When eBooks attack, mass paperbacks die

Frank Catalano

The mass market paperback is dead. It just doesn’t know it yet.

Ailing for months, its demise is now all but assured by Amazon’s recent bold announcement. Not the over-analyzed, over-iPad-compared Kindle Fire announcement. Rather, by the far less interesting news – to the gadgetphiles – that the least expensive, wonderfully readable and portable Kindle is now $79, a price point matched over the Black Friday holiday by Barnes & Noble for its Nook Simple Touch Limited Edition.

Mass market paperbacks, unlike their larger and higher-priced trade paperback siblings, are those books often inelegantly displayed in cheap wire fixtures along the front aisles of supermarkets and convenience stores, with soft covers to be ripped off and returned for full credit if the racked “product” doesn’t sell.

The Nook Simple Touch Limited Edition.

Sales of mass market paperbacks have not exactly been healthy lately. Not only has data from the Association of American Publishers shown continued dramatic drops in monthly sales, but numbers from Nielsen BookScan for the first half of 2011 reveal unit – not dollar – sales of mass market paperbacks fell 26.6% compared to the same period a year earlier. That, when BookScan notes overall sales of paper books dropped a not-insignificant 10.2%.

It is, as Publishers Weekly reported, especially devastating to genres that largely depend on the palm-sized, 4”x7” printed mass format: romance, mystery and science fiction/fantasy. BookScan’s stats state that unit sales of adult fiction dropped almost in lockstep, by 25.7%.

Not surprisingly, a large part of the reason (alongside the loss of retail shelf space and the struggling economy) is the rush to eBooks. This spring, Amazon passed a milestone. Paid sales of eBooks it offers surpassed sales of paper books, hardcover and paperback. Fiction appears to be leading the charge to digital, and it’s not as though fewer total books are being sold – a recent BookStats report, conducted jointly by the AAP and Book Industry Study Group, concludes the total number of books purchased was actually up 4.1% from 2008 to 2010.

A truly generic mass market paperback.

Even authors who once made a living off of mass market paperbacks hear the tolling bells. New York Times best-selling author Bob Mayer is something of a high priest of eBook advocacy and has created his own eBook publishing house, Who Dares Win Publishing. “I’ve never read an eBook but I make 90% of my revenue from eBooks,” he told a conference of the Northwest Independent Editors Guild in the Seattle area this summer. “When the big six (publishers) figure out the eBook is the new mass market paperback, publishing will change dramatically.”

Similarly, conference speakers from The Mountaineers Books and Allrecipes.com confirmed that genre fiction and fiction in general far outsells non-fiction in eBooks, and science-fiction and romance are digital’s bestselling genres. (Mayer and the other speakers also said the rise of eBooks has led to a huge increase of interest in, and the ability to sell, content that once would simply go out of print. But not without effort. As Mayer pointed out, “Content is king; promotion is queen.”)

Now factor in the new math. The cheapest Kindle and Nook Simple Touch were roughly $80 (pricing reinforced in ads from device resellers such as Target and Staples). A typical mass market paperback sells for $8.

For the price of ten paperback books, an avid reader can get a device that not only provides fiction at a lower per-book price than paper (once the book no longer carries the publisher’s usurious new-release premium), but also displays free classics and permits an entire library of current reading to be carried anywhere.

The original book-optimized Ikea Billy bookcase.

This isn’t just a tipping point. It’s a flipping point that can invert an industry: a sub-$100 magic consumer price point. EBook device prices have, over the months, rapidly fallen as mass market paperback prices have, over the years, slowly risen. And E Ink devices, tablet snobs aside, are perfect for portable, fast, bright-sunlight fiction consumption. Yum.

Yes, there are downsides for consumers. No books to give, dog-eared, to Friends of the Library sales. No place to put autographs (a startup is working on that). No reason to buy more bookshelves (Ikea is ahead of this trend, changing bookcase design to accommodate clutter as well as books on now-deeper shelves). No convenient tome to hurl at suddenly skittering cockroaches.

EBooks have attacked and are about to claim their first victim. Because victorious technology isn’t primarily in-your-face cool. It’s unremarkably common and cheap – and therefore devastating in its impact to everyday habits.

Frank Catalano is a consultant, author and veteran analyst of digital education and consumer technologies whose columns taking a practical nerd’s approach to tech appear regularly on GeekWire. He consults via Intrinsic Strategy and tweets @FrankCatalano. And, as a former secretary of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, he used to avidly write – and now still avidly reads on his Kindle – mass market fiction.

  • Bob Mayer

    I appreciate the mention.  Things are certainly changing quickly.

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com FrankCatalano

      Your comments at the Red Pencil in the Woods conference of the Northwest Independent Editors Guild were eye opening to many. 

      As a writer who once aspired to have a mass market paperback (and as a reader who has a number of signed first mass market paperback editions, the only kind of first edition for a lot of genre fiction), this certainly will be a reset not only for publishers and writers, but many long-time readers.

  • blog@anothergeek.biz

    Yes, but check this out:
    http://www.ebookmagazine.co.uk/digital-publisher-unveils-christmas-ebook-gift-set/20111933

    Is that going to catch on? Not a prayer.

    So, for the gift and collectors markets, e-readers have the opposite effect. They make the physical object more desirable.

    What I believe will happen is that books will first be published as short-run hardbacks (hopefully printed on better paper than they are now). These will be signed and given as presents etc.

    Then there will be a ebook that people will actually read.

    http://blog.anothergeek.biz/2009_10_01_archive.html

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com FrankCatalano

      I think you’ve neatly identified the reason I restricted my commentary to the fate of mass market paperback books: there is no uniform impact eBooks will have on all types of books regardless of format or market. Textbooks, art books, reference books – some will become eBooks, some fully multimedia interactive apps/software, some will stay physical. It’s a topic for another column.

      However, giving eBooks as a gift is a sticky wicket. It’s a problem not unlike that faced when gift cards came on the market, especially electronic gift cards. It’s good to see that publishers are experimenting with it, but it’s hard to say yet what will work.

      As to the dueling factors of piracy (digital) and used sale/library copies (paper), I didn’t directly address them because I think in many cases, it’s self-limiting, doesn’t change the trend line and, in some cases, largely affects those who would have never purchased the book anyway. But I like your take on it in the final link.

  • jh

    Another downside is it seems you do not own the book, you own a license to have the book on your e-book reader, which the company that sold you the license can take away from you as Amazon did with the _1984_ and _Animal Farm_ books.  How many times has the seller come tracking down every person thought bought an actual book?

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com FrankCatalano

      You can actually save the Kindle book files to a computer as a backup. I’ve done it, and I doubt they can be deleted from there. But it’s a concern.

      The flip side is that twice now Amazon has offered to update copies of two Kindle books I own with enhanced or corrected editions. One doesn’t get that feature with paper books, either.