Mass Market Paperbacks – The Death Spiral

The other day I got a striking reminder that the distribution of mass market paperback books, at least in the fantasy and science fiction field, is getting close to a death spiral (perhaps I’m exaggerating, but the situation isn’t good for lovers of the mass market paperback).

I was contacted by an independent book store that informed me that one of the mass-market paperbacks in the Imager Portfolio was being listed as indefinitely out of print. When I contacted Tor, I learned that the paperback in question wasn’t selling all that well. That struck me as rather odd, because I was under the impression that the Imager books were all selling nicely. Well… I obviously hadn’t looked closely enough at my royalty statements. The book in question has been selling quite nicely. It sold well in hardcover and e-book, and sold well – initially – in mass market, but in the last two years, it’s tanked in mass market, although e-book sales remain strong.

I wanted to know why paperback sales had dropped. So I asked. The reason given by Tor was that, while mass market paperbacks still sell well in independent bookstores, that’s because they’re more frequently carried as back stock by independent bookstores, while Barnes & Noble, the largest brick and mortar outlet for physical books, has been cutting back on carrying back stock paperbacks that aren’t selling extremely quickly.

Without the demand by B&N, the publishers can’t afford to reprint backlist titles nearly so often, since there are so few independent bookstores that have large stocks of fantasy and science fiction, and the publishers can’t afford to keep large inventories because of the federal tax laws under the Thor Power Tool precedent. As explained here: Thor Decision

But… if the titles aren’t on the shelves, that reduces the demand, which means that fewer backlist mass market paperbacks get reprinted, which in turn reduces demand, and readers either order the e-book or move on to another author or series that is available.

So if you can’t find as many mass market paperbacks by your favorite author, all that just might be why.

16 thoughts on “Mass Market Paperbacks – The Death Spiral”

  1. JM says:

    My generation is certainly not helping.

    I once asked my roommate if he considers himself an avid reader. He imedatly said yes.
    I then asked him how many books he had read in the past year. He thought about it for several seconds and then replied “one”.

    One book a year… I manage a novel per week despite college and fraternity…

  2. R. Hamilton says:

    I’ve switched to buying ebooks wherever possible, for lack of space, and because I can carry hundreds with me as easily as one.

  3. Tim says:

    Like R.Hamilton I have done the same, except for scientific journals where the pain of using diagrams in an ebook keeps me firmly with paper.

  4. AO says:

    It seems to me timely that you’re bringing up Mass Market Paperback’s, as I’m really struggling with them in general, and especially so in regards to your works. I’m caught up with The Imager Portfolio (all in HC though), but am late to everything else.

    I only want brand new print copies, and at B&N pretty much everything is previously read and/or beat up. There are 2 recent Recluce books and Solar Express (which I missed purchasing due to life), carried at both of my nearest branches, that I’d *love* to buy, but won’t because of their condition. I’ve pretty much given up ordering from B&N online because everything from them arrives damaged.

    Amazon’s little better though. If I can get my books shipped in a box then *usually* they’re in good, or good enough, condition. But Amazon seems to love to break up orders into smaller shipments which are sent in soft envelopes, no matter what the customers preferences or pleas are. For example, I pre-ordered the recent Legacies: Corean novel (since I saw no sign of B&N carrying it). It was sent from South Carolina to Los Angeles, CA in a soft envelope, and that showed. I asked for an exchange, and the result was the same, with both copies banged up, scuffed, and folded. I don’t need my copies pristine, but this was painful. And it’s much the same with Recluce, but of course many of those seem oop.

    I can understand people giving up, or moving on. I’m trying so hard not to, but it sometimes seems impossible to buy new paperbacks or mmpbs, unless I’m at the B&N on Day 1 (which can vary wildly, as B&N can put new books out up to a week before release day, or as long as 4-5 days later).

    I wish so much that there was a professional seller that could offer New books in New condition.

    1. Lydia C says:

      You might be better off buying second hand in pristine condition. Look at the other sellers on Amazon and Abebooks for this. Unused in excellent condition do get sold and you can have a dialog with the seller to ensure the shipping is to your satisfaction.

      1. AO says:

        Lydia C — Thanks for the reply. I have dealt somewhat with marketplace and resellers too, but often with bad luck. Not always, but the few great ones seem to never have more than 1 title I’m interested in, so that I can’t support them. I’m still trying (I actually have a copy of The Chaos Balance arriving tomorrow), but the whole situation seems depressing as heck.

        I really appreciate the reply though, and your attempt to help. Thanks again.

  5. If Tor has put the paperback “out of print” then they should revert the right to you, the author. For just a little investment ($100 or so) you could have the book laid out in the trade paperback format and put it for sale through Createspace (no upfront investment) or Lightning Source (I think a $75 setup fee). The books would be available for bookstores to purchase, although the bulk of the sales will come from online outlets like Amazon and B&N.com. If they won’t revert the paperback right – then put their feet to the fire and insist that they produce a print-on-demand version.

    1. A print-on-demand version is available.

  6. John Prigent says:

    I’m one who doesn’t buy paperbacks any longer. For my very favourite authors I buy hardcover, for all the others I buy ebooks. That’s partly because I’ve run out of shelf space, but more because I don’t want to wait for perhaps as long as a year for the paperback edition when the ebook is out at the same time as the hardcover.

  7. Tim says:

    My book shelves are actually emptying as I get rid of them or replace them with ebooks. I started this process years back after witnessing what happened to two book collections after their owners died.

    If no willing homes could be found quickly and easily when the house was cleared, they went to charity, were dumped or burned.

    Most ebooks are locked to your user account, so anyone else using this after your death is technically stealing your identity and so liable to prosecution. (If this received advice is wrong I would like to know)

    When I go, I shall be interred metaphorically with all my ebooks around me.

    1. Alan Naylor says:

      For what it’s worth, Tim, there are several states which have digital rights laws that cover your digital possessions after death. Basically it stipulates that your will can pass video game accounts, software, basically any digital media you want, on to some one else just like you could a car or table.

      However, and this is the big caveat, many digital media companies do not actually sell you a copy of the digital media. The end user agreement you click ‘I agree’ on (typically after simply scrolling past the legalese as quick as possible without reading) stipulates that what you have is not a copy of very own to possess in perpetuity. No, you are actually licensing it for personal use, meaning that you cannot pass that digital media on to some one else without being in violation of the EULA you agreed to in order use the software or read that book. The other method a lot of people have media stored, cloud storage, is just as vulnerable to being held out of reach of beneficiaries, because even if you deed your account over your heirs may not be able to access the information held by third parties due to third party agreements. Lastly is streamed media, quite common, in which people don’t even have a digital copy to hold on to, obviously it’s hard to get ahold of this!

      One way around this thorny issue is to purchase everything through a trust which is available to anyone whom you feel is deserving. Ideally this should not be necessary in the modern age. I personally believe that EULAs will come under fire and be forced to change soon. With more and more people amassing truly staggering digital footprints of software, media presence, books, movies and music in digital formats this is starting to become a significant asset which is worth quite a bit for inheritance purposes. Once the federal government weighs in I suspect EULA will be changed to allow for the inheritance of digital media exactly the same as inheritance of physical items.

      1. Alan Naylor says:

        P.S. There are a number of programs to strip DRM out. I personally don’t purchase any digital media which has DRM and I don’t purchase cloud based or streamed media. I feel that there is value lost if I don’t have my very own copy to cuddle to my greedy little heart. Hence, no locked Kindle accounts, Nook books, etc to worry about when I kick off. My favorite grandchild can have the whole mass of bites. At current count it’s over 3k books and another 2k in movies, and always growing!

        1. Tim says:

          Thanks Alan. That was useful.

          I have bought ebooks in mobi format in the past which are not DRM-locked, but getting them to the right place for viewing was not straightforward. Purchasing using the Kindle store is pretty seamless and that of course is what it is supposed to be.

          I was surprised I could not find inheritance issue anywhere in tne media (from my admittedly limited searching). Maybe people dying currently do not have extensive digital media collections.

          On music I now rarely buy CDs but use a streaming service. My son has sold all his CDs (for a pittance) as he now solely uses streaming. We are becoming increasingly dependent on a working broadband it seems.

  8. Dan Cody says:

    This is terrible news, I’m just like the guy who was saying he loves the mmpb, I as well like a pristine copy and have been finding it harder and harder to find nice ones. I couldn’t find the 2 newest Recluse books at the 3 barnes and nobles I looked in. Now I know why it seems 🙁

  9. Steve says:

    I have to admit, I’m in the hardcover + ebook camp too now… but I’m happier with an ebook file than a paperback in two ways… it’s kept pristine, unlike paperbacks with cheap glue that fall apart, and if you find an author you love long after his peak, it’s WAY easier to find an ebook than a paperback, let alone hardcover. I wouldn’t be surprised if the industry eventually gets rid of the paperback and goes back to the model of the …. I think it was the fantasy and sci-fi book club, which would reprint authors series as a single large hardcover… I have a number of those and love them… and for everyone else, ebook, which costs them nothing to publish.

  10. Lars ÅkeFrykholm says:

    When I have a book in massmarket or iBook
    I read the e book. Don’t really know why.

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