The New York Times has an interesting article on the decline in sales and marketing of the mass-market paperback. The industry experts in the article attribute the largest cause to the recession and e-readers and the release of hardcover titles as reduced price e-books faster than the release of the paperback. They also implicate the discounting of hardcover titles by chain, and now independent, booksellers.

All of these are certainly contributing factors, not the least of which is the recession and the increasing loss of the middle-class and its discretionary income. Add to this the decline in readership period and its clear that the mass-market paperback is becoming less profitable and therefore less viable.

But I think the article misses two key factors:

  1. the price of mass-market paperbacks and
  2. the quality of popular fiction today

First, let’s talk price. We have thousands of paperbacks in our personal library at my house. My husband has an entire shelf of the old Ace Doubles which offered not one, but two novels for 60¢ (the one I randomly grabbed included Star Quest by Dean R. Koontz). Granted they’re from the 60’s and early 70’s, but the point is that the price was affordable for a quick impulse purchase.

Today, it’s hard to find a mass-market paperback novel for under US$7.00 and many come in at US$9.00 with the occasional US$9.99. In this economy, paperbacks are no longer impulse purchases — particularly when you consider the quality of recent releases by even bestselling authors.

If I’m asked to pay US$7-9.00 for a paperback, I expect at least some basic editing and something that doesn’t appear to be first draft. Forget the recent release by a bestselling author who spent the entire first chapter connecting the central character’s love of chocolate to the title of the novel and then never mentioned chocolate (or the title theme) again in complete violation of Chekov’s dictum (“If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.”). How about the bestselling, award-winning mystery writer who had the lead character explain the same information four times in the first 30 pages, not because it was important to the story but because she hadn’t bothered to fix her manuscript so it wasn’t necessary?

I stopped reading that book when the author had a character begin two out of the three sentences with “now” in the same dialog — and no one caught it before publication! No one caught the name change of a character either. Not the author, not the editor, not even the first reader. As far as I could tell this manuscript went straight from typing to print with no one reading it.

The connection between price and quality is the part that everyone is missing in the discussion.

I no longer try new authors at full price. I use my library and the used bookstores. These days I often check out bestselling authors and award-winners at the library before purchasing a hardcover. I used to regularly collect the hardcover editions of authors I enjoyed, but I can no longer rely on many of them to continue to produce quality work.  And I’m not even talking about the ones who have become hack shops hiring less successful or new writers to write the manuscripts based on a story the bestselling author supposedly developed.

I’m not the only reader that is buying her mass-market paperbacks used because she feels the quality doesn’t match the price. The same story is being told in discussions with readers and booksellers online and in person.

And this reluctance to pay more than US$5.00 for even “proven” authors extends to e-books. For one thing, I know the production costs are considerably lower and for another, the quality is still uncertain. This is why so many successful self-published authors, like Amanda Hocking, price their first titles so low; it encourages impulse buying to try the author. As consulting editor, Alan Rinzler, pointed out in a panel discussion in February, 2011, Hocking “…had the quality. She knew her audience and she knew to write well for them.”

Will readers pay for good writing? Absolutely! Subterranean Press charges premium prices for their limited edition, hardcover releases and often sell out of popular, dependably excellent work by authors like Connie Willis. I still purchase anything new by Alan Lightman or Mark Salzman or Terry Pratchett or Connie Willis or any number of dependably fine authors in whatever format and price. The thing these authors have in common is that every book is the best they can make it. The books may not all be perfect, but I never have to worry that I’ll feel I’m reading a first draft or that they lack respect for their readers.

As writers we should take our cue not from publishers who knock out titles like so many boxes of breakfast cereal or bottles of energy drinks, but from authors who take the time to edit and revise until the story is the best it can be. 

Now that I’ll buy!

So what’s your opinion? Are you still buying mass market paperbacks as impulse purchases? Do you have a story about an egregious example of sloppy writing that made it into print? Share your thoughts in the comments below.


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