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  • Dennis DeRobertis

The Curious Case of the Disappearing Hardcover Children's Picture Book (for indie publishers)

This post looks at the current costs of publishing a children's hardcover picture book and the calculus of actually offering one as an independent publisher.

A picture book on its spine, opened up with an explosion of rainbows and children's characters.

(image created with the assistance of DALLE)


Children's Picture Book Formats and You

The go-to format for most children's picture books is the hardcover. Other formats include softcover (paperback) and digital. If you can remember back to when you were a little kid reading or looking through your favorite picture books, you'd probably be thinking of hardcovers. And that would be typical. Most kids growing up in the last 50 years had that one format to choose from. Even today, most picture books, first and foremost, are published as hardcovers.


And that's to be expected. Hardcovers hold up well against little, aggressive hands and the wear-and-tear most of them will go through during their lifetime (who hasn't built a fort out of a dozen or so picture books when they were young?). Plus, there's something special about a hardcover. It exudes a certain level of sophistication and "worthiness" that softcovers can't match.


Sadly, for independent publishers, publishing a hardcover children's picture book is becoming harder and harder to justify.


Several children reading hardcover picture books.

(image created with the assistance of DALLE)


The Cost of Doing Business

Unlike large publishing houses and media companies who can take advantage of economies of scale, the small, independent publisher will either go down the print-on-demand (POD) route or source a printer with favorable rates for small print runs. You can probably increase your profit margin a little when printing in small batches as opposed to POD, but then you have a host of other issues to contend with, namely, inventory, distribution, and your ability to actually sell all the copies you just purchased.


No matter which printing method you choose as a small, indie book publisher, it's still expensive to print a hardcover children's picture book. Let's take a look at what you can make on a typical picture book using POD with retail distribution.


Formula: Publisher Compensation = MSRP - (Printing/Distribution Costs + Retailer Discount)


​Format

​MSRP

Printing Costs + Retailer Discount

Publisher Compensation

Hardcover

$18.99

$8.19 + $10.44

$0.36

Paperback

$10.99

​$3.36 + $6.04

$1.59

The Truth About Hardcover Picture Books

The cover to the children's picture book, "The Little Brown Spider in A Mouse in the House"

Looking at the Publisher Compensation above and you can see there isn't much of a profit margin to be had. Book selling isn't the same as selling something like software, which is known for having obscene profit margins (and rightly so, in my opinion).


Hardcovers are even less profitable than paperbacks. Look at those numbers again and zero in on the Printing costs. There's a $4.83 difference to print the same exact book with the same exact number of color pages. The only difference is the type of cover.


Digital isn't even a consideration for picture books, so forget about that format outside of marketing purposes. As you can see, for the book, "The Little Brown Spider in A Mouse in the House," we need to sell more than 4 times the number of hardcover copies for every 1 paperback to earn the same amount of revenue. Challenging.


It's an Easy, Quick Fix. Or is it?

You might be shouting, "Just raise the price of the book!" The problem with that is you're going to price yourself right out of the market. As a new, indie publisher, you don't have that dominant name or trust that comes after decades of consistently publishing well-known and well-liked properties. So, if you do raise the price of the book, you now have a book competing with established players and properties selling at higher prices. As a casual consumer, which book would you likely buy?


Reduce or Eliminate the Retailer Discount

Some people are turned off or insulted by the standard discount publishers typically give to retailers. You might think of foregoing book distribution and selling directly to consumers to attain maximum profits. Maybe, but I doubt it would work. And if you do go the route of retailers and don't give the standard 55% discount, you do so at your own risk. If you were a retailer and you had to choose between a publisher offering the industry-standard 55% discount or one offering a 25% discount, which publisher would you go with?


Reduce Page Count and Go Black and White

Children's picture books are short books as it is. The number always bandied about is 32 pages. That's not true. Are some children's picture books 32 pages. Of course! This is especially true of older picture books when it made sense to print a set number of pages per sheet of paper. It would neatly work out to 32 pages without wasting any space on the paper. Nowadays, it doesn't matter. Take a look at the picture books on your shelf. I bet most of them are not 32 pages. Even if you reduce the page count to something in the 20s, it's not going to make much of a difference in the overall printing costs.


You could also print in black and white to reduce costs. But that's not a serious option. Not at all for kid's picture books. You need to print in color.

The Little Brown Spider looking at a magical children's picture book

(image created with the assistance of DALLE)


The Answer? It All Depends.

It all comes down to your priorities and goals. If you have your heart set on a hardcover picture book, then publish a hardcover picture book. And also publish a softcover version. If the hardcover version is just not tenable, then only publish a softcover version. Some of our books only come in softcover versions. Others come in both, even if the profit margin is literally pennies. It all depends.


Well, that's it for this post. Thanks for reading and see you next time!


- DennisD.

Publisher and SpiderWriter





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