Wednesday, July 27, 2011

What's ahead for mass market paperbacks?

Sandra Parshall

Is the mass market paperback going the way of the dodo?

A lot of people think so, and sales data appear to support those negative predictions. Mass market sales plunged 26.6% in the first half of 2011 in outlets monitored by Nielsen BookScan. Any format that loses more than a quarter of its market in six months is in trouble. By contrast, hardcover sales dropped 9.5% and trade paperbacks fell 6.8%.

Evidence of weakness also showed up in the bestseller reports for 2010. According to Publishers Weekly, mass market peaked in 2005, when 131 titles sold over 500,000 copies each and 39 titles sold more than a million copies. In 2010, only 58 titles passed the 500,000-copy mark and six sold more than a million. Two of those six were Stieg Larsson books. The others were authored by Dan Brown, Nicholas Sparks, John Grisham, and Janet Evanovich. The Larsson books were also available in trade paperback – and sold better in that format than in mass market.

Paperback books have been around in various forms since the 19th century, and the modern mass market paperback has been part of our world since British publisher Allen Lane launched Penguin Books in 1935. The 1938 Pocket Books proof-of-concept edition of The Good Earth by Pearl Buck was the first paperback book printed in the United States. In 1950 Gold Medal Books became the first imprint to publish original works in paperback.

Today some imprints, such as Berkley Prime Crime and Obsidian, produce more paperback originals (pbo) than hardcovers. Because the price is low, publishers and authors have to sell a lot of copies to make much money. Author royalties on paperbacks are as low as 6 to 8%, compared to 10 to 15% on hardcovers.

Why are readers abandoning inexpensive paperbacks? It’s not always about money. E-books have had a major impact, even though the big publishers may charge as much for a download of a new book as for the print version. Trade paperbacks are also stealing readers away from the cheaper mass market. Readers cite the awkward shape of mmpb, the small print, the general flimsiness of the books, the tendency of some publishers to run the type into the gutter between pages, forcing readers to break a book’s spine to see all the words. They prefer the larger size of trade paperback, although trade costs more.

By now we’re so used to hearing about turmoil in publishing that every prediction of disaster provokes a yawn, and when the change actually comes about we’re already looking ahead to the next big upheaval. Nobody believes print books will totally disappear. But certain formats may fall by the wayside, and mass market paperback looks more and more like the first victim.

What do you think? Five years from now, will publishers still be producing millions of copies of pocket-sized books with small type that runs into the gutter? If mass market paperbacks vanish, will you miss them? Will you buy  your favorite pbo writers’ novels in trade, hardcover, or e-book format?

19 comments:

Sheila Connolly said...

I think the publishing world is in flux, and it may be a couple of years before things settle. We're watching the explosive growth of ebooks, both from major publishers and from those individuals brave enough to upload their own works. While ebooks currently hold a smaller market share overall, that's changing fast.

I'm watching both Amazon and Barnes and Noble rankings for my most recent release (not absolute numbers, just relative to other books from those vendors), and they don't always move together. At some times the e-version is doing better than the mass market version. What does it mean? I still don't know.

Brave new world, isn't it? I finally bought an e-reader, and have downloaded precisely two works of fiction on it (and one's mine), and haven't read anything yet. But I will.

Sandra Parshall said...

I hope the drop in mmpb sales will be offset by a rise in e-book sales. Writers usually get a higher royalty rate on e-books, so if they're priced close to what the mmpb sells for, the authors could make more money.

Vicki Lane said...

I've been wondering about this. Since my first five books were MMPB originals, I've heard plenty of complaints from readers about the size of the print and words in the gutter. And now, Bantam Dell has suddenly decided to bring my forthcoming release (fifth in the series,) out in trade paperback. Of course no one tells me the whys and wherefores, but I have a feeling that the MMPB market is being swallowed up by ebooks.

Sandra Parshall said...

Vicki, a lot of readers love trade pb, so your next book may do very well in that format. It's a good middle ground between expensive hardcover and unsatisfactory mass market pb.

Nancy Adams said...

I love mmpb's for airplane trips and I used to love them for the inexpensive prices as well. I find the extra-tall mmpb size extremely irritating; I'm forced to pay extra money for what's still basically a mmpb (the new Robert Crais and Jim Butcher books use this format).

I'm curious to know what will happen for authors of mmpb originals. It sounds like they'd do better with royalties from trade pb. It's sad that the royalty rate is so low.

Still haven't bought an e-reader yet, but I'm glad for the opportunities e-format gives to authors.

Theresa de Valence said...

I like mass market paperbacks best for nighttime reading; the book is lighter than other types (even my ereader) and easier to prop up on a pillow.

Nice post, Sandy.

Theresa

Gayle Feyrer said...

I prefer mass market paperbacks because they are the most portable. I keep one in my purse, my husband likes them for a particular pocket in his jacket.

June Shaw said...

How interesting to read the data on sales of different type books. I hope all types of books stay around because each of us likes something different. I'd hate to see any form of writing disappear. Thanks for the info, Sandy.

Anonymous said...

My prediction is that trade paper will become the standard since that is the format easiest and least expensive for small presses and self-pub to produce. If big presses stop producing mmph, they'll have to go to trade paper because few people want to invest in hardcover and the cheaper mmpb version won't be available. Trade paper is a good compromise: cheaper than hardcover but not as heavy, with more a durable cover and more readable format that mmpb. I think e-readers will replace mmpb, especially for travelers, since the machines are as easy to pack and carry as a mmpb but can hold more titles. But who knows the future? It's anyone's guess. Just a few years ago few people would have guessed the growth of e-readers.
Sally Carpenter
"The Baffled Beatlemaniac Caper"

Susanne Alleyn said...

The first thing I said, a couple of years ago, when it became clear that the Kindle was a hit, was, "It's eventually going to replace the mass market paperback; and I don't really see any tragedy in that." Looks as if I was right, for once. :-D I finally have my own Kindle and mmpbs are looking less and less appealing!

Beth Groundwater said...

My theory is that trade paperbacks are replacing hardcovers (except in the collector market) and that ebooks are replacing mass market paperbacks. Many people view mmpbs as throw-away books--read them and throw them away (or put them on paperback swap, donate them to the library or turn them in to a used bookstore). That's what I do with mmpbs I take on vacation. After I read them, I leave them in the room or the resort/ship library or whatever, creating room in my suitcase for souvenirs. Nowadays, travelers are using ereaders for their light weight and small size. One exception for me is mmpb's signed by author friends of mine. Those I keep forever!

Sandra Parshall said...

Libraries prefer hardcovers simply because they're durable, and we could reach the point where publishers print hardcovers for libraries and collectors, and almost everybody else will buy trade paperback instead. Hardcovers are expensive to bind and ship, and when a lot of returns come back, the publisher loses money. Expensive hardcovers plus high returns = financial problems for publishers. That situation has cost a lot of writers their contracts.

Literary novels by little-known writers and volumes of poetry are most often produced as trade pb now. It doesn't make economic sense for a publisher to print a lot of those books as hardcovers.

Susan Russo Anderson said...

Thanks so much for the post, and, I agree: the e-reader will replace mmp. They seem to be eating adult fiction which, I believe, is down in all three print categories.

But I think e-readers have a long way to go before that happens. I've had the Kindle since it came out, get a new one each time it's upgraded (used to be part of my job, so I need to stay on top), but I think e-ink has a long, long way to go before it approaches the crispness of the printed page of hard cover or of trade (mmp, not pleasing for me to read: type not only too small, but not crisp).

So the race is on between video reading (iOS and android especially)—which I personally do not like—and e-Ink.

For me, when I love a book that I've read on the Kindle, I buy the real thing, if it's a trade or hard cover, because part of the pleasure of reading is physical. I love the heft of books, the smell of ink on paper, the feel of rich paper: we all do. How are the e-readers going to duplicate that?

Leslie Budewitz said...

When the trade pb emerged in the late 1970s, lots of folks resented the change to a new format. They created problsm for bookstores -- they didn't fit on our shelves. Initially they were the format of choice for a certain kind of book -- The Whole Earth Catalog, Joy of Sex, that series of folk craft books whose name escapes me. Then literary fiction and poetry moved that direction. Now they're becoming the new norm.

The more things change and all that... .

(Sandy, I do see quite a few trade pbs at the library, laminated so the covers will last longer, though I'm sure they're still not as durable as hc. A compromise, no doubt.)

Karen said...

I know I'm late, but I had to chime in. I'm definitely part of that 6 month drop. In 2010 I averaged 2-3 paperbacks a week, plus the occasional hardcover for a beloved series. In 2011 - maybe a dozen total. But I have about 80 archived kindle novels, with another 20 waiting to be read. All on my iPhone that I acquired last Fall.

I was hooked instantly, despite the small screen and my long professed scorn for ereaders. The iPhone Ap has one simple advantage - my phone is always with me. The pricing doesn't hurt either. New releases are basically 2 for 1 over hardcovers prices, so I buy more of them, rather than disciplining myself to wait my turn at the library.

The only downside is that some authors aren't available, or are getting their backlists up slowly. ( Yes, I'm talking about you Ms Balzo! And I know it's not in your control. I'm just saying From the Grounds Up has been on my to read list a LONG time. As well as the later books.).

But I have a Goodreads Ap to track those waiting to be released books. Yikes. I really have gone over to the dark side, havent I?

Bill Pixley said...

As a librarian I have noticed that trade paperbacks are displacing hardcovers. Books, that would have been in hardcover in the past, now come out in trade paperback. This trend started with Christian Fiction (which is almost all trade paperback) and is quickly spreading into science fiction, mystery, and chick lit.

Bill Pixley said...

As a librarian I have noticed that trade paperbacks are displacing hardcovers. Books, that would have been in hardcover in the past, now come out in trade paperback. This trend started with Christian Fiction (which is almost all trade paperback) and is quickly spreading into science fiction, mystery, and chick lit.

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Ashleyerkn said...

As a librarian I have noticed that trade paperbacks are displacing hardcovers. Books, that would have been in hardcover in the past, now come out in trade paperback. This trend started with Christian Fiction (which is almost all trade paperback) and is quickly spreading into science fiction, mystery, and chick lit.