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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 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.

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