Why is all the "literary" fiction in trade paperback size

I was browsing around the bookstore last night for some new reading material, and it struck me how much more fiction is being published in trade size vs. mass market size. Sure, your Stephen Kings and your Tom Clancys and your Danielle Steeles (or my guilty pleasure authore, Nelson DeMille) are all in mass market, but it seems all the more “serious” fiction like Russell Banks or Nick Hornby or Barbara Kingsolver or even Helen Fielding are all in trade size. The consequence is that you have to pay $4-5 more for them. (Not that I mind. Well, I do, but it isn’t killing me.)

Is it that these authors don’t sell as many copies on average, so they publish them in the larger format at the higher price? Might they not sell more at the lower price? And doesn’t the money that the publishing houses make from the authors that do sell ten bazillion copies of a title in mass market free up the resources so that they could publish these authors in mass market size? (I suspect that the answer lies partly in accounting methods similar to Hollywood’s Stupid Bookkeeping Tricks, that allow movies like Forrest Gump to still be in the red.)

Or maybe it’s that the mass market paperback is viewed by the publishing world as the outlet for, for lack of a better term, “lesser” fare, and award-winning authors like Banks or Annie Proulx are too esteemed for that format.

Uke, Eve, anyone else in the publishing world–what’s the Straight Dope here?

Capitalism, my good man, capitalism. Will you make more money by charging a fortune and selling a handful of goods, or will you do better by charging a low price and selling a ton of goods? It depends on the demand for the product.

The demand for highbrow fiction is less elastic than for the lowbrow stuff. Personally, I’m buying Tim O’Brien and Thomas Pynchon pretty much no matter how much it costs, so the publishers can maximize their profit by charging me and others like me more. We’re just not likely to spend the $15 on something else instead. This is especially true because a whole lot of highbrow readers are a captive audience: students who have to buy the book for a class. In other words, the publisher goes for the higher per-book profit margin when there is a small but firm demand.

Lowbrow readers, on the other hand, are more price-sensitive. Thus, many Tom Clancy or Stephen King readers (and don’t slam me, 'cause I’ve read and enjoyed them both, at least before Clancy flew off the stupidmeter with Sum of All Fears) are more likely to not buy at all if the price of the book is over, say, $8. So the profit-maximizing price for these books is lower than for trade paperbacks. Here, you go for the lower lower per-book profit margin because there is a large but soft demand.

minty’s nailed the argument pretty well.

The market for mass-market fiction has fallen into the toilet over the past five years or so. The distributors have consolidated, and they’re only interested in putting out copies of proven sellers like King and Clancy and Mary Higgins Clark. You’ve noticed this tendency in airport bookstalls, right?

So, whereas ten years ago I might have been able to ship 50,000-60,000 copies of a midlist mystery novel in mass market paper, today I’d be most likely only to ship out 20,000. So, if I think the market will bear it, I’ll do the same book today in trade paper…I still get out 20,000 copies, and the people who want them buy them, but they sell for $11.95 instead of $6.99.

More and more, books are becoming a luxury entertainment item. Sales of hardcover books are up, 'cause folks with the wherewithal to shell out $25-$35 are still buying them. But mass markets, which were created in the 1940s to retail for a quarter, are now going for seven or eight bucks. They’re no longer impulse buys, and hoi polloi are buying at that price.

Frankly, I LIKE the trade format more. I read James Jones’ FROM HERE TO ETERNITY ten years ago as a mass market, and I bought it again recently when Dell did it in trade. It does seem like a more serious format…

AREN’T buying. Hoi polloi AREN’T buying at that price.

Is it just me, or is it somewhat distressing that your average Joe would be more willing to spend $15-$20 on a fancy meal than a good book? (Or am I just underestimating Joe?)

Well, for what it’s worth (not much, probably) . . .

I consider myself to be a fairly average reader, and I have considered trades to be the alternative to hard-backs, not to mass-market books. A not-genre-related fiction book (for lack of a better term) is available in hardback and then in trade – not in pocket size. So (until today) I’ve always considered trades to be the cheaper option, not the more expensive one, since the alternative is to buy the book in hard-back. (Very sneaking, publishing industry!) So I frankly have not resented paying more than for a mass-market book; I’ve appreciated paying less than for a hard-back. Plus I think trades are easier to hold and to read, and fill up a book shelf more nicely.

That said, for what I personally consider “throw away” books – low-rent mysteries and romance novels, which I blush to admit I do read on occasion – I am one of those people who won’t pay more than, say, seven bucks. The quality of the book just isn’t worth it. And I almost NEVER buy hard-backs, since I think they’re just too expensive; I wait until the book comes out as a trade paperback. And I do buy a lot of trade paperbacks, I admit. I love books. :slight_smile:

I’m willing to pay $15-20 for a good meal but not a good book because I can’t get the good meal at a library. :wink:

Actually, I buy craploads of books, way more than I probably should, and I do have to say that I’ve never had one of those trade paperbacks fall apart at the binding the way some of the mass market paperbacks do. That in itself is worth the extra couple of bucks, in my opinion. I tend to buy books I want to read multiple times, and if reading a book more than a couple of times is going to make it disintegrate, why do I want to spend the 8 bucks for it in the first place?

Good point, Jodi. I had not looked at it from that perspective, for the simple reason that I buy a LOT of hardcovers (you’re welcome, publishing industry!). The SDMBers who helped Leigh-Anne and I move can attest to that.
Very rarely do I wait for softcovers; I just wanted to pick up a few to read on the Metro during my morning and afternoon commutes. I would say in an average year I probably buy 10-15 hardcovers and about half that number of softcovers.

Jodi is right. I work for one the nation’s larger booksellers (not naming names, of course), so I sorta know what I’m talking about. Trade paper is intended as an alternative to Hardcover, not to mass market paperback. Many people are unwilling to shell out the big bux for a hardcover of a relatively unknown author, but will give them a whirl for $12. MM paperbacks also fall apart at the drop of a hat and are intended for the read em once then throw em away audience. Trade Paper – also sometimes called Quality Paper or QP in the biz :wink: – is intended to provide durable reading enjoyment for the less-affluent booklover. There is a higher paper quality (the largest factor in the price) a much sturdier binding, and an overall higher production value.

“Trade paperback” in the business is a technical term for a paperback book that isn’t stripped.* It has nothing to do with the size or cost of the book – TSR used to publish trade paperbacks the same size and price as the usual mass market book.

Publishers like trade paper because they make more money per copy. Authors like them for the same reason. Publishers also have the option of taking the returns from one bookstore and sending them to another bookstore that wants extra. They are an alternative to paper and nowadays most books come out in all three formats – hardcover, then trade paper a few months later, and finally regular paperback.

*Mass market paperback books are not returned to the publisher. Instead, the bookseller strips off the cover (it may be the back cover nowadays, since that’s where the UPC code is) and returns that for credit. The rest of the book is pulped – it’s illegal to sell them.