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?