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.