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?

PBO Prejudice

By John Gilstrap

“The only bad news is that it will be published as a paperback original.” That’s what my agent told me when she called a year ago to reveal the otherwise wonderful news about my new contract with Pinnacle to launch the Jonathan Grave thriller series. (No Mercy arrives in bookstores on July 7.) My previous agent once told me that it is better not to be published at all than to be published as a paperback original.

The paperback stigma undeniably exists. Several people in my day-job office have complimented the stunning cover for No Mercy only then to offer condolences on the soft cover. “Maybe next time,” one of them said. This from people who religiously wait for the paperback reprints of their favorite authors’ novels to be released before they buy.

More evidence: At hardcover signings, fans occasionally ask sheepishly if I would be willing to sign my books in paperback. That they would think even to ask the question is troubling. That some authors in fact do refuse to sign paperback reprints is infuriating.

No Mercy is my sixth book, yet my first PBO. In the eyes of many, many hardcover authors who sell a fraction of the books I sell, this is clear evidence that my career is moving backward. I fight the urge to explain that it’s a strategic move that will make Jonathan Grave available not just in bookstores, but also in grocery stores and Wal-Marts and airports and corner bodegas because there’s no way to articulate the strategy without sounding defensive.

Here it is for the record and from the author’s mouth: I’m thrilled (albeit a little nervous) to be launching the Jonathan Grave series in mass market paperback. With a terrific cover (which it has) and terrific placement (B&N took a big position in the book), it makes sense to me that people will more readily lay down $6.99 to take a chance on a new character than they would $25.99. A good product that costs less should resonate at least as well as a good product that costs four times as much. Right? Granted, nothing in this business actually makes sense, but it sure seems reasonable to me.

Will the book be reviewed? Lord I hope so. (David J. Montgomery, listen up: Not only are there ARCs, but the ARCs are gorgeous!) It won’t be reviewed in the prestigious dailies of course because, well, they don’t review paperbacks. Publishers Weekly—THE trade magazine of the industry—may deign to review it, but only as one of a couple of mass market paperbacks. I don’t think they even did that until a few years ago.

That leaves me dependent upon online outlets, newsletters and word of mouth to get the word out about my book. There, too, I think the stigma thrives. A completely unscientific survey leads me to believe that even on—the ultimate in populist literary criticism—PBOs get way less attention than their hardcover or reprint brethren.

Here’s the harm, then, in ITW’s decision to eliminate the PBO category from awards consideration: They deprived five books and their authors of their deserved high profile. It’s worse, in fact, than Michelle pointed out in her terrific post yesterday. Out of ten nominations between two categories (Best Novel and Best First Novel), not one was a mass market paperback original.

(By way of full disclosure, when I wrote a see-I-told-you-so email to the powers that be at ITW, I was told unofficially that the no-PBO experiment had been deemed a failure and that the decision would be reversed.)

Looking to the future, I think the debate should sidestep the question of whether PBO prejudice is real or even justifiable. It is real, and it doesn’t make a lot of sense. The operative question is what are we going to do about it? What is, needn’t be.

So how do we start changing things?