Sunday, September 04, 2011

The Day the Paperback Died

Never mind the death of the book, it’s the death of the paperback we’re most concerned with right now. From an interesting piece by Julie Bosman in the New York Times’ business section:
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.”
What’s behind this latest death knell? Why the e-book, of course. Quickly replacing the checkout impulse buy with a cheaper and perhaps more environmentally friendly alternative. One of the saddest losses, though, might not be immediately apparent.
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.”
I’m with Connelly on this one. When I was a kid, that was how I navigated my way through the myriad reading possibilities available to me. Not recommendations from friends -- they seldom liked what I did in the first place. Ditto book reviews. How was some stodgy old newspaper writer going to understand what my 12-year-old heart wanted? But standing in front of the colorful displays in the supermarket could get that heart thumping. And, at the time, it seemed that everything I wanted could be supplied by a medium-to-large Safeway books section. I’d examine the covers, read the jackets, perhaps sample a few paragraphs. That was how I found Stephen King, Mordecai Richler (yes, really), James Michener and James Clavell along with the regrettable VC Andrews.

All of that is going fast. What are kids expected to do in the electronic age? Sure you can sample, but it won’t be the same. But I guess we’re dealing with a lot of that now. Things do change and not all change is bad. Some things are lost but, at the same time, some things are gained. Would I be a less well-rounded reader had I not found Flowers in the Attic waiting for me at the check-out? I certainly feel I would be had I not been so entranced by the dark and dangerous-looking paperback cover of Solomon Gursky Was Here.

What’s gone is gone, though. Bowker’s Kelly Gallagher says he doesn’t figure the mass market paperback will be making a comeback any time soon:
“You can’t list a single thing that has caused its demise,” he said. “But as e-books become more affordable and better aligned to the mass-market reader, I would have to say that I don’t think there are encouraging signs that print mass-market books will rise again. When all these things align against a certain format or category, it’s hard to recover.”



Blogger dougbittinger said...

As an older reader I too remember the excitement of shopping the supermarket paperback display for new and exciting reading material. Over the years I amassed a warehouse load of books, so on the one hand I agree with your sentiments.

However, I also have seen the differences between myself and the younger generation. Young people today are SO into tech gadgets that colorful shelves of paper books seem to hold little fascination for them. They are on Amazon, Smashwords, Barnes & Noble. They keyword search masters, able to ferret out prospects and buy one even before I can walk to my car to go to the supermarket to shop the racks. Times are changing, buying habits are changing and, i suppose, the sources of nostalgic feelings are changing as well. The new generation may well one day say, "Ah, I remember the thrill if browsing the thumbnails at, before the cold and impersonal neural implants started ordering our reading material as soon as we decide what we want to read.

Monday, September 5, 2011 at 5:15:00 AM PDT  
Anonymous Shelley said...

Yet another example in this culture of how stuff-rich-people-can-afford drives out stuff-poor-people-can.

Monday, September 5, 2011 at 8:47:00 AM PDT  
Anonymous Dawn Chafe said...

I don't agree. I just got a kindle as a gift. It doesn't read as well as a book (despite the cover that came with it) and is harder on the eyes. Plus, the ebook prices are often on par with what I've paid at Costco and Chapters for both paperback and hardcover. At least with an actual book, I can share with family/friends. With the kindle, I'm paying just as much for something that can't be shared. The publishers must be laughing all the way to the bank with this one.

Thursday, September 8, 2011 at 11:21:00 AM PDT  
Anonymous Sara-Jayne Slack said...

It'll be quite a few years yet before e-book sales account for as much of the market as paperback books.

The demise of the paperback is greatly exaggerated, in any case. It somewhat amuses me that everyone seems to be so keen to cry 'death!' instead of 'augmentation!'.

Thursday, September 8, 2011 at 11:28:00 AM PDT  
Blogger Libarbarian said...

"What are kids expected to do in the electronic age?" Pop down to your local public library branch of course! Libraries are changing too but there is still lots of books - paperbacks even!

Thursday, September 8, 2011 at 11:40:00 AM PDT  
Blogger Linda L. Richards said...

Yet another reason to visit your local library. I like it!

Friday, September 9, 2011 at 2:28:00 PM PDT  
Blogger Karen Jones Gowen said...

This makes perfect sense. The 25 cent mass market paperback came into being during WW II as a cheaper alternative to hardbacks. Advantages: you could carry it anywhere as it was portable and lightweight, you could sample authors w/o investing large sums, and you knew you'd be getting a fast, entertaining read.

And what specifically is competing with all this? The Kindle. So yeah, that makes sense that the mass market paperback would be the first to go, esp considering that their prices kept going up and up. Maybe if they went back to 25 cents they'd have a chance LOL.

Monday, September 12, 2011 at 6:04:00 AM PDT  

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