Hardcover Books Reach New Heights

by | Dec 6, 2011

Sunday’s New York Times carried an article by Julie Bosman (“Selling Old-Style Books by Their Gilded Covers“) that struck a familiar chord. In it Bosman describes how traditional publishers have started to lavish attention on the physical presentation of some top-level hardcover books.

“Many new releases have design elements usually reserved for special occasions — deckle edges, colored endpapers, high-quality paper and exquisite jackets that push the creative boundaries of bookmaking. If e-books are about ease and expedience, the publishers reason, then print books need to be about physical beauty and the pleasures of owning, not just reading.”

This reminded me of the conclusion a lot of us came to back in 2009 that the e-book’s biggest influence, if it was widely adopted, would be to take down the mass market paperback while at the same time fracturing the book market.

While larger trade paperbacks would continue to be popular, it seemed likely that hardcovers would take on a completely different role. It could be as a souvenir of an event, a lifestyle choice, since you could display it proudly in your home or office, or perhaps as an objet d’art in itself, meant to be both read and appreciated.

Commercial hardcover books that were conceived as both texts to read and objects to appreciate were popular during the golden age of letterpress bookmaking in the early part of the twentieth century, and now it may be making a comeback. This is a similar strategy that Seth Godin employed during the run of his Domino Publishing. Some of his books were made available as unique and artful hardcovers or as e-books, with nothing in between.

Of course, traditional publishers have other reasons for pursuing this strategy, and Bosman points those out too:

“For publishers, the strategy has a clear payoff: to increase the value of print books and build a healthy, diverse marketplace that includes brick-and-mortar bookstores and is not dominated by Amazon and e-books.”

To read the complete article (along with a photo of Jay-Z signing a copy of “Decoded,” his intricately jacketed memoir) here’s the link: “Selling Books by Their Gilded Covers.”

As publishers, it’s possible to make quite a bit more profit per book with all kinds of special editions, but you have to have a market to sell them to. What do you think? Would you produce a high-end hardcover as a self-publisher?

Photo by Andy Mangold

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Ed Eubanks

    Hi Joel— any thoughts on printers that offer services like Lightning Source, but offer high-end hardcovers (I’m thinking tipped artwork on cloth covers, deckled or gilded edges, specialized dust jackets, etc.)?

    Thanks— I appreciate, as always, your insight.

  2. Maggie Dana

    I was about to post exactly the same thing as D White. I’ve bought hard-cover editions of favorite books, and those that had deckled edges I took to my local printer to have them trimmed off. Turning deckle-edges pages is impossible and ruins my reading pleasure.

  3. D White

    Years ago when I was working in a book store, I once had a customer come up to me complaining that all the copies we had of a particular book were defective. The problem? They were deckle edged. Frankly I think they had a point. It does make turning pages more difficult, and whether or not you find it attractive or not, the fact that it’s only one edge, rather like gilding only the top, does make it seem a bit as though someone had started the job and not quite finished….

    That said, I definitely appreciate a well made hardcover, and for books I want to keep forever, I am willing to pay a bit extra for them.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Well, it’s interesting that you said it makes the book “seem a bit as though someone had started the job and not quite finished…” because that’s exactly where deckled edge paper originated.

      When paper is made in forms for individual sheets, a slurry of fiber and water is floated onto the frame. When the water drains off the resulting mass of fibers becomes the sheet of paper, but around the perimeter of the form it doesn’t create neat edges. The thinning of the fiber creates the “deckle.”

      This affectation is similar to the way a lot of books were sold at one time with uncut sheets. Many pages would have to be cut by the reader using a letter opener or knife. It has the same effect as the deckle, turning the experience from reading into “book appreciation.”

      These days most of the “deckles” I see are completely manufactured and I wonder if most readers don’t want to do exactly as Maggie does—just cut the darn things off.

  4. Jesse Koepke

    As a reader, the question for me is, would I be willing to buy a special edition hardback? My answer: yes. The books I usually buy are ones that I respect and appreciate and want to have around for a long time, and the chance to have them in a specially designed hardback edition would be great. (But I still prefer a paperback over an e-book.)

  5. Ryan Hanley


    I’m nearing the completion of the draft of my first manuscript, a business book, and I’m constantly torn on the publishing avenue I should pursue. Part of me really wants that physical, hardcover book that I know business professionals will want to hold in their hands. The other side of me says stay low Money Cost, even if Time Cost is just as high and self-publish an eBook…

    This is such a hard decision to make.

    Thanks for more great insight…

    Ryan H.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Ryan, like any publisher you need to be guided by the buying habits of your readers. When it comes to business books, many of the most successful ones are originally published in hardcover. Your entire publishing plan, including your marketing plan should be created with that in mind if you want to go after big reviews, notice in business magazines, or speaking gigs. Hope that helps.

      • Ryan Hanley


        It certainly does… I appreciate you taking the time to give me some feedback.

        Ryan H.

  6. Michael N. Marcus

    Perfect timing, Joel.

    December 1 was the pub date for the hardcover edition of my Stories I’d Tell My Children (but maybe not until they’re adults). Reversing the normal pattern, this book was first published as a trade paperback, and then as an ebook, and then — due to requests for an edition suitable for gift-giving — as a hardcover with full-color dust jacket.

    It is POD’d by Lightning Source (but has no deckle edges, gilding or embossing).

    At the recent Self-Publishing Book Expo, I showed a copy to book maven Dick Margulis. He inspected it very closely and declared, “It looks like a real book.” My mother, also a book maven and very picky, was impressed. Readers like it, too. So do I.

    Press release, picked up by the Wall Street Journal, is at https://www.marketwatch.com/story/reversing-the-common-pattern-hardcover-book-is-published-after-paperback-and-e-books-2011-11-30

    Although the hardcover has a $22.95 price printed on it, the “official” cover price is $18.95. I’m publishing it with lower-than-normal markup to encourage sales. Amazon is discounting it to just $16.85. That’s less than two bucks higher than the paperback, and a perfect price for a holiday gift.

    I strongly urge that self-publishers not limit themselves to just one or two formats. With POD, it’s easy to give readers what they want, and there’s no need to invest in expensive inventory. The hardcover is definitely not dead.

    Michael N. Marcus
    https://www.BookFur.com (information, help and book reviews for authors)
    — Create Better Books, with the Silver Sands Publishing Series: https://www.silversandsbooks.com/booksaboutpublishing.html

    • Ryan Hanley

      I’m going to sound like a complete amateur but I guess I am an amateur so what is “POD’d”?

      Thanks and Congrats!

      • Michael N. Marcus

        Print(ed) On Demand.

        An old meaning of “amateur” had to do with loving what you do — and there’s nothing wrong with that.



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