The dog-eared paperback, newly endangered in an e-book age

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SummaryThese are dark and stormy times for the mass-market paperback, that squat little book that calls to mind the beach and airport newsstands.

Julie Bosman

These are dark and stormy times for the mass-market paperback, that squat little book that calls to mind the beach and airport newsstands.

Recession-minded readers who might have picked up a quick novel in the supermarket or drugstore are lately resisting the impulse purchase. Shelf space in bookstores and retail chains has been turned over to more expensive editions, like hardcovers and trade paperbacks, the sleeker, more glamorous cousin to the mass-market paperback. And while mass-market paperbacks have always been prized for their cheapness and disposability, something even more convenient has come along: the e-book.

A comprehensive survey released last month by the Association of American Publishers and the Book Industry Study Group revealed that while the publishing industry had expanded over all, publishers’ mass-market paperback sales had fallen 14% since 2008.

“Five years ago, it was a robust market,” said David Gernert, a literary agent whose clients include John Grisham, a perennial best seller in mass market. “Now it’s on the wane, and e-books have bitten a big chunk out of it.”

Fading away is a format that was both inexpensive and widely accessible—thrillers and mysteries and romances by authors like James Patterson, Stephen King, Clive Cussler and Nora Roberts that were purchased not to be proudly displayed on a living room shelf (and never read), but to be addictively devoured by devoted readers.

“In those days, you could easily ship out a million copies of a book,” said Beth de Guzman, the editor in chief of paperbacks for Grand Central Publishing, part of the Hachette Book Group. “Then shelf space started decreasing and decreasing for mass market, and it has especially declined in the last several years.”

For decades, the mass-market paperback has stubbornly held on, despite the predictions of its death since the 1980s, when retail chains that edged out independent bookstores successfully introduced discounts on hardcover versions of the same books. The prices of print formats are typically separated by at least a few dollars. Michael Connelly, the best-selling mystery writer best known for The Lincoln Lawyer, said he worried that book buyers would not be able to discover new authors very easily if mass-market paperbacks continued to be phased out.

“Growing up and reading primarily inexpensive mass-market novels, it allows you to explore,” he said. “I bought countless novels based on the cover or based on the title, not knowing what was inside.”

The growth of the e-book has forced a conversation

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