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A biographer I follow on a social media platform once wrote "we're a hardcover household". Where does the tradition of preferences between these two options come from?

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  • Cost versus durability I'd say is a big factor. Everyone will have a preference one way or another. I don't think this can answered objectively.
    – Skooba
    Apr 18 '20 at 11:20
  • The Wikipedia article states that hardcovers come out first, and paperbacks come out for only the books that are popular. I wanted to know if this led to wealthier people establishing some reasoning behind a preference for hardcovers. It could be a logical reason beyond the obvious durability.
    – Mo_delfren
    Apr 18 '20 at 13:35
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    Please add this information to your question, as it adds valuable context.
    – Jos
    Apr 18 '20 at 15:41
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There are more ways to bind a book than is suggested by the binary opposition of hardcover versus paperback.

Paperback are usually made by applying glue to the "spine" of a set of sheets and then glueing the cover to the spine. (See Bind Your Own Paperback Books With Ease on the Instructable website for a tutorial explaining how to glue a book at home.) Sometimes the sheets aren't fully cut but combined into sections, and the glue is then applied to the spine of these sections. As the book ages, the glue can become brittle, which can cause the spine to break when you open the book. Another downside is that bad glueing or low-quality glue can cause pages to become unstuck.

Hardcover books used to be sewn more often, which is a more time-consuming and therefore more expensive process than glueing. (Advantage Book Binding describes three methods: Smyth sewn hard cover books, adhesive bound hard cover books and wire-bound hardback books.) In addition, the rigid protective covers provide more protection than the flexible paper covers, and they are more expensive.

The Wikipedia article on hardcover points out that

If brisk sales are anticipated, a hardcover edition of a book is typically released first, followed by a "trade" paperback edition (same format as hardcover) the next year. Some publishers publish paperback originals if slow hardback sales are anticipated.

However, hardcover books are not always sewn; I have seen cheap hardcover books that were actually glued, with a hardcover glued to the first and last pages of the book. And paperbacks can be bound in a way that they lay flat when you open them. Two publishers in IT who use such bindings are O'Reilly (RepKover binding) and No Starch Press.

The massmarket paperback is a more recent phenomenon than hardcover books. The Wikipedia article on paperback mentions paperbacks being available in the 19th century, but Oliver Corlett writes that they already existed as early as the 17th century. However, 19th-century paperbacks were typically "dime novels" or "pulp fiction". Apparently, that was also what motivated Allen Lane to publish serious works of literature as paperbacks. According to the article How the Paperback Novel Changed Popular Literature, Lane was on his way back home after spending a weekend in the country with Agatha Christie:

While he was in Exeter station waiting for his train back to London, he browsed shops looking for something good to read. He struck out. All he could find were trendy magazines and junky pulp fiction. And then he had a “Eureka!” moment: What if quality books were available at places like train stations and sold for reasonable prices—the price of a pack of cigarettes, say?

This is what led to the founding of Penguin Books in 1935.

In conclusion, the impression of superiority of paperbacks over hardcover books can come from two sources: the superior material quality and the lingering stigma of pulp fiction.

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