Understanding Paperback Books

As mentioned above, paperback books are characterized by their covers – specifically, by the materials used to make their covers. This separates them from hardcover books, which have more rigid covers, often made of cloth, plastic, leather, or (most commonly) binder’s board or heavy paperboard.

While older hardcovers were commonly bound with stitches, modern versions use glue the same way that paperbacks do. Additionally, unlike paperbacks, hardcovers also use dust jackets to protect the rigid cover and make the book more aesthetically pleasing.

Paperbacks were first introduced to the market in the 19th century, following several innovations in the publishing industry. The first paperbacks were published of existing titles and served as a way to mass-produce popular books. As they were sold for a fraction of the price of a hardcover, they were affordable for a greater number of people.

Paperbacks were popularized in both the UK and Germany.

The first mass-market paperbacks were produced in Germany in the 1930s. While production stopped shortly due to the approaching World War II, the format was adopted in the UK in the same decade, where it proved to be an enormous financial success for Penguin Books. Paperbacks were introduced to the US by Simon & Schuster in the late 1930s under the Pocket Books label.

Though paperbacks originally consisted of existing works reprinted in this new medium, Gold Medal Books (an imprint of Fawcett Publications) started publishing original work in paperback in 1950, leading to a growth in the format. The new format encouraged the growth of literary genres, as readers could buy multiple books in genres they enjoyed.

The popularity of paperbacks led to publishers hiring artists and writers away from better-known magazines. World War II also helped with the format’s popularity – they were easily carried, making them perfect for both military members and shift workers at factories.

They could be displayed and sold in smaller stores, and the range of options in combination with low prices meant readers could buy a book, read it, discard it, and buy a new one without worrying about it affecting their monthly budget.

Romance novels helped make paperbacks even more popular. Harlequin, for example, started publishing in 1949 and grew to be one of the largest publishers in the world. The paperback format was perfect for romances – they were easily carried and concealed, and publishers could invest in a large number of books for a fraction of the cost of hardcovers.

Advantages of Paperbacks

There are several reasons behind the popularity of paperbacks over hardcovers, including:


Paperbacks are cheaper for both readers and publishers. Printing costs for hardbacks can be as much as five times those for paperbacks, and this cost is often passed on to the consumer, resulting in a higher retail price.

The reason for this price difference is mainly due to the difference in materials – hardcovers use more durable materials, especially for the covers. Additionally, hardcovers often have an additional dust jacket, and the dust jacket and book cover will sometimes have two different pieces of art. The price for the extra art and the dust jacket product all add to the cost of printing a hardcover.

It should be noted that the difference in materials does affect longevity – hardcovers have about two to three times the “shelf life” of paperbacks. However, a well-maintained paperback should last you between ten and 20 years, so this is rarely a consideration for individual readers (though libraries do often opt for hardcovers for this reason).

Portable and Space Saving

Paperbacks are usually smaller than hardcovers and are also more flexible. This means that it’s easy to carry a paperback in a small purse or even a relatively deep pocket, allowing readers to carry a book with them everywhere they go without compromising on other essentials they may need.

Because paperbacks take up less space, people can also carry more of them when traveling. Additionally, if you’re someone who enjoys having a book collection, you’ll likely be able to store more in your home if you have paperbacks instead of hardcovers.

Why Publishers Still Produce Hardback Books

Given the advantages of paperbacks for both sellers and consumers, it’s easy to wonder why hardbacks are still available. There are several reasons:

  • As mentioned above, they’re more durable. This makes them a popular option in libraries and other establishments where books will undergo significant wear and tear or are expected to last for as long as possible.
  • A strategy known as “windowing.” This essentially means that books that are expected to sell well (such as sequels to popular books) are sold in hardcover first before the paperback is released. Hardcovers offer publishers greater profit per sale, and the premium quality of a hardcover makes them attractive to book collectors and fans of the author and/or series.
  • Hardbacks are the preferred format for literary reviews. While reviewers are moving to accepting paperbacks for review as well, prestigious editors still prefer to review hardcovers.

If a book is released in hardcover, publishers will often wait until sales have slowed before providing a release date for a paperback edition. This provides the book with a new audience, and existing hardback owners will often buy a paperback edition as well to ensure they have a complete collection (or to make it easier for them to read their favorite book on the go).

Final Thoughts

Paperbacks are books with covers made of paper or paperboard and are generally cheaper and more portable than their hardcover alternatives. Also known as softcovers or softbacks, paperbacks were first introduced in the late 1800s and rose to popularity in the 1900s.

Their lower cost helped make them popular among both readers and publishers and – as publishers were able to print more copies– helped in the rise of genre fiction, especially romance. In fact, the success of publishers such as Harlequin and Mills & Boon can be attributed to the growth of paperbacks.


Recent Posts

DMCA.com Protection Status