Change Is Definitely Coming

by John Gilstrap

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, 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.

15 thoughts on “Change Is Definitely Coming

  1. I’ll miss the mmpo, but everything you say here makes sense. It’s a relief to find someone who sees great changes in the publishing industry and isn’t running around claiming the sky is falling for a change.


  2. Makes a lot of sense. And it also makes sense for an author to search out agents and publishing pros that can see this. A great interview in this month’s WRITER’S DIGEST, Evolution of a Lit Agent, dovetails into your insights.

  3. Makes sense and it’s a real contradiction to my argument from yesterday. A $14 trade would be fine, but when it starts approaching $20 I get itchy. I still order a fair number of hardcovers, but that’s because I can, my income allows it and I’m book crazy. 15 years ago, my income couldn’t handle it.

    I did a library talk with some other authors on Wednesday and during my spiel I asked if anybody owned a Kindle, or even if they knew what a Kindle was (to my surprise the librarian owned a Kindle, go figure). Talking later with some of the attendees, whose median age must have been about 72, a number of people told me they love the Kindle because they can increase the font size (alas, something I like about the Kindle myself as my eyes become profoundly middle-aged).

  4. This all makes total sense. I now only browse book stores to think about which ebook i’ll buy next time I’m online. The only paperbacks I actually buy are special ones, ones i know i will read time and time again, or a signed by the author copy.
    I don’t think I’m alone in those buying habits.

    So long as people are still reading, it’s all good. Embrace it. Enjoy it. Read it.

  5. Thanks, John.

    I’ve read many comparisons between different print formats; your explanation of the business differences between hard, trade and mass market formats clicked for me. It’s nice to get a bit of optimism for print publication, for a change.

    I guess it’s time to start deciding which e-book reader is going into my wife’s Christmas stocking…

  6. Your numbers are impressive. The problem with ebook marketing is attracting the impulse buyers, people who’d see our book on the shelf in the store or library. With the mass influx of ebooks online, how do we capture that attention?

  7. What I find interesting is that the Kindle and paperback markets seem to be totally disconnected from each other. I would have thought that a book selling that well on Kindle would raise the awareness of the same book for paperback readers, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. I had the same experience, with my ebook ranked an order of magnitude higher than my hardcover (although you could argue the price difference was the cause).

    I think readers in one media couldn’t care less what’s selling in the other media. Kindle readers only want Kindle books, so they peruse the Kindle bestseller lists. On the other hand, readers without Kindles can’t buy those books, and I think they may be less likely to try a new author because the barriers are so much higher.

    I do think the market for all paper books will continue to shrink. Let’s just hope that ebooks take up the slack. In some cases, I think they can more than make up for it. I’ve read that e-reader buyers purchase more books than p-book readers, although I’m too lazy to find the actual reference.

  8. I was in a Books-a-million store yesterday & was surprised at (1) The amount of shelf space NOT filled with books & (2) The tables loaded with $2 & $3 hardcover books written by well-known authors. (I didn’t even look at the rack outside declaring “last chance”). There were more employees in the store (5 including the coffee dude) than customers (2). I like my Kindle but don’t intend to avoid paper versions. Hopefully this wasn’t a sign of things to come.

  9. All good points. I still think there is a place for the Espresso Book Machines. Perhaps that is the future of retail stores. There would be little need to keep a lot of inventory. They could become extremely competitive.

    I’ve also wondered for a long time if hardcovers might evolve into the “special edition,” similar to a DVD. The status would be reserved for cult classics and huge blockbusters; the hardcover edition would be a collector’s edition with author’s notes and other extras.

  10. I think you’re right, John. Interesting about your ebook sales-congrats! I was wondering, do you think that being able to offer the previous book as a free download during the initial release influenced those numbers? My publisher is considering doing that for my next release. If that’s really the way things are going, it’s going to be hard to justify anything but online marketing in the future.

  11. Maybe I’m just crappy at math (okay, no maybe there), but in a market of over 300 million people, I don’t get how 10 million of anything is significant. I guess it speaks to the existing share of that market that read in the first place. If that’s true, I am saddened and more than a little frightened.

  12. Michelle, I think that the free giveaway lit a spark somehow, and the spark turned to real flame. After NO MERCY finished its free run on Kindle, it stayed in the #1 paid Kindle slot for four or five days, and that whetted appetites for the sequel.

    I sense, though, that there was more than mere word of mouth in play here. My publisher is completely closed-mouth about their strategy, but there was significant cooperation from in the form of email promotions and such. I imagine that that was paid for, but I don’t know that for a fact.

    It also helped a lot, I think, that the blog ads I bought for the first two weeks of HZ’s release got over 9 million views. My website traffic in that time jumped from 35,000 in June to 107,000 in July. In August, it dropped back to 80,000.

    Truthfully, this whole thing has a lightning-in-a-bottle feel to it. I just hope it’s the begining of a trend. I guess I’ll know next July.

    John Gilstrap

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