The Great MMPB Vanishing Act

By Joe Moore

In a recent article in The New York Times, it was revealed that according to a survey last month from the Association of American Publishers, mass-market paperback sales have decreased by 14% since 2008. According to the article, there are a couple of factors responsible. Heavily discounted hardcover pricing from the chain stores and online sellers have contributed. Second, the increase in the trade paperback format as an alternative. Although a soft cover book, the trade paperback is larger, can command a higher price than the MMPB, and is usually a better quality product from a production standpoint. A third factor is the rapid rise of the e-book’s popularity, which is priced at or below MM prices and aimed directly at the MMPB reader as an attractive alternative.

The mass-market paperback was developed in the late 1930s to create an efficient, affordable, and highly portable form of printing books for the masses. One of the first to succeed in the venture was Simon & Schuster which created the Pocket Books imprint. It was so successful that the term “pocket book” became synonymous with paperback. Two of the most notable books published in pocket editions were James Hilton’s Lost Horizon and Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth. Both appeared in paperback in 1939. A number of companies followed after Pocket Book’s concept including Ace, Dell, Bantam and Avon.

Today, according to the NYT’s article, many big box stores and national chains are gradually shrinking their shelf space for MMPBs and using the space for more hardcovers and trade paperbacks. These include Hudson, Barnes & Noble, and Wal-Mart.

The slow vanishing act of the MMPB is another sign of a changing marketplace for the publishing industry. Once a devoted reading fan purchases a device on which to read electronic publications, the advantages of e-books over MMPBs are compelling. These include similar pricing, portability, convenience, and the immediate availability of the book as opposed to waiting a year for the paperback version of a hardcover.

Next time you walk into your favorite drugstore, airport, mall store, or newsstand, check for yourself. It doesn’t take long to realize that the MMPBs are disappearing right before your eyes.

If you’re an author and are being published as original mass market, what is your agent or editor telling you about the future? Are you going to be converted over to trade format or e-book only? And for readers, are you still buying mass market paperbacks? New? Used? Or have you made the transition to some other format?

19 thoughts on “The Great MMPB Vanishing Act

  1. I’m curious what writers in this format have to say. I’ve been published in the other formats, but never MMPB, which was something of a disappointment for some time, because I always viewed it as a great entry point for readers. God knows for years that was how I bought most of my books, and how I discovered numerous writers who sold me with a great blurb, lurid cover art, and a $5.99 (then $6.99, then $7.99) price tag. For example: Elmore Leonard, Jonathan Kellerman, Sue Grafton, John Sandford, Rick Riordan, Lincoln Child and Douglas Preston, Randy Wayne White, Robert B. Parker, Robert Crais, Ross Thomas, Lawrence Block… I guess you get the idea. I started with MMPBs and when my income and desire to read their latest now, now, NOW, that’s when I shifted over to hardcover.

  2. Mark, it sounds like we were very similar in our buying habits. I started years ago picking up the latest hardcover from Cussler, Harris, Clancy and others, and couldn’t wait for the year to go by so I could purchase the MMPB. It was only much later in life that I could afford the hardcover prices. Today, I can’t remember the last time I bought a hardcover–not because of the price,but because I read pretty much everything on my Kindle now.

  3. Joe, I still buy original, first-time publication MMPBs in the primary and secondary markets. Some of it is nostalgic; an e-book of a Hard Case Crime novel, for example, just isn’t quite the same, though if it switched to an e-book only format I would follow. Also, the price difference between an e-book and MMPB, at least the ones I look at (P.J. Parrish comes immediately to mind), is negligible at this point and if I’m going to pay the same price I want something physical I can give/lend to someone when I’m done with the book.

    All that aside, I see this coming and I feel very badly. I cut my reading teeth on paperbacks (Shell Scott and all of those wonderful Ace Doubles) and I would hate to see them vanish from the marketplace. But vanishing, they are.

  4. Joe, interesting that you should mention PJ Parrish, the sister writing team of Kris Montee and Kelly Nichols. Kris and I recenlty exchanged our newest thrillers with each other so I’m reading their new one: THE KILLING SONG. They are traditionally original MMPB authors, but the copy Kris sent me was a trade paperback.

  5. Purchasing a Kindle last year has definitely cu into how many MMPBs I buy. In fact, I can’t remember the last one.

    Another possible reason for the decline in MMPB sales is their increasing price. As the price differential between mass market and trade decreases, the difference between mass market and e-book increases.

  6. Joe, I had the privilege and pleasure of seeing Kelly on a panel at Killer Nashville in 2010. She brought the storyboard that she uses when she and Kris are collaborating. When she held it up a collective “AHHH” arose from the audience. You might ask her if she’ll send you a photo of it. It’s almost as impressive as their novels.

  7. I’ve been saying for about a year and a half that e-books would be the new mass market, like the post WWII boom. I just didn’t know it would be as fast and as wide so soon. Few did.

    Now that the new offerings of Michael Connelly and David Baldacci will be in trade format, hardbacks are dead books walking, too.

    It’s sad, because I love those great MM covers of the 50s, I love what Hard Case Crime did and so on. But the sadness is somewhat buffered by knowing there are great new opportunities to write more, publish more and make some scratch doing what we love to do.

  8. I’ve never understood the love affair with hardback books (fiction). For non-fiction, it makes obvious sense for durability and constant use. But the whole hard back fiction thing I’ve never been able to get into. I can only think of one fiction title I wanted enough to pay hardcover prices for.

    RE: Ebooks, since I’ve gotten my Kindle, I don’t buy fiction in paper period, regardless of whether it’s mass market, trade, etc. I do think on the whole ebooks and mass market are comparably priced, but often times ebooks are cheaper even than mass market.

    My mind truly has clicked over to the new age. I don’t think about fiction in terms of paper any more–not someone else’s, not even my own.

    It’s been probably a year since I last bought a MMPB.

    BK Jackson

  9. Good point on the pricing comparison, Dana. Just another reason for declining MMPB sales.

    Thanks, Joe. I’ll ask Kelly.

    Jim, the changes are happening so fast, it’s easy to make a mistake. It’s not even a case of changing technology, it’s a question of who’ll be left standing a year from now, or even 6 months.

    BK, it’s hard to have a love affair with something that costs $30. Especially when I can get the same story for $9.99 or less on my Kindle. Like Jim said, it looks like hardcovers are the next dinosaur to go extinct.

  10. Hi joe and all,
    Boy, what a mess, huh? I don’t think anyone know what really works now. I get the sense from going to panels, conferences and talking to authors and editors that everyone is just plain squirrelry right now. And I sense quite a bit of defensiveness from traditional publishers (and some agents) about the growing success of eBooks. Was at a conference recently and talked long and hard to Jim Swain who is having great success with original eBook publishing. The paradigm is shifting and I am wondering if we aren’t soon going to see eBooks being the primary vehicle and paper backs (whatever format) as a the secondary.

  11. Thanks for stopping by, Kris. You’re right on so many levels, especially the fact that no one seems to know what works–not that they ever did. But one thing’s for certain, the e-book train has not only left the station, it’s roaring down the track.

  12. There’s a certain disposable quality – no offense Kelly! – to MMPB that I sort of miss. For $6 or $7 I could toss it in a backpack, stick it in a drawer, dribble my Cola on it, smear chocolate, get caught in the rain, read in the bathtub (been a long time since I did that), toss it at the TV in disgust, loan it out to different friends and not worry about getting it back.

    Hardcovers, much less so.

    And although there are many things I like about my Kindle (larger font and instant gratification, anyone?), I treat the damn thing like it’s a delicate piece of tech that cost me almost $200 bucks, which is what it is.

    And although I definitely like/love my Kindle, whenever I charge it I wonder how we came to a point in our economy where we replaced something that didn’t use electricity to work with something that has to be plugged in regularly.

  13. I was loathe to move to an e-reader, but since I purchased my color Nook there’s been no going back. While I have purchased a couple of cookbooks and technical books in the actual book format my general reading has moved entirely to the Nook. When my local Borders was going out of business I did buy a few paperbacks at the end (all trade, but that was the format those books were in). I won a signed copy of a mmpb from the author, I have attended a couple of author events where I purchased the author’s book(s), and I have purchased a few books from Amazon UK that aren’t published in the US. With those few exceptions it has been Nook all the way. I would have to be desperate to buy an actual physical book. I can’t imagine going back now, although a year ago I would never have believed I would make the switch at all.

    I never purchased hardbacks. They were/are too expensive, and they’re bulky. You can’t exactly slip one into your purse to read at lunch. Trade are nicer, and easy too read, but can be difficult to carry around (depending on the size of my purse at the time). MMPBs are cheapest and easy to transport, but the size of the typeface has become an issue. With the e-reader the transport is a non issue (especially since I can read my books on my phone), I can set the type size to my choice, and prices are nearly always the lowest (although there are exceptions). I would say the biggest change to my purchasing/reading habit is that I am far more likely to purchase a new release on the Nook than I would have as a hardback. The price is significantly lower than a hardback msrp, and I was never crazy about hbs.

  14. I found this article fascinating- most interesting was the fact that they’re releasing heavy hitters like Michael Connelly’s new releases in trade paperback. So does this mark the slow demise of hardcovers, too? My first four novels were released as MMP, and next year will mark a transition into hardcovers for the first time. I’m curious to see how it goes.

  15. Interesting post, Joe. I read somewhere that trade paper is a more attractive option these days because of the return methods. Destroying a book by ripping off the front cover for credit never seemed like a good idea to me, but that’s how it works in MMPB. Rahter shameful waste of trees if you ask me. When was that EVER a good idea?

    So it might appear that trade is the new MMPB simply because the houses get the books back. But that would make the contract clause on rights reversions more important to have that better defined. If all it takes for a book to be IN PRINT are books in a warehouse, it might take lawsuits to clarify an author’s rights. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but it makes me wonder.

    Great post as usual, Joe.

  16. I only had hardcover and trade paperback as far as publishing goes and I have never been a huge purchaser of mmpbs…but I do love my ebooks! I think it will be interesting to see how traditional mmpb authors do in trade paperback. I think ebooks are going to take much if this market. I am not sure I would purchase their books in hardback or trade paperback, I think I would just go for the ebook option.

  17. Mark, Kathy, catfriend, Michelle, Jordan and Clare. Thanks for the additional comments. I think we’re all basically on the same page here.

  18. As to hardcovers, I like them because I can usually score them at garage sales for $1 – $2. However, I took Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six to Paris with me and it is still there. I wasn’t hauling that brick home.

    I like MMPB for size, price, and convenience. Trades are too big. However, it is of only minor relevance because I too have gone to ereader almost exclusively. So, I’m partly to blame as well.


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