When writers dream of being published, they picture their first book with a shiny hard cover. The pretty, sturdy tome that doesn’t fall apart after two readings, with beautiful covers that look fabulous on the bookshelf–face out or spine out. Hardcover authors automatically receive respect, reviews, and a larger percentage of royalties on a hefty cover price. People look at you with respect and admiration because you’re published and you have an actual hardcover real book to show for it; something that looks and feels professional and respectable.
Mass market paperbacks (MMP—also known as Paperback Originals, or PBO—I use them almost interchangeably, depending on the sentence) became popular as a commercial alternative to the hardcover in the 1930s. They’re produced more cheaply than hardcovers. The paper is of lower quality–both the pages of the book and the physical cover– and the books are “mass produced” at a lower per-unit cost, thus profit (for both the publisher and the author) is less per book—for example, roughly SIX copies of a mass market equals the royalties for ONE hardcover.
The average MMP is priced at $6.99 or $7.99. Some are lower (special releases, re-issues, special promos, Harlequin category novels); some higher (the over-sized paperback—see Sandra Brown, James Patterson, Jonathon Kellerman, etc); but the average maximum price point both MMPs coming out in 2009 and 2010 is about $7.99. Just take a look at IPDA.
In researching the history of paperbacks, I was surprised by a comment I saw on multiple websites, including Wikipedia (not the best site for research, but one that people crazily trust) which says in part:
“Paperbacks can be the preferred medium when a book is not expected to be a major seller.”
Times are a’changing. And I wonder if anyone truly knows what the market is going to look like in 5, 10, 20 years. But MMP are major sellers and a staple of the publishing industry. While hardcovers are the elite–and where the profit is–MMP are no longer the cheap dime store throwaways. (Which, BTW, are no longer cheap or throwaways, if you peruse the collector websites!)
My mother used to believe that the superior books were published in hardcover, and the inferior books in MMP. She used to buy books from the Mystery Guild, believing they were simply cheaper hardcover releases printed on inexpensive, poorly trimmed paper, not realizing that many of the books she enjoyed were originally published as MMP!
After I was published in MMP, my mom tried many other PBO authors and was surprised that they were just as good as many of her hardcovers. And as she read more hardcover authors she was surprised that some of the books were poor (in her opinion) and said to me that she didn’t understand how publishers decide who gets to be hardcover vs. MMP because some of the hardcovers are “really bad” (her words!) and some of the MMPs are “good enough for hardcover” (her words!)
Today, the decision to publish in MMP, trade paperback, or hardcover is largely an economic one—not based as much on the subjective quality of the story, but on the targeted readership. Marketing, baby. In the end, it’s all about where the money is.
Romance has historically been published in MMP, led by the boon of Harlequin who still dominates romance today. Romance readers read a lot—four, five books a week. They also are willing to try a variety of genres and more open to blended genres (i.e. romantic suspense, mysteries, thrillers, fantasy, etc. The only genre that is still very hard to break into among romance readers is science fiction, still a predominately male genre.)
When someone reads 15-20 books a month, spending $20-25 per book is almost impossible. Libraries come in handy, but romance readers also like to re-read their favorite books (something I don’t understand, as I rarely re-read books.) The $6.99-$7.99 price point is easier to swallow.
And if you agree that the quality is comparable to a hardcover, then the lower price is a time for celebration.
It used to be that hardcover authors had to sell XX books in order to get a lucrative paperback deal, which would put them in all the groceries and drug stores. It was coveted, as Stephen King notes in his book ON WRITING when he sold the paperback rights to CARRIE. This is why I don’t understand why PBO authors get dissed today.
But we do.
I have 12 published MMP novels, all of which hit the NYT list and each have spent 3-5 weeks on the USAT list. (The first three books hit the extended list.) They do pretty well, at least well enough that I was able to get another contract. Yet you won’t find them in most indie bookstores.
I’ve wondered why, and I haven’t figured out if indies don’t like my books because they are labelled “romantic suspense” or if they don’t like them because they are MMPs. I’m inclined to think that it’s a combination, though I know that some of my fellow Murderati PBO authors have had trouble finding their releases in indie stores.
I want to support Independent bookstores. I love indies. In high school, I shopped at Kepler’s in Menlo Park, and here in Sacramento I used to love Tower Books. But everytime I see a link or blog about supporting an indie, I feel a brief stab of anger. Why am I asked to support indies when they don’t stock my NYT bestselling books? Even my hometown major indie only stocks two copies of my newest release (and rarely, if ever, my backlist)—and it’s right down the street from the State Capitol where I used to work. The manager told me that he reorders when he sells a copy, but as we all know it’s the displays—the face out, the front of store placement, the handselling—that makes the difference.
The best indies, for me, are the new and used bookstores that specialize in romance and mystery titles. They stock my books, both new and used. (I have no problem with new & used bookstores, BTW, but that’s a debate for another day.)
CUTTING EDGE, my latest release, was supposed to be my first hardcover. I didn’t want it to be a hardcover—it was the last book in a trilogy—but when we went to contract in early 2008, my publisher felt it was the right time to launch me in hardcover. Fast forward six months . . .the economy crashed and burned and they felt that maybe now it wasn’t such a good time to be coming out in hardcover.
I’ll admit, though I was a teeny tiny disappoints, I was mostly relieved—primarily because I really, really, REALLY didn’t want the third book of a trilogy coming out in hardcover. I understand their reasoning (marketing, sales), but as a reader FIRST I didn’t agree. So I was fine sticking with PBO.
I do want to come out in hardcover someday, for reasons that I’ll outline below. But if I do, I want to write a series or stand alone novels—not change up the format mid-series or at the end of a trilogy. Now in my career I might have a little more say in it. But ultimately, it’ll be the call of the publisher. Because in the end, it’s about growing sales. You can say it’s about money–and obviously that’s part of it–but format is about maximizing sales.
Romance isn’t the only genre that is predominantly PBO. More and more mysteries and thrillers are being released as PBOs (either as trade paperbacks or MMP.) Jason Pinter, JT Ellison, Joseph Teller, Rick Mofina all started as PBO authors. James Swain, Robert Gregory Browne are two very talented authors I can think of who started in hardcover, but moved to PBO to find their market. And as the economy stagnates and as readers pinch pennies, the PBO format looks better and better to launch authors.
Post dime novels, and putting straight romance aside, PBOs are predominately used to build an audience to eventually launch an author into hardcover. This has been successfully done with Nora Roberts, Jayne Anne Krentz, Sandra Brown, Lisa Gardner, Tami Hoag, etc. Notice how these are romance or romantic suspense or former romantic suspense authors? Anyone jump in with non-romance writers who started as PBO in the last ten years and successfully made the leap into hardcover. As the publishing industry changes there will be more names like Rick Mofina and Jason Pinter on the “jump” list as well because in the end we all want to be in hardcover even when we’re happy with MMP.
And believe it or not, it’s not about the money. (Or, it’s not ALL about the money.)
PROS of Mass Market Originals
- Price point. Readers are more willing to give new authors a chance when they don’t have to spend a lot of money to read the book. Avid readers care about this as well. Not everyone wants to wait for a library book.
- Format. A paperback is easy to cart around and read in the doctors office, on an airplane, at your son’s football game.
- Quality. MMP are comparable in storytelling quality as hardcovers. I’d wager that the same percentage of MMP that you consider crappy you’d assign the same percentage to hardcovers.
- Audience. MMP are widely available. Because they are cheaply produced and take up less space than a comparable hardcover, they are available in groceries, drug stores, walmart, target, etc. Distribution is fantastic. You can build an audience—starting small, then moving to hardcover when you’ve reached the “magic first printing” (I’ve heard anywhere from a first printing of 400,000-600,000, but I think for comfort publishers are looking at over 500K mimimum.) The reason? You’ve built your base. And they know that you’re not going to be selling 250K in hardcover, because you’ll split your readership between your hardcore fans and those who aren’t willing to fork over $25 for 4-8 hours of entertainment.) For example, if you’re selling 250,000 units in a PBO, you’re not going to be selling 250,000 hardcovers. Probably between 50-100K is my guess, but since I have no empirical evidence.)
- Potential. If you do well in MMP, you can make a good living writing paperbacks. Advances are similar, and often higher, than many of the hardcover book deals. (For new and midlist authors at least. Big hardcover bestsellers generally make shitloads more money than most bestselling PBO authors.) Authors can “fail” in MMP with their first book or two but still rebound. It’s much harder for a hardcover author to fail and rebound, especially in this economy. It’s happened, but Robert Gottlieb, the President of Trident Media Group, once said that you get one shot at hardcover. I believe him, which is why I’m in no rush to make the jump.
- Production. It’s very easy (and relatively cheap) to go back to press. Books are stripped for credit, as opposed to being returned whole (at the publisher’s shipping cost.) A 50% sell-through for a well-distributed bestselling PBO is good; a 50% sell-through in hardcover is the kiss of death. (Let me make something clear. There is a dispute as to what a good sell-through is. Rule of thumb is 50% in MMP, but I’ve heard many authors quote their editors saying that 80% was “ok.” The bigger your print run, the closer to 50% you can get and still be considered successful. If you have an 80% sell-through in MMP, your publisher didn’t print enough books.)
- Print Runs. Publishers are often more willing to push a MMP with a greater print run because the per unit cost is so much less. If it flops, they don’t lose as much as if a big hardcover flops. They’re more willing to take risks because the investment is less.
CONS of Mass Market Originals
- Reviews. Don’t expect to get many (if any), and don’t expect to get noticed by newspapers and industry publications. When PW reviews dozens and dozens of hardcovers and trade paperbacks and only 4 MMP per issue—and I’d wager that the number of MMPs released is 2-3 times greater each month than hardcovers and trade combined—there is definitely a bias against the MMP format, at least for review space. And as more review space is cut in print media, it’s the MMPs that will be axed first.
- Respect. Like writing romance to many genre writers, or commercial fiction to many literary fiction authors, PBO authors are often snubbed by the industry or fellow authors. I think this is getting better over the last few years as more authors who are not writing romance are bring published as PBO, but there’s still this perception that lesser quality books are published in MMP. This is an extremely hard perception to break. (Tess Gerritsen has blogged about this, having done both–write romantic suspenseand be a PBO author, before writing hardcover crime fiction. In an interview with THE DARK SCRIBE in October of 2008 after THE KEEPSAKE–great book BTW–came out, the intro included the sentence: “Gerritsen continued to churn out formulaic romantic suspense novels until a chance dinner conversation about the Russian mafia and organ harvesting ignited the idea to blend her medical background with the suspense formula she knew so well.” I doubt that Tess would call her early books “formulaic” or that she “churned” them out. I’ll bet she worked damned hard on writing an entertaining romantic suspense novel.)
- Pigeonholed. You get stuck writing MMP unless you change it up dramatically, which may also piss off your readership. It’s like when I was working in the California State Assembly–I had a specialty, and I was good at it, but I was bored out of my mind after doing the same thing for years and years. I kept asking to do something different. I even came up with new ideas. They kept giving me more money to do what I was doing. (And it was about this time I started seriously writing. I was BORED.) Sometimes, it’s not about the money. But in publishing, you also have the risk-aversion factor. If it’s working, why mess with it? (Author boredom maybe? Creative flexing?)
- Library market. Very small for MMP. You pretty much have to be a bestseller to get into the library market. This is expected, since MMP have a limited shelf life—hardcovers can be read multiple times, but MMPs begin to fall apart after 4-5 reads even when treated with care.
- Shelf-life. If you’re in MMP your book is generally stripped 3-6 months after release date. If you’re a NYT author you MAY have your backlist on the shelves of major bookstores (but they’ll strip copies that go over the corporate designated stock number.) In Walmart, Target, airports, groceries, etc. you have 1-2 months. Maybe three months if it’s a major release (paperback releases/reissues by mega hardcover authors–not PBOs–often last longer.) Harlequin authors have a one-month shelf life. If you’re writing a single title series, having your backlist unavailable can be the kiss of death. (On the flipside, if your flopping hardcover fails you might have longer shelf-life, but they still get shipped back. Ouch.)
- Publicity/Marketing/Tours/Signings. If you’re in mass market, you don’t tour unless you pay for it (usually—I’m sure there are some MMP authors who have had publisher-paid-for tours; speak up or forever hold your peace. I haven’t heard of them except for special promotions like a Levy Bus Tour with multiple authors.) The bulk of the publicity and marketing $$ is spent on hardcover releases, which have a higher profit margin for the publisher than MMP.
- Rights. Hardcovers get more exposure, more recognition, more subsidiary sales, greater chance at book club deals, film options, audio rights, etc. The risk is greater, therefore they get the bigger push.
- Releases Dates. Hardcovers are generally released on ANY Tuesday (sometimes Mondays). MMPs are generally released en-masse by the publisher on the same date. For example, all Random House PBO titles for August 2009 were released on July 28th. Some publishers will split their releases between the last Tuesday of the month before and the first Tuesday of the release month. But you’re fighting for finite slots in stores.
BOTH PRO AND CON
- Quantity. In hardcover, one book a year is standard. Sometimes two. Some authors (Linda Howard, Nora Roberts, Lisa Jackson) will release 1-2 hardcovers a year and 1-2 PBOs. James Rollins has one hardcover under the Rollins name, and a MMP fantasy series under James Clemens, per year. (And he’s adding a YA novel—three books a year. Who heard of such a thing!?!) But PBO authors are expected to write at least two books a year, and three is smiled upon. For fast writers, this is great. You can build your name faster, and if you are consistently producing good stories, you’ll grow your audience through word of mouth and name recognition (if you always have a new book out readers see your name a lot. But the book has to support the investment.) But if you’re not a fast writer, being a PBO author means it takes much longer to build your audience because of all the “cons” listed above (lack of industry attention, shorter shelf life, no reviews, etc.) My friend and very talented romance writer Susan Andersen writes one PBO a year. She couldn’t write faster to save her soul (we’ve talked about this!) Nor should she. But it can be a negative in a format that expects speed. On the flipside, hardcover authors who can and want to write more than one book a year often are held back (or used to be) because the market has a hard time supporting multiple hardcovers (this, too, is changing–but I’m still not sure how it will play out.)
- Genre. Some genres sell exceptionally well as MMP and flop in hardcover; some sell better in hardcover than as a PBO. Romances generally perform much, much better as paperbacks, while straight mysteries don’t. And when you blend genres, you can get screwed if you’re published the wrong way. But who knows what’s the right way? This is where risk and trial and error come in.
- Covers. THIS is changing. Cover art for MMP has been getting so much better, but historically the covers were pretty much interchangeable. I see a lot of hope for cover art (especially after getting my cover for ORIGINAL SIN.)
I, personally, love being a PBO author. There’s no way I could have built the audience I have now, as quickly as I have—and an audience who consistent puts me on the New York Times list (thank you thank you thank you!)—as a hardcover author. But that doesn’t mean that someday I wouldn’t like to have a hardcover. My Seven Deadly Sins series will be published as PBO and that works for me, though as I finish the revisions on ORIGINAL SIN (no, I don’t have an ending yet, but I’m working on it!) I can’t help but think that, but for the economy, this book would have worked very well as a hardcover.
I’m sure there are many other PROS and CONS to the MMP, and for some authors the PROS may be a negative and vice versa. I’d be interested in your comments. And don’t forget (blatant self promo here!) that CUTTING EDGE is on sale now (by me) and the third Bobbie Faye book (all new!) called WHEN A MAN LOVES A WEAPON is also on sale now. BOTH original mass markets.
AND the winner from my last blog, who gets a copy of Toni McGee Causey’s CHARMED AND DANGEROUS (Bobbie Faye #1) and SUDDEN DEATH (the first of my trilogy) is . . . . Eika!!! Please email me your mailing address and I’ll get those right out 🙂