The Rise and Fall of the Mass Market Paperback – Part 2

Efficiency Strikes the Distribution Business

While the mass market book book business appeared to be healthy, in the early 1990s the infrastructure of paperback book distribution was undergoing significant changes. The dramatic rise and expansion of bookstore chains like Barnes & Noble siphoned business away from wholesalers’ franchises, both in cities and suburban malls. Computerized sales information enabled publishers, wholesalers and retailers to better track the performance of categories and identify winners and losers among specific books and authors. And the stunning advent of leveraged the awesome power of the Internet to link supply and demand.

Assessing these patterns, paperback distributors began asking themselves why they needed to employ human labor when they could more efficiently and economically service bookstores and other outlets by shipping books directly to the retailers. Yes, it would mean that the human element — the guy in the station wagon who knew which towns loved historical romances and which preferred contemporary ones, which adored westerns and which were big on science fiction – would be removed from the equation. But — well, that was progress!

The big agencies pulled the plug in that summer of 1996 when whole fleets of drivers were discharged, and in the following years the wholesale distribution workforce was reduced to a fraction of what it had been in its heyday.

The Bottom Drops Out

Most publishing executives were slow to recognize the implications of the nosedive in the wholesale paperback distribution business, dismissing it as one of those occasional and inevitable shifts to which the industry had always adapted. What was the big deal? Fewer romances and other genre novels would be published, wasn’t that all there was to it?

In fact, the consequences were nothing short of calamitous. The impact was felt in every sector of the publishing business, from what got written to what got published to what got read. It wasn’t long before customers in west Texas or Nebraska or South Carolina discovered that many books by their favorite authors were no longer being stocked in their local stores. When customers or store owners complained, they were told to take it up with the distributor – in Vancouver or some other far-flung location reachable only by an 800 phone number.

The Rise of the Airport Model

A key result of the shift in distribution patterns was the streamlining of the way retailers ordered books from publishers. Why pick and choose among thousands of titles that might sell only a handful of copies? Wasn’t it better to follow the formula that worked so well at airports, ordering only the top fifteen or twenty bestselling books by branded authors like Nora Roberts, Robert Ludlum, John Grisham and Stephen King?

As paperback publishers awoke to the new buying patterns, they were forced to choose between star authors and those whose sales performance fell below a minimum level. At first the triaging was restricted to marginal genres like westerns, but as the last decade of the twentieth century progressed the definition of “marginal” broadened to embrace every category of book that fell below an ever-stricter definition of commerciality, a process akin to the lowering of the bar in a limbo dance. Limbo indeed: authors who had made a living for years from sales of ten or fifteen thousand copies of their paperbacks were now being dropped by their publishers as the minimum sales quota increased to twenty or thirty thousand copies or more.

Like the men and women who distributed their books, a lot of authors were thrown out of work, and the grim truth finally dawned on publishing executives. It wasn’t just genre titles that were affected by the seismic shift in book distribution; paperbacks of every kind were being hit by the pullback.

“What’s the Author’s Platform?”

As the publishing industry entered the twenty-first century, book industry executives began requiring editors to produce elaborate profit and loss projections and other corporate-style analyses of the potential viability of books and authors. What was the sales performance of previous books? Did they “sell through” satisfactorily or did returns cross the threshold of unprofitability according to the latest formulas devised by bookstore chain number-crunchers? The mantra of “The Bottom Line” was invoked ad nauseam at every editorial committee, and editors were constantly reminded, “We can only afford to publish hits. If you can’t project a big profit on a book, turn it down.”

Editorial financial projections were aided by an Orwellian innovation called BookScan, instituted early in 2001 by Nielsen Broadcast Data Systems, the world’s leading provider of airplay tracking information for the entertainment industry. BookScan offered subscribing publishers weekly analyses of sales by most major book retailers. Within moments, editors could access vital sales statistics on previously published books and authors, elevating performance parameters over traditional but less quantifiable values like compelling storytelling or stirring prose.

And what about the author? Was he or she attractive and mediagenic? Did he or she have a “platform” – an organizational base such as a hit television series or chain of fitness centers capable of promoting the sale of books? Was the author willing to buy large quantities of books for giveaway or resale by his or her franchise?

More and more, the importance of traditional literary criteria has taken a back seat to “The Numbers” and “The Platform.” Promising but modestly successful novelists have discovered they cannot get their second or third books published, and aspiring newcomers find that they cannot sell their books at all. As for nonfiction, no matter how compelling a memoir or business guide or social commentary might be, publishers are disposed to reject it because the author was not “branded.”

Faced with these grim options, authors have resorted to increasingly frenzied measures to get published. Established novelists are writing under pennames to disguise the poor performance of their earlier books, or strive to produce blockbuster “breakout” novels long on sex, violence, and plot but short on craft and characterization. Without supportive publishers to carry them while they developed their talents over four or five books, new novelists resort to gimmicky concepts with “log lines” that can be pitched like movie scripts. Nonfiction authors plump up their credentials or hire public relations specialists to burnish their images and enhance their media exposure. Others subsidize the purchase of large quantities of their own books to drive up their “numbers.” Literary agents are besieged by writers frantically seeking the advantage of representation by successful dealmakers. Self-publication has soared now that electronic and print technology and Internet promotion have brought the costs of vanity books down to proletarian levels.

As much as authors would dearly love to bring back the robust mass-market paperback era, it’s no likelier than a return to steam locomotives. More and more, the mass-market paperback is becoming a manifestation of blockbuster publishing, where economies of scale enable publishers to make a profit on immense shipments despite high returns. Because retail sales have shifted from racks to bookstores and the Internet, new and midlist works are increasingly being released in trade paperback.

The shift to trade paperbacks may help save midlist books. A major advantage of the trade paperback format is that it is the preferred size for print on demand reprints. “POD” takes all the guesswork out of bookselling, and the publishing industry can no longer afford to guess who will buy its products. Dismaying though it may be for old publishing hands to contemplate, the future of book distribution belongs to print on demand.

The end of the old mass-market paperback distribution system coincided with the birth of a new method of delivering books to readers. Though e-book technology has encountered innumerable obstacles, its potential to reach a vast readership is no longer seriously disputed. What sort of literature this new medium produces, and how it will make money for authors and publishers, are fascinating sources for speculation. And speculate we shall continue to do as the 21st century unfolds with its technological wonders and fascinating business model.


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