Thursday, January 27, 2005

The end of paperbacks?

It's hard to imagine a world without paperback books. Then again, twenty years ago it was hard to imagine a world without typewriters, yet how many of today's kids have ever seen a Smith-Corona or know what a platen is? Things change - even in the publishing business, which is notoriously resistant to institutional changes of all kinds.

What's changing now is the paperback end of the industry. To be blunt, mass-market paperbacks - the pocket-size editions sold for anywhere from $6 to $8.50 - are gradually becoming extinct.

You might not know this if you limit your book-buying excursions to your local Barnes & Noble superstore, where you will still find row after row of mass-market paperbacks. Trouble is, the majority of paperbacks have always been sold in venues outside book stores. Most paperbacks are sold in places like supermarkets, pharmacies, and newsstands. The folks who deliver books to those outlets are the same folks who deliver magazines. They are called "jobbers" or, in fancier language, "independent distributors."

And today the independent distribution network is collapsing.

It's a slow-motion collapse which has been going on for seven or eight years. A trenchant summary of the problem from an insider's perspective can be read here: Backspace - The Writer's Place .

But you don't need to know all the inside details to see what's happening. Just pay a visit to your local Safeway or Walgreen's. Where once there might have been fifty or a hundred different titles on display in the paperback section, now there are probably only a dozen or so. And those dozen are almost all Big Names - "brand name" authors - Stephen King, Dean Koontz, James Patterson, Tom Clancy, Patricia Cornwell, Nora Roberts, etc. Lesser known authors are represented sparingly, if at all.

The reason? As the number of independent distributors dropped from 600 to six, the remaining companies chose to concentrate on only the top titles and top authors. The result is less of a choice for the consumer and less of a chance for the up-and-coming writer.

The situation has been getting worse for a while, and is now reaching the critical stage. Unless some way is found to revive the distribution network, there simply will not be any profit in publishing the average mass-market paperback. Which means that such paperbacks, increasingly, will not be published.

In five years, could we face the prospect of a book business in which paperbacks are a rarity? In which only the Kings and Koontzes of the world get into softcover, and the rest of us poor scriveners don't? If so, then a midlist writer's only hope will be a hardcover deal - and hardcover deals aren't easy to get.

How many writers will be put out business and out of print if this trend continues? I don't want to think about it. Unfortunately, I guess I have to.


Anonymous Rob said...

With todays demand on the bottom line, this is not a surprise. It is very sad though. I recall the days I could go anywhere and see a nice handfull of books to choose from. That is clearly lacking today. I typically read two books a week, mostly Mystery / Thriller. I read most of the top 15 already, so it is getting harder and harder to find something else. I hope something happens to reverse this trend.

February 15, 2005 7:33 PM  
Blogger Jeff Perren said...

As an aspiring novelist, this is one of the scarier things I've read recently.

Guess I'd better make the current effort so damned good as to be irresistable.


March 31, 2005 11:15 AM  
Blogger Michael Prescott said...

It's getting tougher to break into the business, but there will always be opportunities. After all, new books have to come from somewhere, and they can't all be written by James Patterson - though sometimes it seems that way.

April 01, 2005 2:34 PM  

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