What's The Deal With Trade Paperbacks?

I was just at the bookstore tonight and found several books that were available in hardback ($27.99), trade paperback ($12.99), and mass paperback ($4.99).

I personally prefer the size of the trade paperback but not the price. I’ll buy a hardback if it’s a tome that I want to keep for eternity; however, most of the time a mass paperback will suffice. Most of the trade-size paperbacks I’ve purchased are those that aren’t available as a mass paperback.

Why do publishers print a book in all three styles? Does personal preference make enough of a difference that it could possibly be cost effective to include the trade-size paperback?

And here I thought you were talking about comics.

I believe that they use trades the same way that they use hardcovers: to give you something to buy until the paperback comes out. There are certain books (esp. popular nonfiction) that reproduce better as trades than paperbacks (what with photos and charts, etc.). Academics have been doing this for quite some time. As for fiction books, I couldn’t say althogh I suspect that it’s either for prestige (looks more impressive) or because they can charge more money for it. I also find them immensly easier to read than paperbacks, but that’s most likely because they use larger typefaces and leading, effectively padding the book. Paperbacks are, of course, cheap as hell to reproduce (as far as books go), but I’ve noticed that in recent years, they’ve been getting padded to hell as well.

I also imagine that for books that will eventually be printed in all three versions it has to do with pricing. Some people will buy the hardcover, some will, for whatever reason, for the trade and some will pick up the paperback. If you can get some of the paperback people to pay twice/three times as much for a trade, why not? I believe that the standard release is hardcover, then the next edition a year later, so I’d imagine that if you release a trade after a hardcover, then the paperback would come a year after that.

Everything, every halfway decent book that was ever published, used to come out in mass market paperback.

That era is long past. If you take a close look at the mass market paperback of today, you’ll see that with a very few exceptions, the only books that ever have a mass market edition are genre titles. Mysteries, science fiction, romances, westerns, and bestsellers. Yes, bestsellers are a genre today. You know they are a separate genre because there are “how to” books instructing wannabes in how to write them. (All written by agents of bestselling authors, because the authors themselves can’t afford to write a book that won’t sell a million copies.)

A few, very, very few, non-fiction bestselling titles appear in the mass market. As Chairman Pow said, this is strictly because of price points. Different sets of people will buy books at different price points, and the biggest market is still at the lowest price.

So why do 99% of all books only come out in trade paperback?

My theory (given to me by Miss Anne Elk) is that the mass market paperback died when the distribution channels died. Paperbacks used to be distributed in 100,000 local stores - drugstores and newsstands and places on every block of every city.

For a variety of complex reasons, the corner pharmacy died as a place to buy books, and the local bookstore died as well, and the book distributors that once were the in-betweens died as well.

Books are fairly low-margin products. The standard discount is 40% off list, less than many other categories of products. A Wal-Mart sells books for 20% off, so its profit is 20% 20% of a $6.99 paperback is very little. So the books at a Wal-Mart have to turn over incredibly quickly, which means that they must be bestsellers. (One Wal-Mart book stocker - people from the distributors do this, not Wal-Mart employees - said her routine was to stock the new titles on the top shelf of the rack, and move them down one row a week, and remove them from sale when they fell off the bottom shelf.)

So that leaves chain bookstores. Which calculate their sales per square foot to the penny. Which brings in more profit - trade or mass-market paperbacks? Trade, obviously. And they tend to be skinnier, so you can get more titles per linear foot. And they bring in a better class of client, who might also go for the incredibly high-margin fluff that’s all around the store - the calendars and blank journals and lattes and pre-remaindered coffee table books. And they are a better draw for booksignings and for discussion nights and for book clubs and all the other ways that bring regulars into the store.

You can get away with mass-market for genre because those writers are just hacks and they pump out product so fast that you don’t have to worry about keeping their books on the shelves for only three months because they’ll have the next volume in their infinite series out by then and so the genre buyers are always in the store anyway. They’re kinda poor so the expensive stuff doesn’t work too well with them to begin with. But the standard price for mass market is now $6.99 with bestsellers at $7.99 and I’m sure a few at $8.99. So they soak 'em before they let them out the door.

I’ll buy a lot more books if I could get them as mass-market paperbacks. But I buy more non-fiction than anything else these days and the time when Signet and Mentor and a few other lines could have given one a fantastic college edition just in mass market is long past.

So, to sum up. Hardback is for prestige. Hardbacks will get reviewed in important places that will simply not review paperbacks - The New York Times Book Review for example. And presumably the people who buy them are opinion leaders, who will talk up a good book through word of mouth and set a tone, an intellectual buzz or else rabid collectors who must have everything fresh and new. Mass market buyers descend after the good word arrives, and the reviews are favorable and the message boards ring with endorsements. The genre types (and I am one) are off in the corner with the lurid covers and the cheap bindings, a shelf or two away from the comic book novels. Chains carry these the way supermarkets carry toilet paper and laundry detergent.

I exaggerate slightly for effect. But only slightly.

There is a slight chance that the mass market may return, if only because book prices are breaking through psychological barriers.

I’ve never yet had a mass market edition of any of my books, in any language. I think they would sell better than way. I have no say in the matter.

Hardbacks have reached $30.00 on a regular basis and Bill Clinton’s “My Life” will be $35.00. Trade paperbacks are over $15.00 all the time and are inching toward $20. I predict a crisis when they hit those points. Some cheaper means for putting out books will have to be found, and e-books have not yet proven to work in mass terms. So maybe we’ll see more mass market paperbacks. At $9.99.

The publishing industry is incredibly inefficient (or at least it was when I worked in it), with both the publishers and the book retailers blaming the other side for the problem. Most hardcover books have a 47% recycle rate. That means that they’re shipped from the publisher to the vendor (be it a bookseller like Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, or a redistributor like Ingram or Baker and Taylor), and then shipped back to the publisher because the vendor couldn’t sell it. Nobody, it seems, has yet been able to figure out that they need to order fewer copies of hardcover books. Many of your trade paperbacks, are simply the hardcover books, with the hardcover stripped off and replaced with a paper cover (this being the publisher’s way of recouping some of the money they spent on overprinting the hardcovers).

Paperbacks are pretty much disposable as far as the publishing industry is concerned. If a vendor has a paperback with a slight amount (or greater) damage to it (or they can’t sell all the copies they bought), they simply rip the cover off, destroy the book, and ship the cover back to the publisher for credit.

When I worked for Waldenbooks in one of their distribution centers, I saw pallets of hardcover books being returned to the publisher, while more pallets of that same title in hard cover were being unloaded from the publisher’s trucks. Instead of taking those copies and adding them to the ones being returned, they were stocked in the distribution center, where they would sit, until they were returned to the publisher as well. I also saw tons of coverless paperbacks being thrown into the dumpster on a daily basis (they were not recycled, BTW, this was the same dumpster that all our trash went into, the only they recycled was the cardboard boxes the books were shipped in).

My impression from having worked in a bookstore years ago is that trade paperbacks are supposed to offer something in terms of prestige below hardcover, but above mass market paperbacks. I think another idea is that a title issued in a trade edition is something that presumes more respect, and it something you want to hold onto. They also look nicer and are good for decent cover artwork. Chairman Pow and Exapno Mapcase bring up a lot of points on the issue.

Also, I own many books that I’ve never seen cloth or mass market versions of. Some books will only come out as mass market size, typically genre books considered at the low end of the totem. Typically these days cloth books will eventually have mass market versions, and some will have trade editions but not mass market editions. Also, often books that at some point were cloth, and later mass market, can be rereleased in trade format. Or the other way around, titles that years and years ago were originally only mass market may later be released as trade, like pulp authors who have been “rediscovered”. Some publishers only release trade editions and unusual sized versions of titles, but the ones I can think of off the top of my head mostly release reprints of cult-status authors. The only other reason I can think of is either size (is a 900+ page title a more preferable read as mass market or trade size?), or format constraints (House of Leaves would be pretty unmanageable as mass market paperback, for example). There really don’t seem to be any hard or fast rules, at least that I am aware of.

I like trade paperbacks. Mass market paperbacks tend to fall apart after a few readings, and trade paperbacks give me increased durability without having to pay the high price of hardbacks. Plus, I keep my books, and trade papers look better on the shelves than paperbacks.

With mass market paperbacks up to 6 or 7 dollars anyway, it’s easy for me to justify spending the extra five bucks to get a book that will be a stronger and more attractive part of my collection for more years.