Hardcover vs. Paperback: What’s the Difference?

As an avid bookworm, I prefer to read books on paper rather than on Kindles or mobile devices, which is why I’m very cautious at handling and storing all the books I buy. So when a professor of mine mentioned in passing that he throws away novels immediately after he finishes reading them during long flights, you can imagine my surprise that someone would actually throw away a perfectly good book. His response? “It’s fine – they’re paperback novels.”

I didn’t see a difference between hardcover and paperback books and kept both types in my collection, but apparently for many people, it was easy for them to dispose or give away paperback books. I did my research and soon found there really was a big difference between the two. So, the next time I shop and come across a book I want to buy available in both hardcover and paperback, here’s what I (and you too!) should consider.


Hardcover Books

These are also known as hardback, hardbound, and case-bound books. They take its name from the thick and hard covers which can be made with durable materials like Binder’s board, paperboard, buckram, thick cloth, or leather. If you looked for hardcover books under the ISBN list, these are the books with sequence numbers that have the abbreviation “Hbk” on it.

Hardcover books are more durable, but they cost more than paperback books. Some of these books have dust jackets, which are thin outer covers made of paper decorated to look like the outer cover of the book but are just there to protect the outer cover from external damage. Other books may not have the dust jackets and just have the design printed directly on the cover.

Because of the price, hardcover-type books are usually reserved for books with anticipated high sales. The Harry Potter books of the author J.K. Rowling, for example, come in hardcover books because it’s highly likely people will want these books to be durable. But a novel that isn’t very good and written by a not-so-famous author will most likely come in paperback because not many people will want to buy and keep the novel. A hardcover book may also have a paperback version if it is a book the masses want to get their hands on but can’t afford the hardcover, or if the publisher expects they’ll get more sales in paperback than in hardbound.

Aside from popular novels and fiction, most textbooks and other academic reading materials are hardcover. Some books – such as law books and other old books – are wrapped in sturdy boards. However, most textbooks are bound in thick board paper. This may be to lower the costs of textbooks, since some students may not be able to afford books if they were hardbound in thicker material.

It’s possible to turn a paperback book into a hardbound book through repairing and restoration. Some libraries want to preserve old paperback books that are starting to take damage or do not have a hardbound version.


How Hardcover Books Are Bound

Hardcover books are made through a process called bookbinding. This can be done by hand (which is better for restoration, repairs, and other custom jobs that require human hands) or through high-speed commercial machinery (for mass-market production). Here’s a video demonstrating one way of hardcover bookbinding by hand.


Paperback Books

Paperback books are also known as softcover or softback books. Its covers are made with thick paper or paperboard. Some hardbound books use paperboard cover as well, but it is tightly glued and sewn for durability whereas paperback books are just glued.

This cost-effective form of bookbinding is reserved for books that people wouldn’t want to collect, but does the job publishers and other groups want of getting the message out to people. However, just because paperback books are cheaper than hard-bound, they’re not necessarily lower-quality. Paperback books come in two types: mass-market and trade paperback.


Mass-Market Paperback

Mass-market paperbacks consist of inexpensive printing and binding. These normally come in two sizes: A-format (the smaller and more common version), and the B-format.

Most mass-market books have lower-quality paper. They’re released to the public around six months to a year after the hardcover books are released so that publishers can market more affordable prices to the mass market that can’t afford or don’t want to buy the hardcover version.

It is possible for publishers to sell the paperback version before the hardcover edition, but it is unusual and a rare practice in publishing. In a marketing perspective, it’s not profitable to release the paperback before the hardcover because the “buying boom” (a period where many readers are trying to get their hands on the book) will have passed and only avid fans may be interested in buying the hardcover when the paperback is already out.

For booksellers, the advantage of selling paperback books is that it is possible to return unsold books or books that don’t really sell and are taking valuable space in a store. Another possibility is that they can “strip” the books for recycled paper. The bookseller rips the cover from the book and returns it to the publisher as proof that they had it stripped. The rest of the book is sent to a recycling plant. If you’re wondering about the “stripped book warning” you see in paperback books, it’s because some booksellers don’t really take the book to recycling centers and just sell the coverless book in flea markets or other places that can’t trace the book back to them. Thus, the book warns the reader that the book was supposed to be destroyed and the author did not receive payment for the book.


Trade Paperback

Trade paperback is a high-quality paperback version of a hardcover book. It uses the same quality of paper as the hardcover, has roughly the same size (usually the Royal format or Demy format), and has the same text pages so that people citing references to certain pages in the hardcover edition will also find the same text in the same page.

In terms of price, trade paperbacks are cheaper than the hardcover edition but more expensive than the mass-market paperback versions. This the type of book sent to professors, book critics, and other notable people the publisher wants to give free books to for promotions and reviews.


Differences between Hardcover and Paperback Books

Now that we’ve differentiated the two, it’s clear why these two types of books differ. Hardcovers are meant for durability and design for people looking to collect and keep the books for a long time. Paperbacks, on the other hand, are more affordable and meant to reach the mass market looking for a cheaper way to read a story. Here are more differences that separate the two.



Paperback books are cheaper than hardcover books because of production costs and longevity. Thanks to technology, paperback books can be mass-produced and made completely without human hands touching it from the printing to the binding process. Because paperbacks have smaller profit margins than hardbound books, most publishers use lower quality materials to make the book compared to hardcover materials. These books may be printed in regular paper that, eventually, may discolor or let the ink fade. The printing may not also be the best quality. Because of the way paperback books are bound, the spine is bound to form creases depending on how the reader opens their book.

Hardcover books are much more expensive because the production is much more difficult, so the publisher charges more for that type. While bookbinders have the equipment to do their job, it takes a long time to bind enough books to meet the demand for it, Its paper is acid-free so that it doesn’t discolor even if you keep the book in your shelves for years. The book’s cover is shaped in a way that the spine doesn’t bend or crease no matter how wide the reader opens the book. Despite reading a hardcover book many times, it is difficult to leave a mark on sturdy hardcover books.

Hardcover bookbinding is reserved for important books and novels from authors who are expected to be financially successful in sales. That’s why books from the Harry Potter and Twilight series were sold in hardcover during its heyday (and until now, are still being printed in hardbound) were printed in hardbound.


Release Dates

Traditionally, hardcover books are released first to make the most sales during the buying boom. This is where most of the publisher’s marketing strategies come into play to get more people to buy the hardcover rather than wait for the paperback version to come out. Prior to, during, or after the hardcover’s release, the publisher sends out trade paperbacks to promoters, bloggers, and book critics to help improve marketing the book and getting word out.

If the hardcover sales have surpassed the expected income, they may release the trade paperbacks and mass-market paperbacks to the public. If it hasn’t, the publisher might wait a few more months or year to earn the expected income and then release the paperback version before the buying boom has died down.



While the content is generally the same (e.g. novels share the same story whether a reader purchases a hardcover or paperback type), there may be additional content featured in hardcover versions than there are in paperback.

Hardcover editions may be signed by the author or there is an introduction from the author or another person of the publisher’s choice. These aren’t necessary to understand the book, but are supplementary information the reader might find useful.



A hardcover’s exterior is meant to be tough and durable, making it easy to withstand external factors that can damage the book. A hard exterior means the book won’t fold when opened multiple times, there won’t be creases outside the book, and it can stay relatively clean for years to come.

Paperback covers are always paper-based, so it can be easily creased and damage with time. To avoid creases on the spine and cover, the reader must be careful to never completely pull it open if they want to keep it in good condition. The cover can be ripped or torn from the book, so it’s not ideal if you’re looking to keep your book with you for a long time.


When given a choice between a hardcover and paperback version of the same book, consider the differences. If you know you want to keep the book in good condition for a long time and are willing to pay extra for added durability, go with the hardcover edition. But if you know you’ll only be reading the book once and don’t want it to take up too much space in your shelves and too much money out of your pocket, then wait for the paperback version to come out. Either way, you’re still getting the same book from the author.

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