Hardcover, Softcover, or Both?

This entry is part 5 of 12 in the series Game Publishing Lessons Learned


In April 2012, Neil Carr, a member of the RPGGeek community, started a series of Amateur Kickstarter discussion threads. These discussions were partly his way of bouncing ideas off of the community and partly his way of getting advice about how to get started with a Kickstarter project he had in the works. I took part in these discussions and learned a lot of great lessons from them myself.

Now, one year later, I wanted to reflect and share what I’ve learned from those discussions and from my own experience since then. The more we can learn from each other, the better off the industry as a whole will be.

In this series I will recap, post-by-post, each of the 10 or so discussion topics raised by Neal. I’ll touch upon the topics discussed in each thread and elaborate with new knowledge I have gained since then. This article will feature his fifth post, “To hardcover or not, that is the question.” Use the Series Navigation links on the right to find other posts in this series.

Original Post

I’ve stepped onto the path of being an amateur RPG publisher via Kickstarter. I want to see how far I can travel from zero-to-hero and I’m looking for help along the way. These series of posts are in part just me thinking aloud, but also asking specific questions as I put the pieces together to achieve rpg publishing victory.

I have several projects in development and they all have different specific needs and formats. One thing that I’ve been exploring lately with Kickstarter campaigns is when to offer a hardcover copy?

What is a pretty standard RPG Kickstarter campaign is that you’d offer three versions of your work: PDF, softcover, and hardcover. However what I was wondering is if there is a threshold at which a book becomes too short in page length to warrant a hardcover?

I’ve been pulling RPG books off my shelf and looking them over to see how long they are and where the “hardcover zone” seems to exist within my collection.

You’re typical D&D splatbook from the 3.5 era ran from 158 to 224 pages, all of which seemed fine as a length for a hardback book, though when you compare to the bulk of my collection there was an abundance of books that fit within this page length that were softcover, such as Call of Cthulhu books.

The book with the lowest page count that was still a hardcover was the The Collected Book of Experimental Might which came in at 144 pages. It is noticeably thin for a hardcover compared to the others, but no so much that it seems unwarranted.

Beyond that, the only other hardcover I have that have very low page counts in the house are children’s books. There are plenty that are only 20 pages in length, and seem completely appropriate for that market, but I can easily imagine people wondering why a length reserved for adventure modules would be wrapped up in hardback. One other key difference with children’s books is that the pages seemed to be thicker than what you’d find in a standard RPG book. That likely gives a bit more thickness and heft which wouldn’t exist with the typical channels of printing with 70 lb paper.

One other factor that is in play with Kickstarters is that hardcover copies can be seen as just a special perk. So that even if the book is only 32 pages in length, if it is seen by a backer as a very special item for them, or is just a way of providing more patronage dollars to the author, but getting just a little extra perk out of the process. In that regard I could see offering that up as an option. I can also see that being a complaint, but that could just be the nature of a wide internet audience.


Do people see some page length threshold for warranting a hardcover?

From the backer’s side, what is generally seen (if that could even be discerned) as an appropriate use of the hardcover option?

From the author’s side, are there any other factors at play in the decision to include a hardcover or not?

My Thoughts


This one actually seems pretty straightforward after you analyze the situation a bit. In fact, Neil even answered his own question in a follow-up post in this thread. Neil writes:

The way I’m seeing it is that POD is effectively blurring the lines between any of these distinctions. I’m not envisioning funding being there to create a print run, it would just be there to pay for art, layout and whatever other little bits of production are needed to get it to a clean product. Once the backer rewards go out then the main avenue of getting the book would be via RPGNow and other types of sites. I guess if the demand was there then I could go to RPGNow, make a POD print run and then get it sent out to distributors, but that would be the distributor paying for product. The older model of economies of scale and risking money on inventory wouldn’t really exist. The amount of books being bought from the market would be the amount being printed.

So in that regard the differences between PDF, softcover and hardcover becomes an individual aesthetic choice on the buyer’s part. It isn’t something that I would be involved with directly.

Essentially, if you’re using one of the many print-on-demand services like I discussed in part 3 of this series, it’s easy not to worry about the format of the book. All you need to do is create one good-looking PDF and a couple of separate cover files, upload them to your printer, and let the user decide on whether they want hardcover, softcover, or electronic.

Even though POD is so easy, there are a few considerations that need to be made in regards to how much time you’ll spend setting up the different formats.

First of all, some publishers choose to simply use the same version of their electronic file (we’ll call that the source file) for print as they do for PDF. This serves the basic purpose of offering an electronic book alongside a print book, but there are some key differences in the way people interact with the two that can make a world of difference if you treat them as separate entities.

PDFs are read on a variety of devices, from desktops to laptops, tablets to smartphones, and even on eReaders such as the Amazon Kindle. None of these natively handle PDFs very well unless the PDF is tagged, bookmarked, and indexed properly. It’s another topic entirely (read my bookmarking and tagging tutorial) to do all of these things to make a PDF really eBook-friendly, so let’s just say that you’re doing your fans a much bigger service if you do not simply output your source file and upload it for digital distribution. Take the extra time and care your book deserves to, at the very least, tag and bookmark the PDF (it’s really not that difficult).

That being said, your softcover and hardcover source files will be practically identical. The only difference is that, if you choose to use an ISBN for your books (something that’s a wise choice when distributing books to retailers; I’ll talk more about that in a future post as well), you’ll need slightly different versions of your cover source file. Each cover will need to have a different ISBN: one for the softcover and one for the hardcover. You may even use a different SKU, or inventory number, to make tracking different versions of your book easier.

Note: If you’re using OneBookShelf, they specifically request that you not list your book’s ISBN on the barcode on the back of the book, because they generate their own barcode when they send your files to LightningSource for printing. You may still wish to list an ISBN on the interior copyright page of the book or on the back cover, outside of the bar code. Many publishers choose to list the ISBN for all three varieties of books on a single page, which means they don’t have to produce three different credit pages.

After generating different cover source files, upload them to your POD printer of choice. You will need to order a test copy of each version of your book before you can offer them for sale, but that added time and cost is minimal.

It should be pointed out that it costs more money to print hardcover books than it does to print softcover versions. Simply increase the purchase price for the hardcover by the extra cost, rounded up to the nearest $1.

Traditional Print Runs

If you’re having your books printed the old-fashioned way, there are many more considerations to make. Each version of the book is considered a separate product, and you normally need to print several hundred books in a single run to make the cost viable. This means if you want to distribute both a hardcover and a softcover book, you may wind up needing to purchase 1,000 or more total units. That gets pricey.

A lot of people really like a nice hardcover book. Of the 55 or so people who backed Psi-punk at either the softcover or the hardcover level only (so not including higher backer levels, which may include both versions, or retailer levels) 16 of those backers were willing to pay an extra $20 for the hardcover version of the book with no extra perks. Were the cost difference closer to $10, I imagine that number would have increased.

The question is: at what page count is it worth offering a hardcover book, especially if you choose to only go with one version to save on costs?

This is really a design and aesthetic issue, if money is no object. It’s hard to say, but hardcover books do range in page counts from very low to very high, so perhaps page count isn’t the best measure.

If you’re publishing and printing through traditional channels, you need to look at the up-front costs. How much more out of pocket do you need to pay to print and equal number of hardcover or softcover books? Unfortunately I don’t have exact numbers for this, but if it costs $3 more to print a hardcover book and your minimum order is 500, that’s an extra $1500 out of pocket. Can you sell enough books to justify that cost?

If you have experience publishing books via traditional printing methods, I’d love to hear your experiences and see your exact numbers, because this is one area in which I have no real experience. Personally, I would recommend new publishers simply use POD services and leave the high up-front costs to the big publishers.


To hardcover or not? That question depends on your printing method. If you’re going with POD, there’s nothing to worry about; there’s limited additional costs on your part, and consumers favor having extra options. If you’re doing a big print-run you shouldn’t necessarily consider the minimum number of pages, but rather the up-front expense that you’ll need to cover just to get that print copy to market.

As always, I value your feedback. Please leave a message in the comments, and remember to check back next time for Part 6: “How best to market your funding campaign?”

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About Jacob Wood

Jacob founded Accessible Games because he wants to spread the joy of gaming to everyone, including people with disabilities. He is visually impaired and knows what it's like to need to adapt, and he brings two decades of gaming experience to the table.
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