Book Wars: Is #aesthetic Worth the Cost?

Katie Hopkins, Melissa Lee & Talia Moodley
November 24, 2021

Welcome back to the SECOND edition of Book Wars (cue cheering). Choosing which book cover to buy is a crucial part of the book-buying process, and I wouldn’t be the first one to purchase a second copy of a book just because of a pretty cover (just check out LitSoc’s discord). But pretty covers aren’t the only factor we take into account when buying a book. Take hardcovers for example. Unwieldy, overpriced and unnecessary? Or beautiful, durable and satisfying? Mel, our Content Creator, argues the latter, while Talia, our Publications Director, thinks hardcovers just aren’t worth it. Let’s take a look at what they have to say about hardcovers, paperbacks and the capitalism possessing the publishing industry.

Row of books on a shelf.
Hardcover books are often between $10 and $50 more expensive than their paperback counterparts. Paperbacks, however, bend and crease easily and aren’t as durable as hardcovers, meaning they may need to be replaced. Is this something you consider when buying books, and with this in mind, would you say the additional cost of hardcovers is justified?

Mel: I think they are. There is always something magical about getting a hardcover for your birthday or as a hand-me-down. Practically, they have a great shelf life. If I compare the books that I’ve owned and read dozens of times since my childhood, I’ve unfortunately found that though I pored over paperbacks and hardcovers equally, the paperback spines had gotten so worn that the whole cover began to fall off and pages started coming out (rest in peace to my beloved copies of The Thief Lord and The Titan’s Curse). On the other hand, my hardcover books have withstood the years and are still in great reading condition. Another bonus of hardcovers is that there are so many kinds – sometimes they have gorgeous artworks on the inside of dust covers, and sometimes they have debossed covers. I always find myself looking out for the hardcover version of a book when I go shopping first- and second-hand. Even before I started working, I would save up for hardcovers I knew I would treasure. The extra cost of the hardcovers I buy tends to average around $15–20 more than their paperback versions, and I think that is a pretty good deal considering the pages are well protected and they look gorgeous on the shelf.

Talia: I tend to agree with Mel’s points here, and I do think that it makes sense that hardcovers cost more. They are sturdier and more durable than paperbacks after all. I do have to note here, though, that unlike Mel’s own situation, the books that I have treasured since my childhood are in great condition regardless of whether they are paperbacks or hardcovers (RIP to Mel and other readers like her, but I’m different).

Another point that Mel made regarding why it makes sense for hardcovers to cost more is the sheer range of styles they come in. And I completely concur. They are often so prettyyyyy. Debossed, gold foiling, sprayed edges. But this leads me to an important point of injustice: THESE THINGS SHOULD BE THE SAME FOR PAPERBACKS. I want my paperbacks to be pretty-with-five-Ys too. Why are cute covers and special editions only available as hardcovers? I want aesthetics and comfort. The only reason paperbacks can’t compete here is because publishers aren’t letting them compete. A great injustice I tell you.

All that being said, the price of hardcovers does not need to be that expensive. As with many other products in our sexy capitalist society, the cost of production for hardcovers is wayyy cheaper than you might think. The real reason you’re paying so much for them is because publishers use them to foot the bill for publishing expenses on the whole and also because of the weird prestige they have in the literary world. There’s a good article about this on Book Riot.

I would also like to point out that the bougie nature of hardcovers causes a huge nuisance for paperback-lovers. We. Have. To. Wait. So. Long. For. Our. Books. There have been so many times when I’ve wanted to buy a book and have had to wait ages after the hardcovers have been released just so that the greedy publishers can get their coin (I’m in that situation right now and it’s torture).

Dust jackets are always controversial. Important to protecting a nice cover and useful as a bookmark or inconvenient, uncomfortable and ugly? What is your opinion on them, and do you think they add or detract from hardcovers as a whole?

Talia: Dust jackets are one of life’s great tragedies. They can be so pretty. They have the cover art. You can get so many specially made ones with more great art if you don’t like said cover art. So why are they so annoying? They tear, crinkle and rip so easily. That beautiful cover art? Ruined. Plus they’re annoying as hell to hold when you’re reading. Call me lazy, but I don’t want to have to keep taking them off to read and then keep putting them back on later. Also, I don’t really get how they protect books from dust damage? Like, am I missing something crucial here? Because the parts of my books that dust particles settle on are the pages, and even if dust has settled on the covers it has never changed their appearance. I’m so confused. Mel, please help me out here.

Mel: I’m not going to be much help in enlightening anyone about why the naming of the dust jacket primarily focuses on that particular feature, but it does protect the cover from scuffing, accidental water damage etc. As stated before, I love how dust jackets give the books more chances to show off the author’s and designer’s vision for the story. I do like how they can work as bookmarks, but I only use them if it’s not a stupidly thick hardcover that will end up warping the cover. That being said, while they certainly add to hardcovers as a whole, I would not go so far as to say they’re a necessity. I agree there are times when it’s more comfortable to remove the dust cover while reading, but even for people who could care less about the artwork it retains its functional value.

If we’re going to name one of life’s greatest tragedies, let’s set aside Talia’s laziness and slam the lack of functionality of stepback covers. Huge NO THANK YOU. I’ve seen arguments that this is a stylistic choice, and that they’re meant to intrigue the reader to open the cover and see an artwork behind it. What frustrates me is that this aesthetic purpose is just that. Aesthetic. And it’s not even a popular aesthetic amongst readers either from what I can gather. Paperbacks already lose in the durability department. Why would you expose the pages by giving us LESS COVER??? Shelving them is a total nightmare, and they have a much higher chance of having the cover and pages getting absolutely mangled. I get that dust jackets are not for everyone, but at least they do their job and give the book extra protection.

Not all paperbacks look the same, and such is true for hardcovers as well. There are some hardcover editions that don’t have dust jackets, but instead have debossed, embroidered or stamped designs on the cover themselves. A classic example is the Penguin Clothbound Classic series. Also, who can forget the stunning green and gold Illumicrate editions of The Song of Achilles and Circe that had our Exec team rethinking their book budgets? These keep the pages from warping and have unique cover designs as well, making them great to read, easy to shelve and a joy to collect.

The book, "The House in the Cerulean Sea", on top of a rustic stool resting against leafy foliage.
Hardcovers tend to be larger and less comfortable to carry around, whereas paperbacks are smaller and lighter and can be transported more easily. How important is convenience and comfort to you when choosing whether to buy a hardcover or paperback?

Mel: Those factors don’t influence my choice of buying a paperback or a hardcover by much. I don’t know if anyone can relate, but I usually bring more than one book in case I finish the first while I’m still out. I spent many years carrying anywhere from five paperbacks to three hardcovers to school, in addition to my laptop and school books. That being said, we use tote bags, backpacks and book bags to hold those books and free up our hands if we need to take a break. In that respect, comfort hasn’t been a major issue for me. I also wouldn’t be so quick to write off all hardcovers as inconvenient. There are some hardcovers that are also relatively smaller, thinner and lighter than the stereotypical hardcovers that immediately come to mind. If anything, I’d say paperbacks are more inconvenient because no matter how careful you try to be when putting them in your bag, there’s always the chance that the pages (or even the cover) could accidentally crease. Especially if you have your keys, wallet and phone in there as well. While both are valid options, having a sturdy hardcover is a weight off my mind in that respect.

Talia: I can’t say that I think about convenience and comfort with specific regard to travel/portability when deciding what type of book to buy. Now that I think about it, my process is more along the lines of: I buy what I like and then figure out how to cart it around if I need to later. Not to flex on Mel again but I’ve never accidentally creased a book. I used to carry my paperbacks to school in those plastic sleeves you use for binders inside my backpack with everything else, and they never folded. Plus I’ve recently noticed that you can buy pretty book sleeves to carry them in.

A stack of paperback books on a garden wall.
Overall, what would you rank paperbacks out of 5, considering comfort, style, durability, cost and convenience?

Talia: I’d give paperbacks a big 4/5. Hardcovers just cannot beat them in terms of comfort, cost and convenience. They’re lightweight, easy to hold, easy to carry and the really good ones do that floppy thing that is one of life’s small-but-impactful joys. And, if you’re the type of person that likes wear and tear to show on your books, then a paperback is your best option. The only reasons I have for not giving them a 5/5 are that hardcovers are more durable and have more styles. However, if you take care of your paperbacks then durability is a non-issue and the style thing (as I mentioned above) is the fault of annoying publishing trends.

Mel: Paperbacks are great, a solid 3.5/5. For all the reasons Talia listed above. They’re a great staple, and they’re super accessible. The gradual wear and tear thing is also a good point, I just mourn the fact that you have to monitor the amount of wear and tear over time to ensure it doesn’t start falling apart. I’m deducting points for their ease of warping, corner creasing and tearing, as well as their style on average. Thankfully, there have been some really pretty-with-five-Ys covers coming out in recent years, and hopefully this becomes more commonplace. Sorry stepback and movie covers, but please leave.

Overall, what would you rank hardcovers out of 5, considering comfort, style, durability, cost and convenience?

Mel: I would rate hardcovers as a 4/5, only losing points for cost. It undeniably wins in the style and durability, but comfort and convenience can be more subjective. I haven’t had any glaring issues in those fields, but I completely understand if people would rate them lower. The immediate cost is justified as a long-term investment but can definitely seem daunting because those prices feel way out of our budget sometimes.

Talia: I’m sorry to say that hardcovers are only getting a 2/5 from me. I concede that hardcovers do undeniably win in the style department. In fact, hardcovers are so stylish that I, a person that never fails to gravitate towards pretty things, am always so frustrated that I don’t like actually reading them. Plus, they are very durable so that boosts their rating.

BUT I don’t consider hardcovers comfortable or convenient at all, and this is where they lose major points. They’re clunky and heavy and horrible to hold (I’m not here to do arm day) while I’m trying to read, which only serves as a distraction from the story for me. And, this might sound strange, but hardcovers have a cold-ass aura, whereas paperbacks feel like old friends. Old-friend-book or stony-Dracula-book? I rest my case.

Any closing comments or thoughts about hardcovers, paperbacks or how books are read?

Mel: Pick whichever suits your current circumstance and priorities. If you want something to give you an extra boost of serotonin every time you look at it, I highly recommend hardcover books. There’s a misconception that they’re all about aesthetics, but I truly believe that they’re the best option for long-term investment. There are going to be times that only the hardcover copy is available at your local library or the bookstore you go to. The same is true vice versa.

Talia: I wholeheartedly agree with Mel’s sentiment that, at the end of the day, you should always pick what’s best for you. Books are books! No matter what package they come in – paperbacks, hardcovers, audiobooks, eBooks, second-hand, etc. – the stories will be the same. It doesn’t matter whether you look for practicality or aesthetics, if you’re having a good time then you’re making the right choice.

A stack of hardcover books on a table.