Sunday, January 25, 2009

On Mass-Market Paperbacks

I'm dragging this one out of the rec.arts.sf.written vaults for two reasons: one, it's late on a Sunday and I just spent half the afternoon putting together the "Reviewing the Mail" posts for tomorrow. And, two, my grumbling rant about Pat Holt from last week touched on some similar issues, and this is an easy way to extend those remarks.

So, stripping out some specifics that aren't germane here, below are snippets from a number of posts in a rec.arts.sf.written thread that got into publishing details in late July of 2008. I reserve the right to declare that the six-months-younger me was dumb, impetuous, and misinformed, just in case someone better informed than I comes along. Also, italics are my explanations and interpolations now:

1: I enter the fray.
I've said this before: a mass-market book really needs about ten thousand buyers to be successful, but trade paperbacks and hardcovers can be successful at a thousand or two. So books for smaller audiences (and most of SFF is falling into that bucket these days) just aren't going to come out in mass-market.

(The ten thousand figure might have industry folks gagging; it's a very low estimate, and I meant it as a rock-bottom figure.)

Books that sell poorly in their first edition often don't get a second edition; books that sell poorly in general often lead to their author not getting further contracts from that publisher (or, sometimes, from anyone). If you really like an author, you should buy his books, to help ensure that they will continue.

It is no longer 1975. It will never be 1975 again.

2: A trade-paperback hater moaned that they were easier to make a profit on, while his beloved mass-markets languished.
The distribution world has been through some upheavals (which is one of the reasons for the rise of the TPB), but, in general, book sales have become more concentrated in book-specific outlets over the last decade and a half.

Mass-markets are a format designed to sell in places other than bookstores -- they're in supermarkets, drug stores, PXes, and so forth. So that format has been under stress for a while; some people in the industry think it might go away eventually. (Though I don't agree.)

It used to be cheaper to publish an author in mass-market -- I don't think it is anymore, since the numbers for a new writer are almost the same regardless of format -- so that's where you saw new writers.

Nowadays -- outside of a genre like romance, which is still strong in mass-market -- you're as likely to see new writers, and writers who aren't proven huge-sellers, published in hardcover or TPB. And they probably won't hit mass-market unless the sales in the first format are good.

3: An author makes the old argument that publishers used to be willing to make small profits, because they loved books, but now they're all owned by conglomerates.
A lot of agents say things like that, particularly to their clients -- and editors have been known to ply the same line when letting authors down easily -- but I don't believe it myself.

The real answer is that midlist mass-markets used to sell much better than they do now. Lawrence [Watt-Evans, another rasfw regular] can probably give examples; he was active in the '80s when the mass-market was at its peak of distribution. But SF publishers used to be able to routinely sell fifty or a hundred thousand of anything in mass market. There were returns, yes, but the books were cheap to produce and they went out in a vast stream and came back
in a modest trickle.

The explanation you give above makes it sound like mass-markets were always unprofitable, but they weren't -- they were quite profitable. Now, a few mega-sellers are massively profitable, and publishing midlist in mass-market is much trickier.

Corporations started buying up publishers in the '60s and '70s; the era of small family publishing firms ended when Cerf and Klopfer sold out Random House to RCA in 1966. People in the business have been saying things like your last paragraph for more than forty years now; the need to make a profit is not a new development.

4: But why aren't mass-market originals as common?
I think I wrote this in a previous reply, but the sales expectation is quite similar for a first-time author in trade paperback and in mass-market. Plus, mass-markets tend not to get reviewed, so they have less publicity to start out with. And they have a shorter shelf-life, so they get returned faster -- mass-markets are optimized for a high-volume short-term sale, so they only make sense in that situation.

5: Any chance for rack-size "trade" paperbacks?
There have been a number of attempts, over the past decade or so, to have rack-sized trade paperbacks. It never seems to take, which implies (to me, at least) that the two audiences are different and want different things.

6: Someone points out examples of rack-sized tpbs
Once you start getting into very specific cases, it's hard to make sweeping judgments anymore. There are plenty of trade paperbacks -- i.e., books with paper covers that are only returnable as whole copies -- that are rack-sized. I believe most classics lines -- Penguin, Oxford, Cambridge, etc. -- are like that, since they don't get mass distribution. And Wizards of the Coast's rack-sized books are, I believe, also whole-copy return only. (As were White Wolf's books, when they were around.)

So plenty of books are printed about that size, for various reasons -- many travel guides are pocket-sized, for example. (Though those are often taller than rack-sized paperbacks.) Those are all generally books that are distributed through bookstores (or sometimes odder outlets, like religious stores or museum shops) rather than via the mass-market racks.

Mass-market is really a distribution category rather than a book size -- yes, most of the books you think of as "mass-market" are rack-sized paperbacks on cheap paper, but they're not the only things in that channel these days. (Which is another part of the problem; once supermarkets realized that they could sell hardcover books, their interest in dealing with a lot of fiddly ISBNs for the much cheaper mass-markets went way down.)

If you want to have widely available books of fiction published at rack-size, they'll need to be widely popular. Currently, the bar for "widely" is set very high -- only bestsellers and big romances (since they sell very well anyway, and the supermarket audience skews strongly female) reach it. That may change, someday, but I don't see an easy way to get there from here.

7: Why not publish in mass-market first?
That is exceptionally unlikely to happen, since then even the people who prefer the hardcover (and would thus pay more money) would then buy the paperback. Publishing is a low-enough profit game as it is without leaving that kind of money on the table.


Spine said...

Hello hello. Would be interested in your opinions of the novels chosen by the Guardian:


Heather Massey said...

Thanks for running this post again--very informative.

Anonymous said...

Very useful, thanks, Andrew. Got a question: late 2007, I'm in a Borders and they have a SFF display that is a cross between a rack and a table. It is filled with SFF paperbacks from all different publishers and ranging from midlist to bestselling authors. The books were not as wide or tall as a traditional trade paperback, but were one inch taller and slightly less wide than the traditional "mass market" rack format. Would this be the attempt at rack-size trade paper or is this considered just another form of mass market?

I thought at the time that, as the number of hardcover debuts seemed to be dropping in favor of trade paperback debuts, that this was a way of launching with a trade paper gloss without making it quite as large. But reading what you're saying about the supermarkets, etc., now I'm not sure what they are doing. I'm still seeing the "tall" rack paperbacks, though not as many as in 2007, early 2008.

Andrew Wheeler said...

Spine: That list turned into a meme last week, and I poked at it a bit then.

In a nutshell, it's a weird, idiosyncratic list, but it has some very good books on it. (And some books I would characterize as either "not very good" or "incredibly obscure.")

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