Monday, August 9, 2010

The Death of (Another) Format

A couple of months ago, I mentioned my belief that e-readers will quickly make large print paper books obsolete. After careful analysis, mes auteurs, I'm comfortable predicting the death of another format (although I think this one will take much longer): the mass market paperback.

For those not familiar, the mass market paperback is that chunky, newsprinty $4 to $8 paperback you find in airports and grocery stores (in addition to traditional independent and chain bookstores). It's especially popular with genre fiction (fantasy, mystery, romance, science fiction). Historically, they've sold well because they're cheap, lightweight, and don't take up a lot of space; not many people buy them to display on bookshelves or coffee tables.

E-books are already relatively cheap, and they have no weight and occupy no physical space at all. As the cost and heft of e-readers steadily declines, there will be (in my opinion) no reason to buy a mass market paperback rather than an e-book, and I think this will lead to the format's demise.

A lot of people are currently worried that e-books will kill the hardcover, but I find this relatively unlikely. Hardcovers have been status symbols and conversation pieces for centuries, if not millennia. People like having bookshelves full of hardcovers. They like having them signed. They like physically perusing a library rather than flipping through a list of titles on a screen. For these reasons (among others), I think hardcovers will survive the conversion to e-books, although I certainly expect print runs to be reduced and POD to become a more tenable option for smaller publishers.

As for the mass market paperback: granted, the lendability factor will definitely keep it alive for a few more years, and it will probably take decades beyond that before the second-hand market begins to fold. As soon as solid lending or renting protocols are established by the e-book industry, however, I don't see any reason why consumers would rather have a physical, low-quality paperback than a non-physical, high-quality e-book. Can you?


  1. A friend of mine/co-worker said the same thing to me over the weekend. She is getting ready to upgrade to a newer version of Kindle because she "just can't live without it." She's a talkative type, so when she mentioned her beloved e-reader I went into nod-and-smile mode, and simply listened.

    She doesn't get why some e-books are priced "so high" (9.99), or why "clunky fat paperbacks" are even an option anymore when we have e-readers. She does still enjoy hardcovers, though, and will "splurge" on them if she really likes the book.

    Hunh. That's an interesting observation coming from a working mom who reads anything she can get her hands on, aka NOT someone connected to the publishing world at all. Don't you think?

  2. I still think it should be about choice. My bookshelves are crammed 3-deep with paperbacks. Hard covers -- very few (and most bought through The Mystery Guild at hefty discounts). Yes, I love having an e-reader, but why can't I have both? My aunt suffers from macular degeneration but she'd rather give up reading than use an electronic device. My mother-in-law reads with a magnifying glass.

  3. For the moment, mass market paperback is the only printed text priced lower than the ebook. Removing it from the market removes some of the criticism that ebooks are priced too high. If consumer perception is that ebooks are inherently cheaper to make than a book in any format, removing the one type of book priced less than an ebook combats that argument. Ebooks will now be the most affordable option for a book on the market (for those ebooks that aren't inexplicably priced higher than their hardcover counterparts).

  4. I hope you are wrong on this one. I only buy mass market paperbacks, and I have no intention of getting an eReader.

  5. The problem with ereaders is the cumbersome nature of sharing, if it's even possible. Our family revolves around sharing books between family members. There is more to reading than keeping what is read to ourselves, there is the social aspect of reading that is important to our family. Here are some thoughts I have about ereaders and why we're not ready to embrace them:

    (1) Ereaders are less about convenience than they are about profit. The current model seems to be that publishers are looking at making money every time something is read (by a unique reader) instead of the centuries-old paper model of making money every time something is printed. There is no profit in sharing, so let's kill that ability.

    (2) Ebooks are priced too high. If you consider that paperbacks are priced at $4.95 and ebooks average $9.95, the reason to adopt technology just isn't there yet. Ebooks need to be priced at or below $1.99. Before you sceam, consider this: Our family shares books. The kids are grown, they live a few miles away. At family get-togethers everyone exchanges books. So the actual, realized cost of a good read is about $2.00 when you consider that we don't actually purchase everything we read.

    Again, before you scream, consider that this is the social nature of reading and has been the model for centuries. We are not pirating, we are socializing. However, if you have competing, proprietary, high-priced ebook formats, that kills the ability to socially interact with literature, it makes it too expensive for a family of poorly paid educators like us to continue the practice. However, if you make the format open, interchangeable between devices, and affordable, then our social interaction around literature can continue.

    And that brings me to (3): Common, open format. Publishers will cry 'piracy' but they are truly never going to quell it completely. Audio downloads have dropped digital rights management (DRM) in favor of more open and common formats, and publishing must do the same. Currently there is no ebook reader that makes the idea of sharing books easy. Yes, some can, but it is cumbersome at best. I'd just rather hand the book I just finished to my daughter to read. Besides, she reads in the tub. If she drops the book, she's out $4.95, if she drops the Kindle/Nook/iPad...

    A little background, I'm not a luddite. Quite the contrary. I teach information technology, our house has two wifi hotspots and everyone has a laptop (I have two), I have an iPhone that my wife says gets more attention than she does, everyone in the family has at least two college degrees and my stepson just quit a high paying computer science/robotics job to get his PhD. My wife is a language arts teacher, my daughter a social studies teacher, I'm a high school business teacher and adjunct for a local univerisity instructing teachers how to invigorate their curriculum with technology in order to engage students. To us on the surface ebooks sound like a great idea but there are just a lot of barriers to overcome.

  6. The primary benefit of e-books is that they distribute the content more efficiently; that they eliminate the costs associated with printing, shipping and shelving conventional books. Mass market is the cheapest format to print and ship, so the efficiencies of shifting to an e-format are relatively limited. And any cost savings are likely to be offset by lost sales.

    Mass market seems likely to be especially resilient to e-conversion, because a big chunk of the business model seems to be positioning the books in places where people will see them while doing something other than book-shopping. By contrast, one must make a deliberate decision to go to a website or open an app to buy an e-book.

    Shifting from conventional to electronic distribution also cuts out occasional readers; dedicated e-readers and tablets are unlikely to ever achieve 100% market penetration among people who might occasionally buy a romance novel. Some segment of the market will simply stop reading.

    Because the cost of mass market paperbacks is so low, the cost possible savings to the end purchaser by going to e-book format are relatively minimal. Unless publishers are willing to sell this content for $2-3, there's very little reason for a reader to switch to an e-format. This is especially true for people who lend, swap or sell books; piracy concerns will keep e-books pretty locked-down for the foreseeable future.

    Eliminating secondhand sales is one of the perks of e-formats for publishers; no publisher of any kind of media has any reason to create a mechanism for secondhand sales of electronic content licenses.

  7. I've just blogged about this--and Dorchester's decision to cease publication of mass market paperbacks.

    But a strong argument against the elimination of the mm paper book is expressed in a cartoon on the cover of this week's New Yorker. A sunbather drops her Kindle into the pool. I'd rather lose a $5 paper back than an expensive appliance that contains my entire library. Also, the paper book won't electrocute me when I fish it out of the water.

    Another argument: used bookstores. I LOVE used bookstores. I know writers don't make any direct money from them, but I've been introduced to a lot of authors by buying a cheap used paperback. If I love the writer, I go to a regular bookstore and buy their latest work.

    Joseph, your theory that publishers may be killing the mm paperback in order to sell more e-books is fascinating. Hmmm...

  8. In genre fiction--and especially the four genres you cite--I can see this happening. Particularly in romance, where the typical reader (or should I say, the industry's typical "dream reader") consumes two to three books a week, and is really into them only for the story. Ebooks make a ton of sense for that reader, because really, how does having stacks upon stacks of once-read romances cluttering up her house help her?

    But for more literary works, for YA and middle grade books (the good ones, anyway), I'm not so sure it's time to predict the death of paperbacks. Granted, these are more often created with higher production values, so the books themselves look better, feel better, and last longer. But the reader/book relationship there is different, in a way that suggests print will be with us for a while yet. Those are books which do get read and re-read. They are books that get loaned to friends. "OMG, you HAVE to read this! It's so awesome!" I mean, I'll loan my copy of _When You Reach Me_ to a friend, but no way am I going to loan my whole kindle device to somebody. It's got all my other books on it! There's a social and status aspect to trade paperback books for adult book-club readers and YA/MG readers alike. It's one aspect to the whole experience of book ownership that is, as yet, not addressed well by current ebook technologies.

  9. I think I'm going to side with you on this one, Eric. More and more people are getting e readers - and loving them, but there will always be a place for a well bound hardcover.

  10. T.H. Rathke,

    Music publishers went DRM free because they really didn't have a choice. CD-audio is an unprotected digital format that can be ripped DRM free to a sharable file by anyone. And publishers can't put DRM on CDs, because the media must be compatible with existing CD players.

    If commercial music downloads are encumbered by DRM, they're inferior to freely-available pirated versions. E-vendors had to go DRM free because they were essentially competing with illegal downloads. People who might have bought the album would pirate to avoid the limitations on the commercial files.

    A book is different because it can't be ripped like a CD. Somebody has to scan every page of a book to PDF or type every word into a text document in order to turn it into a file that can be shared on the internet. This doesn't happen very often, and the result is noticeably inferior to the original.

    If publishers start releasing books as freely-sharable files, they'll create mass book piracy where none exists now.

    A full book in Word format is less than 1MB. If publishers put their books out as DRM-free files, a reader can attach an author's entire life's work to an e-mail and forward it to everyone he knows with a push of a button, and there's nothing anyone can do about it. Nobody who is in the business of selling content would willfully create that kind of situation.

    DRM free e-books will never happen; it would be the end of commercial publishing.

  11. Eric, I sincerely hope you are wrong about this! I'm a copyeditor and I spend all day reading onscreen, being able to pick up a book and read on paper is a relaxing blessing after work is done.

    Anne, right on! Used bookstores are my favorite places to visit, too--and yes, if I find an author I really like in a used bookstore, I will go to a new bookstore or and buy their newer releases.

    I want to to turn the pages!!

  12. The printed page offers many advantages; paperbacks don't require batteries or electricity. I can read them by candlelight if the power's out.
    Actually holding a book in your hands gives you a stronger connection to the story, and in an odd "telepathy" kind of way, the author.
    As has been mentioned above, if I read a book that I think is especially well done, I can lend it to a friend that I think will enjoy it, and I can borrow similar books from them.
    E-readers are fine; I'll probably own one myself once I can justify the cost. But I'll never give up books.
    Even if the Kindle could replicate the immersion of a book, the scent of the pages (or the heady scent that fills a bookstore) or the texture of paper in my hands, it could still never replicate the experience.
    Curling up on the couch with a cup of hot tea and a Kindle just doesn't cut it.

  13. I think mass market paperbacks are probably the most resilient to being snuffed out; it's the hardcovers that are going to suffer limited sales due to their bulky nature and high cost. Kindle e-books are already outselling hardcovers at Amazon by a substantial margin.

    At least 75% of my library is mass market paperback. Hardcovers simply don't lend themselves to a comfortable reading, which is why I avoid them for the most part.

  14. Your argument for why mass markets will go the way of the dodo makes a lot of sense to me--I really did have an "aha" moment when I read it. But like Brad above me said, I think that the hardcover is seriously endangered by the e-reader as well. I'm already resistant to buying a $25-30 hardcover, and if I can get a cheap e-copy at the time of release, I'm going to do that (once I have an e-reader). Unless e-releases are delayed, I have very few reasons to ever buy a hardcover. I'll have to *really* like the author and want to get it signed. I have enough print books already for display purposes. (Too many, I'm thinking, as I'm moving right now and those boxes are heavy!) At least now with mass markets, I have to wait to read book if I want it cheaper, and if I'm that impatient, I might cave and buy the hardcover.

    What do you think will be the effect on trade paperbacks?

    I'm fairly certain e-books will be loanable someday, so that's not a concern for me. Although I want to know where T.H. Rathke is finding $4.95 books. I remember those from middle school...

  15. The market place will decide what format lives or dies. But are you willing to wait months for the mass market of today's hot hardcover when the e-book is available for only a few dollars more than the mass market version will be?

    Perhaps some of you have noticed the price of the e-book goes down when the title becomes available on mass market format. With the exception of the agency model books I have found the e-book cost less than or nearly the same as the mm version.

    I think the future for the print formats will be a small speciality size market with the vast majority of sales for the e-book format. I don't think the hardcover format or the mass market format will totally vanish for a generation or two.

    Hard Case Crime publisher Charles Ardair has said he will always publish in the mass market format only. He publishes reprints and originals in the style of the old crime novel paperbacks. His publishing is about honoring the old format. As long as readers buy enough of any format so such publishers can make a profit, the format will live. Much like you can still buy select music on new LP records.

    Hopefully publishers understand that cost does not set price. Demand sets price and price sets cost.

    Hopefully we readers understand that profit will set format. Since there are many costs (paper, inventory, returns,etc) for mass market books that e-books do not have, it makes business sense for the average book to abandon the mass market, audio book, large print formats. I think the hardcover will survive the longest among the print format. This still leaves out the Trade paperback format.

  16. Hi, Eric. Thanks for maintaining this blog.

    Yes, I can for two reasons. The first being convenience. While most everyone may one day own a computer/e-reader, they may not carry them at all times.

    More importantly, for low income households, the cost of many $4 books over time is more feasible than the investment in an e-reader even if it is a better buy. It is the same premise as home buying. 30-year notes are a seriously bad investment, but more manageable over the short term.

  17. Brad Jaeger,

    Total paid e-book downloads exceed total hardcover sales, but only select frontlist titles are selling in hardcover. Amazon is measuring the total e-sales of the same frontlist titles, plus e-versions of all the new books published mass market and trade paperback, plus all the backlist e-books. If you compare sales of current bestsellers in hardcover to Kindle sales of the same titles (which you can't do, because Amazon is very selective about which data it releases), the hardcovers trounce the e-books.

    E-books are less than ten percent of total book sales.

  18. Eric,

    I think you are right with the exception of Expresso-type POD books for the last man standing in the paperback aisle.

    Regardless of what current buyers want/think about the cuddly paperback vs. the cold, hard ebook, there is a generation rising who will have read waaaaaaaay more digital words than traditionally printed. They are very comfortable with that format. EReaders will continue to drop in price. If you are school aged and an eReader is available for $50 or less (and they will be, eventually) you can get nearly all your required reading classics as public domain freebies and come out way ahead over purchasing them as paperbacks.

    And if you want to read your Kindle by the pool, do what I do and put it in a ziploc first.

    No, printed books will never go away completely. But mass market printing is going to wane in favor of eBooks. POD is available for the holdouts and makes a lot more sense than a 10K print run on a best guess.

    Digital is just too easy and cost effective to not eventually dominate the market.

  19. How's that first prediction working out for you?

  20. I do think this is all highly age biased, and no matter what WE (and in the interest of full disclosure I'm 31, but a slightly old fashioned 31) think about books and formats, it is what THEY--the "millennials" and later--think. It is their interactions with the printed word that are going to spell the doom for hardcover, mass market etc. In my inexpert opinion, they have no meaningful interaction with the printed word. Printed and digital are at best interchangeable to them. Their main driving impulse is to get it now (1am on a Tuesday when they've just read on facebook that their buddy has heard this great new band) and have it(their entire library of movies, music, books) available at all times.

    That said,I'm still in wait and see mode, although I've actually started off loading my physical library--except some things that are reference, rare, or sentimental. There are a few battered mass market paperback fantasy novels from when I was a preteen that you are going to have to pry from my cold, dead fingers. That is purely sentimental. Those are the first books I ever fell in love with; the first books I ever went to an actual book store and picked out on my own and paid for with my own money. I just don't get the same thrill these days from going to B&N to get the latest bestseller or new book from my favorite authors.

    Large numbers of physical books are a pain. I work in a library, so I have an excellent vantage to study this, but mostly I'm speaking from my experience at home. They are a pain to store, they are a literal pain to move, and who can keep to a one in and one out rule? You just have to keep buying new book cases.

    I always thought that CDs and DVDs would stick around, because vain people want to show off how many they have and how good their taste is, but no one I know keeps a stack of CDs around anymore. That went the way of the ipod. Even DVDs, I've started to notice, are going the way of streaming in the home (this is highly age related, because you have to have buckets of money or technological savvy to set this up).

    Social networking has given us the ability to share and brag about our collections online the way we used to in the homes. Plus, you can brag to a much larger audience--and one that might actually know what you are talking about. Instead of just showing off the relatively few books I can afford to own, keep and lug around with me in my peripatetic existence, with a service like goodreads or librarything, I can list pretty much every single book I've ever read--back to my Babysitter's Club days in third grade. I know plenty of people who've done just that. Facebook, Netflix, Pandora, is a way to get out there and say, "Hey, look what I've just read/listened to/seen." Not to mention there are social networks for knitting, drinking wine and whatever else you can think of!

  21. I don't think ebooks will kill ALL mass market paperbacks. There are really two kinds of MMs: 1)books that publish only in MM. Usually they're genre books (mysteries, science fiction, romance) and the author is not enough of a name to get get into hardback or trade paper. 2) Books that publish first in hardback and then a year or so later come out in MM (of it they sell really well, it's hardback, trade paper, and then MM). I think publishers will want to start brand new authors out in ebooks but I think with best selling hardbacks, they will still want to put out a MM edition and then finally an ebook.

  22. One of the interesting things about the panic behind paper books going away is that the public is forgetting 2 very important things:

    1) People don't like to buy things twice. If we can't share it with a friend or pass it on to a family member we feel cheated.

    2) Amazon's ability to remove of Animal Farm from hundreds of thousands of Kindles was an invasion of privacy. Sure, people got their money back. And maybe it was legal. But do we really want to give Walmart, Target, and the next wave of e-reader retailers the right to access our purchases after we've left the store with them?

  23. Despite the ad campaigns, e-readers suck at the beach. Forget the sand problem and salt water problem, and the greasy sun-screen on the fingers problem - what's great about paperbacks is that when you drop them, they don't break. If they get wet - no problem. Sand? Whatever. Wanna highlight lines or fold pages for future re-readings? At your pleasure. But the best part is that a beach-paperback smells like the beach! Plus, when you're finished, you can hand it off to a friend or stranger.

    I've tried the e-book. I hate the e-book. I even hate that it's called an e-book.

  24. I can't imagine the demise of something so cheap and disposable as the mass market paperback. The advantage of them is that you can fold them, drop them, get them dirty, get them wet, spill coffe on them, and it doesnt matter because they're disposable.

    With an e-reader, it means that all books are precious, delicate, expensive technology that I wouldnt dare to just throw into a rucksack.

  25. Good concise thoughts here and I heartily agree.

  26. I'm with Eric. The hardcover has still got legs, and I think that the trade paperback also does for the many types of non-narrative books.

    Those who say "consumers will still want mass-market paperback" forget that the people aren't in control. What's the incentive for a publisher to produce MMPB when e-book is cheaper, has a higher profit margin, no returns, and can be kept "in print" indefinitely at virtually no marginal cost? What's the incentive for mass-market retailers (Wal*Mart, etc.) to stock MMPBs when they could be using that shelf space to sell e-readers?

    MMPB sales have been in slow decline for the past few years. E-book sales have been rocketing (duh), and may surpass MMPB sales by the end of the year. Or might not. But next year for sure. Yeah, for sure!

    E-book is the new MMPB. I expect that sometime next year, at least one of the 'Big 6' will announce that their new titles will be released in hardcover and e-book only, with no MMPB cycle. Or maybe they won't actually announce it, but just do it.

  27. Well, you are not short sighted, are you? The most important part for me is when I open the book and it smells of freshly printed pages. I believe that (at least for a while) many people will prefer books (including paperbacks) for iloogical resons like that. I agree with you that the next generation, who grew up using technology for everything, will surely think different. But my generation will be here for quite a while yet, and our buying preferences will govern the industry for a few years to come, methinks (oh I love that word).

  28. Very interesting analysis. I'd have to say that I agree. Paperbacks are often last-minute, impulse buys, as in oh-I'm-bored-lets-find-a-book and ebooks are obviously really easy to buy when you're waiting at the doctors office or forgot to pick something up for the flight. A lot of people are more careful with their hardback choices, because they're more expensive, built to last, and will probably join some kind of collection instead of kissed passed from friend to friend. So, I could see how many people will still want to go to a bookstore and peruse for hardbacks and to have them as a physical copy.

  29. Thanks, Doug, for pointing out the flaw in all the "marketplace will decide" talk when so much control is exercized by a small number of actors. People tend to forget (conveniently?) that the economy doesn't care whether people planning it out call themselves "government" or not. A command dynamic is a command dynamic.

    Also, to all those pointing to the different ways we treat paperbacks and ereaders, let me introduce you to my iPod. Not only is in encased in leather padding, but it's battered to the point of needing replaced because I take it to the beach, throw it into rucksacks, etc.

    With new versions of the iPod coming out almost monthly, it's natural to consider them quasi-disposable. In fact, my oldest paperbacks are several times older than my current iPod. I suspect the same attitude will be applied to ereaders once the prices come down far enough.

    And, I give it to next summer before we start seeing washable ereader slipcovers that keep them clean of sand, water, food, and sunblock.