Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Death of (Another) Format (Rerun)

One more rerun from the PMN vaults. Enjoy!

Episode: "The Death of (Another) Format"
Originally aired: Monday, August 9th, 2010

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. I'd guess MMPBs will survive for quite some time, because of something you mention but don't really address.
    MMPBs are cheap.
    E-books may also be cheap, but e-readers are not.
    Switching to e-books doesn't make economic sense unless you are spending a lot of money on books every year. Which a lot of MMPB readers don't. (And then you have to factor in the reluctance to incur a large up-front cost that will probably save you money 2/3 years down the line)

    (I know, you predict that e-readers will get cheaper eventually, but don't you think that this will lead to the death of almost all paper formats? So why call out this one?)

    Incidentally, have the sales of large-print books fallen off a cliff post-Kindle?

  2. I wouldn't discount airport sales and the like. Sure, frequent travelers will have their e-readers on them and bypass the airport bookstore, but what about the occasional fliers who find themselves stranded and bored between TSA gate rapists?

    I think there's a market for physical books for anyone who's in an isolated, closed environment, particularly an environment of scarcity, such as military personnel (esp. those deployed overseas), prison inmates, schoolchildren, etc. The cheap, low-tech, disposable paperback that can be traded amongst one's peers is still highly popular in these milieus.


    Just to put some numbers behind my post. Of the 92% of US adults who do not use an electronic reading device of any kind, less than 20% read more than 20 books per year. A Kindle is $140, so for most people e-reading is more expensive than paper-reading, for the first year at least.

  4. Well, you're full of good news, aren't we, Mr. Doomsday? Yesterday between flights I picked up a 50% off paperback, read it quickly and didn't mind leaving it behind for someone else. Wouldn't and couldn't do that with a e-book reader, now could I? I predict that paperbacks will continue to be around for longer than one might predict. P.S. My books are e-books too and yes, they are selling quicker than the paperbacks. Most be all those travelers.

  5. And...cut. That's a wrap.

    I couldn't agree more.

  6. Books are out, but stories and language are here to stay. That's what matters, in my Grand Opinion.

  7. You don't see a reason why people would go for a print book over an ebook? That feels so odd. For the same reason you go for the ebook over the print: they enjoy it more.

    Maybe a new generation is being created where electronic reading becomes so commonplace that our retinas and brains have readjusted, and all the dinosaurs have died, but in the meantime, I suspect lots of people will continue reading on paper because they like reading on paper. They like holding a book. Their brain is organized spatially, not electronically, and so, for instance, when they want to go back in a book, they want to actually go back, by turning pages.

    There may also be additional reasons people will continue with print, at least in the mid-term, such as a desire not to add to the demand for devices that use heavy metals and other toxic substances in their production, or the burgeoning ewaste issue that the US rarely talks about because it doesn't affect the US.

    Other than that, in the end, who cares how someone else reads? The fact that people are reading matters. Story matters.

  8. I held a nook the other day and was amazed at how HEAVY it was. A paperback weighs much less (I think a hardcover might weigh less, too). I'll stick with the paperback.

  9. 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.

    Genre readers like having bookshelves full of books, like having them signed, and like physically perusing a library rather than flipping through a list of titles on a screen just as much as literary readers do. Mass market paperbacks don't just sell well because they're cheap, lightweight, and don't take up a lot of space; they sell well because in much of genre fiction, unless an author is a very, very Big Name, that's the only print format a book is available in. As long as there are fans of this type of fiction - fiction which, I need not remind you, makes the most money for publishers, despite having a low price-point - and as long as it's packaged in mass market paperbacks, they will sell.

    And it's not the either-or situation you're making it out to be. If you actually interacted with genre readers, you'd know that many of the ones who generally use an e-reader will still buy a mass market copy of a book they really like or one that's by a favourite author.

  10. I don't predict the end of paperbacks for a few reasons.
    1) When I travel, I'm more likely to lose things. Losing a Kindle would be expensive, so I think many people may stick with paperbacks when traveling.
    2) Students often mark up their books. Although I expect e-readers to offer features, I expect writing in the book to remain popular.
    3) A Kindle won't fit in my back pocket, which is a handy advantage to a paperback.
    4) If I'm going to the beach, I'd worry about sand in my Kindle.
    I think paperbacks may last longer than you suggest.

  11. Sales of the mass market paperback are way down this year.

    Some reasons the MM paperback is doomed.

    1) The number one genre is MM sales is the romance novel, a genre that has embraced and gotten in bed with the e-book.

    2) E-readers are FREE. If you can read me now, you have an e-reader. A recent study claimed over 60% of e-books read were read by people who have not bought an e-reader.

    3) E-books offer the price break and the book when it is new. MM paperback you have to wait for the hardcover to stop selling.

    4) Those who love the print format for looks, smell, the cover's color matches the couch, etc will buy hardcovers.

    Finally a question for Eric our leader. Will the e-reader make the audio format more popular?

  12. There are a couple of reasons why I don't think readers will be the ones to kill of mass paperbacks. E-readers hurt some people's eyes. They just can't read on the screen for that long. Also, some people just aren't going to be a big fan of e-readers. I could get one but I haven't gotten one because I just prefer solid copies just as some people prefer e-readers. Neither side are wrong or right.

    I mean, if I get an e-reader copy of an Enyd Blyton book, I can only read it / access it for so long as the software / hardware doesn't out-pace it. If my e-reader is made obsolete, what happens to my library? True, it'll likely last ten or so years, but I like the idea of having my fave books close to hand in forty years time. I don't always have the money or inclination to buy it in hard copy even though I want to keep it around.

    But that's just my personal views and I might just end up in the wailing minority. It'd also be a crying shame because it'd spell the end of libraries.