The Rise and Fall of the Mass Market Paperback – Part 1

For many publishing people, the world as they had known it ended in the summer of 1996. On a warm brilliant day I sat down at a table in a Spanish restaurant for what I thought would be a typical lunch with the publisher of a mass-market paperback company. I found him slumped head in hands over a seriously stiff drink. “What’s the matter?”

He looked up, miserable. “You haven’t heard? The wholesale independent distribution business is imploding. Hundreds and hundreds of drivers have been let go.”

I groaned, beckoned to the waiter and pointed to my friend’s glass. “I’ll have the same.”
The collapse of the distribution system that fueled the mass-market paperback revolution was a trauma from which the book industry has not recovered to this day. To appreciate its impact requires a brief description of the way books were distributed after the post-World War II paperback revolution that swept the U.S. publishing industry.

By long tradition, trade or general interest hardcover books have been offered to bookstore buyers by publishers’ sales representatives. The store buyers select which titles they order and the number of copies they will stock in their stores. Though released year-round, hardcovers are offered on a seasonal basis in publishers’ catalogues, which are issued several times annually. Whatever the reality may be, the theory is that they will have a decent shelf life and, if popular, remain on display for months or longer. This business model has not changed fundamentally from the last century to the present time.

Mass-market paperbacks (as opposed to the larger trade paperback format) are a very different matter. Introduced in 1939, “pocket books” took hold in the ‘50s and ‘60s, but publishers soon realized that the hardcover distribution approach didn’t work. They needed a different sales model and turned to the one used for magazines.

Every month, magazines were shipped to depots – “agencies” – around the country. Drivers picked up the magazines at the agencies and visited stores on pre-assigned routes in towns and cities. Most of the stores were not bookshops but rather supermarkets, candy stores, newspaper stands, and bus, train or airport terminals. Each month, these salaried employees collected the previous month’s unsold publications and replaced them on the store’s racks and shelves with new stock.

To paperback book publishers, this existing distribution network was the perfect vehicle for delivering their product to a far-flung readership. Thus it came to pass that paperbacks began hitching rides with magazines. And that too is how they came to be released on a monthly schedule. After 1956, when the leading magazine wholesaler went out of business, a number of entrepreneurs set up shop as independent wholesale distributors (“ID’s” or “rack jobbers”), handling mostly books.

Because they were a monthly phenomenon, paperbacks did not enjoy a long shelf life; the exigencies of returning paperbacks, when the distributor cleared the racks to make room for the next month’s releases, made for an ephemeral existence. What is more, the unsold copies were usually not redistributed or remaindered. Because paperback publishers had to pay freight for returned copies, many of which were dirty or damaged, the stores found it more efficient simply to strip the covers off the unsold books, send the insides to be pulped, and return only the covers to the publishers for credit when settling accounts.

Since paperbacks were returnable, distributors delayed paying publishers until unsold stock was returned. To account to authors for the gap between copies sold and royalties released, the paperback publishers took a page from the creative accounting systems devised by the hardcover industry, holding large amounts of royalties for long periods until returns were finalized. Royalty reports to authors were deliberately fashioned to omit information about the number of copies printed, shipped, and returned, or about the amounts of royalty reserved pending finalization of returns. This suppressing of vital sales data gave publishers carte blanche to retain royalties that might have been remitted to authors. Some publishers got too creative and held royalties forever. Until the 1990s, when pressure from agents and from writers’ organizations forced publishers to reveal significant details, mass-market houses reported only net sales with no information as to how they arrived at those net figures. As I wrote at the time, it was like reporting batting averages to baseball fans without revealing how many at-bats or hits the players had had.

The Paperback Industry Blossoms

Unlike retailers of hardcover books, paperback booksellers seldom had much say over which titles were stocked on their racks. They passively received the current month’s selection and passively watched the unsold stock loaded into the distributor’s vehicle a month later. The authors of those books watched the process too, but some of them figured out ways to influence the wholesalers to promote their books. A number of leading authors, on their own initiative or sponsored by their publishers, began visiting the wholesale agencies and pitching their books at executives and ingratiating themselves with the jobbers. Some of the more energetic writers went so far as to drop in on drivers as they loaded their vehicles, bringing coffee and donuts and promotional material to inspire them. This technique was particularly successful with romance fiction, which sold most abundantly in the supermarkets that women visited two or three times every week. It did not hurt if the authors were attractive. Many a lovestruck driver stocked extra copies of a title after a pretty novelist shared a pre-dawn breakfast with him on the tailgate of his station wagon.

Although a growing number of traditional bookstores stocked mass-market paperbacks, it was the wholesale distribution network that fueled the huge growth of the book business in the last quarter of the twentieth century, spawning a thriving industry and a generation of bestselling authors. Even when those authors graduated to hardbacks, paperback reprints of their books drove sales overall. In the late 1980s and early ‘90s, mass-market paperback revenue made the difference between feast and famine for hardcover publishers. Income from romance fiction alone contributed 25% of the cash flowing into the trade book industry.

Smart publishing executives recognized how heavily they depended on mass-market income for their profits. But that message did not always filter down to their editors. Many of them, possessing only a hazy idea of where the money for their acquisitions came from, spent profligately and ended up taking a bath on books and authors that flopped miserably. Or they simply acquired whatever they pleased without giving much thought to the bottom line, failing to realize that they were indulging in a luxury largely subsidized by paperback book revenue. Many lived in denial that their beloved first novels, short story collections, poetry anthologies and other elevated forms of literary endeavor were financed by romances, westerns, thrillers, horror novels and space operas.

In the concluding installment, you’ll read how efficiency came to the paperback distribution business. It was not an entirely welcome guest.

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