Mass-Market Paperbacks and Auctorial Legacies

Today’s New York Times reports on the emerging trend of mass market paperbacks being published in larger type. Much of this has been effected to placate the declining eyesight of baby boomers. The new mass market books, being larger in size, have also seen their prices go up a few bucks to $9.99. Discount retailers (read: Wal-Mart) have, of course, complained. Additionally, the Times article reports that some have complained about how unwieldy the larger size books are.

But the Times fails to consider the larger issue here: With this new larger-print format, will we begin seeing books over a certain length denied this sizable consumer base? If the high watermark was once set at 300 pages, will this be reduced to 200 or so because of prohibitive costs? In other words, does this close the door on ambitious novelists finding an audience through airport bookracks?

Granted, mass market paperbacks aren’t really a sanctuary for literary titles. But they can be an effective format for allowing a midlist author to become more of a household name. (Regrettably, it is usually the likes of John Grisham and James Patterson that succeed along these lines.)

Or is this perhaps a disingenuous way to squeeze out the mass-market paperback and turn the trade paperback into the paperback format of choice? After all with only about a $5 difference between the mass-market paperback and the trade paperback, the reader voracious for an author’s latest is more likely to pony up the dough early if the print remains comparable and the trade paperback’s size is more managable than the mass-market paperback.

If that’s the case, then I’d like to see publishers be honest about the situation. Like most readers, I often like to put a book in a coat pocket, particularly if it’s the only item in my possession. Unfortunately, with some trade paperbacks, this is damn near impossible and results in the book’s ends being curved so the book will fit into the pocket, resulting in a battered and dog-earred copy that quickly falls apart. That’s probably the basic idea. But if these paperbacks are doomed to fall apart, with the original trade paperback concept becoming more accepted, I’m wondering if this dwindling durability will restrict such authors as Sam Lipsyte and David Mitchell from having their work endure for tomorrow’s literary scholars.

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