Okay, I’ll confess it up-front. Today’s post started out as a response to Michelle’s provocative essay yesterday about the demise of the mass market paperback. Once it got to about 200 words, though, and I still had to write something for Friday, well, it only made sense to keep the discussion alive.
I personally think that the hardcover and the mass market paperback original (mmpo) are both on their deathbeds. I see trade paperbacks taking over for hardcovers (as they have throughout Europe), and the eBook taking over the slot once held by the mmpo.
The issue is distribution. Back in the day, the attraction of the mmpo was its universal presence. Every newsstand, drug store and grocery counter had a huge selection. The Big Box stores didn’t yet exist, so book stores, per se, were few and far between–at least where I grew up.
Now the Big Box stores grow like weeds, and the mmp distribution has imploded. Newsstands don’t even exist anymore, at least not as they used to. Where drug stores, etc. do stock mmps, they’re just the reprints of last year’s hardcover bestsellers. That in itself is a sound business decision, considering the cost of retail space, and the dismal performance rates of most paperback originals (PBOs).
According to yesterday’s New York Times, “By the end of this year, 10.3 millions people are expected to own e-readers in the United States, buying about 100 million e-books. . . This is up from 3.7 million e-readers and 30 million e-books sold last year.” If I do my math properly, that’s a 330% increase. Take those statistics in context with B&N’s financial troubles and Borders’s virtual collapse, and it’s easy to see the allure of the eBook.
Historically, the marketing strategy behind the PBO was to get it into as many outlets as possible and to count on impulse buyers to carry the day and spread the word. High volume sales would compensate for the low price point. With the collapse of the distribution network, though, comes the collapse of the marketing strategy. To pick up one of my books in paper, you pretty much have to go to a bookstore to get it. To get a book that is more than two years old, you’ll probably have to special order it.
PBOs get lost in commerce. In the Big Box Stores, the casual shopper sees the PBO by Gilstrap as just another spine-out splash of color between the face-out Gerritsens and Grishams. Unless that book is on the front table (paid-for space), then it’s not going to be seen, except by those who are specifically searching for it.
According to a recent article in Publisher’s Weekly, Amazon.com is turning out to be the nemesis of the Big Box stores, and this is even worse news for the mmp, where the shipping cost of a mmp purchase can equal 25-50% of the cost of the book. Who’s going to pay that?
Consider this: My latest novel, Hostage Zero, just finished a 58-day run in the top 100 paid sales in the Kindle Store. As I write this, it’s ranked #123. That means (thankfully) tens of thousands of copies sold in the last two months. The paperback sales, by contrast, have been just-okay, and the book’s current rank on Amazon is #67,479. Over at the B&N site, my eBook rank is #35, while the paperback rank is #40,013. I’m being perfectly honest when I say that I am far more thrilled that so many people are reading my work than I am disappointed that the pages they’re reading aren’t paper.
This brings me to my prediction for trade paper taking over for hardcovers. For me, the principle weakness of mmps in general is the font size. They’re just hard to read sometimes. The converse is the chief attraction of the hardcover; but that advantage has to be balanced against the weight of the book and the outrageous price point of a hardcover.
Enter the trade paperback. It’s a compromise. They’re lighter weight, the print is big and the price is more reasonable.
My crystal ball, then, shows nothing but brightness for the book industry. Back when I was a kid, a paperback was only $4.99 and hardcovers were about $14.00. Now that we’re in the 21st century, I see a future of eBook originals at $4.99, and trade paper at $14.00. And when it all settles out, new star authors will be born.