The Pros and Cons of the Mass Market Paperback

By Allison Brennan

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. 



  • 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.

For more on the history of MMP: IOBA or here.

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 🙂


46 thoughts on “The Pros and Cons of the Mass Market Paperback

  1. Julie Kramer

    Allison, this was the most informative essay I’ve seen on hardcover and paperback. I went back and read your analysis twice. Thanks so much for putting so much useful information in one place.

  2. tess gerritsen

    what a great wrap-up of the PBO market! And I had to nod at your comment about being frustrated with the Indies. I remember how difficult it was — and still is — to find any of my books in Indies (with the exception of specialty mystery bookstores and my wonderful hometown bookstore, the Owl and Turtle). It’s not just a problem with romantic suspense, but with genre fiction in general. Even after I’d hit the NYT list a few times, I could walk into independent bookstores around the country, and about half the time they wouldn’t have any of my books in stock.

    I was just in Wyoming, where NOT ONE independent bookstore I visited had any of my books. And the year I got nominated for an Edgar award, I happened to be in an indie down in the southwest, where they had a table display of all the Edgar nominees. They had a lone copy of VANISH, which apparently they’d had to hurriedly order just to make their display complete.

    So you are not alone!

  3. Alan Orloff

    Thanks for this great analysis, Allison.

    I’ve got a lingo question: Are trade paperbacks also referred to as PBO’s, or is that term reserved for MMPs?

    (I’ve got a trade paperback coming out in April, and I don’t want to sound like a complete newbie!)

  4. Dana King

    Thank you for an informative post. I am pre-published (I love that term), and have long felt it would be easier to break into paperback for a couple of the reasons you cited. (Cost and availability.) Then I could move to hardcover, or not.

    Your mother’s attitudes toward paper and hardcover remind me of my most memorable rejection: Not original enough for a hardcover series, too good for paperback. I was pissed about that. In retrospect, I should have insisted my agent explore the paperback deal.

  5. Karen in Ohio

    What a fascinating blog, Allison. You answered a lot of questions I’ve always had about formats.

    One other reason not to be published in hardcover, to my mind, is shelving. In most bookstore mystery departments the shelving is set up so that the hardcovers and the paperbacks are in separate places. If you’re like me and want to find a specific author having to look in two–or three!–different places can be frustrating. It’s fine for authors like Evanovich, because she has so many titles, but if an author has just one hardback in a field of several it can get a little crazy with shelving. Of course that can also be a good thing, since the more places your books are shelved, the more chance you have of a new reader finding them.

    Diana Gabaldon’s books also come to mind. Her first three were MMP’s, and were originally shelved in the romance sections of bookstores. All of her next books were published in hardcover, so they are generally shelved separately. The category has changed, too, although I couldn’t tell you where to find one these days, unless she has a new title and her backlist is displayed on an end cap. It’s no wonder online book buying is so popular. It’s so much easier to find titles by author.

  6. Alli

    Allison, once again a fabulous and informative post. Thanks! To be honest, I hadn’t given much thought to PBO or hardcover for my books. At the moment all I’m concentrating on is writing the best MS I can, finding an agent and then getting the book sold! This post has really made me think about all the possibitiles – pros and cons – out there and I never realised it could be that complicated in regards to going with HC or PBO. Wow. Thanks for this post – I learnt alot and it has cetrainly made me stop and think. 🙂

  7. Allison Brennan

    Alan, generally I’ve heard "trade" for trade paperback, but PBO can be used, too. I believe (and someone can correct me) that in the Edgars and the Thriller awards, trade is considered PBO for purposes of which category to enter. Trade, historically, had been reserved for "special" books, literary books, school reading, and similar, and was targeted to a specific reading public who refused to buy MMP. Increasingly, this is changing, as erotic romance, mysteries, women’s fiction, etc are being published in trade. You get the respect and reviews of hardcover, but the sales numbers also reflect hardcover numbers more than they reflect MMP numbers–primarily because trade PBOs are not distributed as widely as MMP.

    Alli I never thought of format, either. When I was writing before I sold, I was writing the book I wanted to write and never thought about format. Nor should most writers, though genre romance and increasingly genre suspense and thrillers are being published as MMP.

    Dana, too good for paperback? Sounds like they were throwing out a line. Jerks. There are some fantastic PBOs out there. There’s trash, too, but there’s trash in hardcover. I’d much rather spend $7.99 and be unsatisfied than $25 and be unsatisfied. There is a stigma, even within the publishing industry, even among people who produce MMP. Not all, of course, but enough that it’s noticeable.

    Tess, I remember when VANISH finaled, and I was ticked off on your behalf at some of the comments in the blog-o-sphere. After reading the book, I’d thought it was your best book to date and it damn well DESERVED the nomination. But it’s sad to me that after 12 hardcovers, you still have a hard time finding your books in some of the indies.

    More later . . . I have to go to church. I’ll be back! (Because I still need to write the ending.)

  8. Terry Odell

    I’d LOVE one of my books to come out in MMP. I’ve got trade paperbacks, and one hard cover (but that’s because the publisher ONLY does hard cover.). The economy tanked between contract and publication for that one, so the market for those hard covers, outside of libraries, is virtually nonexistent. Some days I wonder if it was all my fault. If I hadn’t signed that contract, maybe the economy would be in better shape. It’s not the first time things have turned south as soon as I got involved, and not just in publishing.

    Heck, I can’t afford hard covers myself. Plus, my books are competing with others of the romantic suspense genre (like yours), and given the choice of a best-selling known commodity at MMP prices, or a newbie with either trade or hard cover, the choice is pretty obvious (unless you’re my mother).

    When favorite authors come out in hard cover with traditional houses, I get them from the library first, then add them to my collection once they come out in MMP.

  9. WendyK

    Wow Allison, what a great post. So very information and such great information. I personally love MMP they are easier to hold, I love their smell as well and the general feel of them and the fact I can buy many more copies of a beloved book to share in MMP than I can in HC. However on the flip side, HCs fit my bookshelves better and look much better lined up on the shelf. With HCs I generally only have room for one book per space or ie the shelf is only one deep, whereas with my MMPs I can double line the books,which works great for storage but is a big pain when I’m searching for a book and hides many books I’d rather be seen.

    I have a question, where does the TPB fall in this? My mother loves TPBs better than HC or MMP. She says they are easier for her to read, as the writing isn’t as small as it is in most MMP and they books aren’t as heavy to her or as stiff, weildy(her words) as HC. So she loves to find TPBs, however while I do enjoy many of the books, since most CF is published as TPB only, they are still harder for me to carry around than MMP. I can carry 4/5 MMPs with me, whereas if I’m toting a HC or TPB I might take 2 but beyond that, they get too heavy.

    So what are your thoughts on the TPBs and when a publisher takes a book from HC to TPB to MMP? I will admit if it’s a favorite, must have author I do in fact own a couple of books in HC,TPB, and MMP(yes that’s the same book in 3 formats and now I even have one in Audio as well). Do you think that’s too much? And what about when a publisher will have a HC released, then when it’s released in MMP have added content, either a never before published new scene or something to make it more appealing to those who bought the book in HC. Is that cheating those of us who will buy HC?

    Thanks so much for this great post!

  10. R.J. Jagger

    I would guess that the reason PW and its counterparts (Booklist, LJ, Kirkus) don’t review many MMPs is because those trade journals are targeted primarily to libraries and, to a lesser extent, independent bookstores. As you indicated, libraries and indies are not big purchasers of MMPs.

    That MMPs are not generally reviewed by PW and others doesn’t mean they are snobbing them or that MMPs are inferior. It’s simply a buisness decision to give their target audiences (libraries and indies) more or what they want see, namely reviews of HCs and TPs.

  11. Camille Kimball

    What an info and insight packed essay. Thanks very much for sharing your thoughts on this.

    My MMP is coming out in a matter of days and I feel I have so much to learn. When the deal was first made, I felt that twinge about hardcover but I soon realized that was silly. I love having the price point at $7.99. When the economy tanked I was supremely GRATEFUL the price point would be &7.99.

    As I dug into my story and saw how devastating a random crime is to its victims, I began to adore the "democractic" feel of the MMP. As I dug deeper and saw how inspiring the story would be, I became proud it would be MMP so it could be truly populist: everyone should have the chance to meet my heroes.

    Your column here gives me a lot more texture and hard facts about this issue. I thank you very much for that.

    Camille Kimball A Sudden Shot: the Phoenix Serial Shooter (Berkley)

  12. toni mcgee causey

    Wow. This is a master’s class, Allison, thank you!

    The Trade PB of Bobbie Faye was fortunate enough to get reviewed in multiple places–PW, Library Journal (both starred) and Booklist (starred book 2)–but did not have the same level of distribution that MMPs have. Switching it to MMP has meant a far greater distribution level, but getting reviews for book 3 has been difficult.

    It’s like watching a science experiment.

  13. Darynda Jones

    Allison, thank you so much for this!!!!

    Wow, I was super confused on the pros and cons of MMA and HB. My publisher is still deciding if they want to put my releases out in HB or MMA, and this has helped me understand both. Still don’t know which one I’m in favor of, but at least I understand them a little more.

    And I LOVE your new cover. Wow. Congrats!!!

  14. JD Rhoades

    Excellent post, Allison. It has never made any sense to me that publishers who claim they want to build a new or relatively unknown writer’s career will bring their books out at a price point that inevitably makes it less likely that people will buy them, especially in this economy, then shake their heads and go "I wonder why this guy didn’t sell?"

    "Oh, but PBO’s won’t get reviews in the big papers…" Uh, hello? Have you not seen the nearly weekly stories about papers dropping their book sections?

    "They don’t get the same respect…" Respect ain’t gonna send my kids to college, dude. And respect ain’t gonna get me a new contract if the damn thing doesn’t sell, now is it?

    Its one of those things that you talk to people in the industry about, and they nod and go "Yes, I agree It doesn’t make any sense, but this is the way we do it." Argh argh argh.

  15. Mark Terry

    A terrific post. There’s a bit more to be said about trade paperback, because so many independent/small presses prefer that format. It gets them away from the costs of hardcover and the returns policy/mechanics of mass market paperback tends to be a headache from a business standpoint. Another reason they’re more reflective of hardcover sales than MMP is because they’re typically priced in between, somewhere in the $12.95 to $17.95 price range.

    I’ve been published in trade 4 times and my next novel will be hardcover. I’m fairly ambivalent about trade paperback for a lot of reasons, but I’m somewhat ambivalent about this upcoming hardcover, as well (or just ambivalent about novel publishing in general, go figure). It’s tough to convince readers to shell out $24.95 for a book by someone they don’t know. On the other hand, you’ll sell a decent number of library copies, with any luck.

    As for reviews, well, those review markets are drying up like a puddle in the Mojave, so I’m not convinced there’s any real advantage in HC there unless you’re pretty damned lucky.

    I’d be quite pleased with PBO by a major publisher simply because of the numbers and how relatively easier it is to convince someone to pay $7.99 for a book than it is to pay $13.95 or $24.95 for the same book. I buy a lot of books, have a lot given to me, and I buy hardcovers, but I’m much more likely to try something new if it only costs $7 or so and I’ll be a lot less cranky if it turns out to suck at that price.

  16. JT Ellison

    Allison, I am so glad you put this together. It’s excellent.

    As a PBO author myself, I’ve always been of the mind that I’d rather have readers than reviews. That said, I have been utterly blessed by getting reviewed in PW, Library Journal, and other major outlets. It’s helped my career tremendously. But as far as being in hardcover versus PBO? I’d rather hit 250,000 readers than 25,000. Absolutely. I love the format. I love the fact that the distribution is so stellar. And I love that I’ve got a product that’s priced perfectly for the market, especially important right now.

    I’m a bit confused by the lack of support from some independent stores for PBO (and I emphasize some, I have a bunch of fabulous indie store supporters). I do everything in my power to promote indies: I have IndieBound on my website and blog, Have a specific section of my website for signed copies at indies, I’ve had launches at indie stores, yet I’ve actually been publicly scolded for having a signing at a Barnes & Noble here in town. Barnes & Noble and Borders are my bread and butter, how can I not support them too? It’s a delicate balance, especially because the reality is the vast majority of my sales come from chain stores.

    I’d love to hear from some of the indie owners about how we can work together to promote one another. We PBO authors want to help, but we need some support too. I have a major regional indie who doesn’t stock my books. They won’t let me come sign in the store either. It’s frustrating, and I’m glad that it isn’t like that across the board. Many of the major indie stores have welcomed me with open arms. I’m going to SIBA this year specifically to make some better contacts in the indie world.

    But if that’s the one downside to PBO, there’s a lot of upside to it as well. I think we’ve broken down some of the barriers in people’s thinking about PBO, and that trend will continue as publishers launch brilliant new writers in paperback. Nothing to lose, everything to gain. It’s a great format, especially if you’re interested in gaining a solid base of readers.

  17. Louise Ure

    Great post, Allison. I remember a conversation with J.B. Stanley at the Seattle Mystery Bookshop who said he wished every debut author was launched in MMP. Imagine how much easier it would be to hand sell that $7.99 "taste" of a new author to his customers!

    As for your question ("Anyone jump in with non-romance writers who started as PBO in the last ten years and successfully made the leap into hardcover.), didn’t Laura Lippman start out with PBOs?

  18. Ann Marie

    As a reader, I almost never buy hardbacks–if that’s an author’s format, I wait for the paperback to come out. Mostly this is because of price, but paperbacks are lighter to carry around and easier for my small hands to hold.

    The current release aspect of this business is an easy way to organize marketing campaigns or bookstore shelf space, but it doesn’t seem like it’s the way a lot of readers pick what to read. Especially with series characters, I want to track down the early stories first and work my way up to the recent adventures.

  19. Tom

    Allison, great explanation of a difficult topic. Thank you. Thank you very much.

    There’s a maxim in woodworking – "Design around the construction," meaning keep the mechanics of the joinery in mind as you design the chair or the cabinet. I think this understanding must apply to how we craft our work from concept to completion IF we hope to sell it.

    Tough choices. I have to write from passion, but I don’t want to produce niche-bound unsaleable work.

    Minor highjack, but tangent: took the younger granddaughter to LA’s Little Tokyo yesterday. In a large bilingual bookstore where she was looking for manga and Japanese language tutorials, I found a signed trade edition of Naomi Hirahara’s first Mas Arai book. If not for Murderati, I’d have never known about Naomi. My thanks to all of you!

  20. JoAnn Ross

    Allison, that’s may be the best analysis I’ve ever read. I love that you brought up King. When I was in hardcover glitz, my publisher didn’t publish MMP, so I considered myself fortunate when they managed to sell paperback rights to both my books. But those days you weren’t considered a "serious" author if you wrote more than one book, so since I wrote fast and had my kid’s college bills to pay for, against my then agent’s wishes, I insisted on going back to MMP. And have happily stayed there ever since with no desire to go back to hardcover. Like Mark, I love the stellar distribution and knowing that my books are reaching readers in grocery stores, drug stores and Wal-mart. I’ve always had pretty much mass market tastes; fortunately enough readers share those tastes that they’ve kept me selling for 26 yrs.

    I think ebooks are going to be changing the market/landscape for hardcovers, as well. I’ve bought hardcovers of my favorite authors as soon as the books come out for years, but even though I know I’m cutting into royalties, (and, as an author, feel sort of bad about that), I have to admit that getting the electronic version of a new hardcover for $9.99 on my Kindle once it hits the Times is hugely appealing when you read as many books as my husband and I do.

    Oh, and as for hardcovers getting more respect? That may be true for mystery or literary fiction, but I found that my glitz books (there were no hardcover romance novels in the early 90s), got about as much respect from Indies as romance MMP do. Which would be next to none.

    And finally, I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE that cover!!!! Hope it sells gangbusters!

  21. JoAnn Ross

    Oops. I read the name placement wrong. (Used to them showing up at the top of comment.) Apparently it’s JT I agree with about distribution. 🙂

  22. Dru

    Allison, that for the interesting information about hardcovers, paperbacks and marketing.

    As a reader, I’ll buy books from a new-to-me authors if published in paperback more quickly than in hardcover. Right now there’s a book that I want to read that was published in 2008 and the author says the book will not be in paperback. It’s her loss because the reviews have been good, but for the price of her one hardcover, I can buy 3 paperbacks from other new-to-me authors.

  23. BCB

    This is why I read this blog every day. You all discuss writing/publishing issues (in posts and comments) that no one else is talking about. Or maybe they are and I’m not looking hard enough. Really, it’s like a one-stop daily master class. With vast topical variety.

    I don’t buy HC (at the rate I read, I can’t afford to). But I read them. I currently have seven HCs on my coffee table. From the library. Okay, the exception to that is when a friend or fellow chapter member has a release in HC (like Alex). Then I buy. When the JD Robb series made the jump to HC, I stopped buying (I have ALL the In Death MMPs) and started getting them from the library. It made me sad. Allison, I’m very happy I was able to buy CUTTING EDGE in MMP. Because, you know, much as I love your books…

    MMPs for me are like crack cocaine to an addict. The grocery store is bad enough, I’ve had to completely stop going into the local B&N. My budget is at the point I might as well put a DNR tag on it otherwise.

    But even while I’m very aware of my buying habits as a reader, this is the first time I’ve really considered the implications of that to me as a yet-to-be-published writer. I think we all sort of secretly harbour a fantasy of seeing our work in HC, but in terms of building name recognition, a fan base and a career, that fantasy now seems not merely unrealistic but detrimental.

    Excellent food for thought. Thank you.

    Oh, and I LOVE the new cover! SO glad it’s going to be MMP. With an ending.

  24. Allison Brennan

    R.J., I don’t disagree with your analysis. It is ALWAYS about the target market, and you’re right that PW and others are targeting buyers (not the end reader). But one of the big problems being a PBO author is that to break out and into hardcover, you need that jump in recognition, and that comes when the industry folk start buzzing. It’s almost a catch-22. Romantic Times (now RT Book Reviews) reviews all formats because their target audience is the end reader. But I’d argue that the NYT, other papers, etc. have the end reader as the target audience, and they too don’t review MMP. I can’t reveal the source without breaking a confidence, but a friend of mine writes an article for his local paper about upcoming books to watch for in his genre, and the editor specifically told him no more MMP.

    There are some authors (i.e. Nora Roberts) who have their PBOs printed in special library bindings, so they ARE hardcover for libraries only. (They’re like quasi-hardcover, smaller with the same inside, with a harder cover without the bells and whistles.)

    Sometimes it is about the money. Hardcover pushes pay for ads. MMP doesn’t. Newspapers and magazines go where the money is. But to create that early buzz, authors need the industry to buzz, and for PBOs that’s almost impossible. The buzz is generally word-of-mouth, after the book comes out, and by the time the momentum picks up the book is off the new release table and often stripped or spine out.

  25. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Brilliant post, Allison. There’s enough information in there to keep my head spinning for the rest of my debut year. I really don’t know what is best. I feel fortunate that I’m being published in hardcover first, and I’m thankful that I’m getting reviews. We almost went to TPO because Barnes and Noble suggested that they might put in a larger buy if we did, and we actually changed the cover design based on a comment from Barnes & Noble, too, which makes me wonder at how much power they have. We ultimately settled on hardcover, and then we’ll go to TPO or mass market next summer. I think. Who knows. I’m generally the last to find out. And I don’t know how we’re going to handle my second book, either. I’m excited to see what happens with the mass market version.
    Hey, I was ecstatic to discover that my local Barnes & Noble has ordered 12 copies of my book already. That’s enough to make me smile.

  26. Allison Brennan

    Wendy, re: trades. I recently had a long, long conversation about trades with my agent. Many authors in trade are wanting to make the jump–either to MMP (because of distribution and the price point) or to hardcover (for the royalties.) I had thought for a long time that trade would be the next hardcover–that at $25, people really don’t want to buy hardcovers unless they are a die-hard fan. But trade–a little smaller, cheaper to produce, with fantastic covers and quality cover stock and paper stock–would be sellable at the beneath $15 price point.

    HOWEVER, trade isn’t widely distributed unless you’re a Jodi Picoult et. al. Go to your grocery store and you’ll see 20 MMP for every one trade stocked. Walmart takes few trades. Target makes a point of shelving trade en-masse, but when you look at the raw numbers you’ll see that the MMPs at Target still have 3 to 1 MMPs over trade. IF trade TRULY replaces or makes inroads in the hardcover market, this will change. But I have no idea on whether this will happen.

    In trade, unless you’re big, you simply don’t sell the numbers to build an audience. You may get a nice income from it (7.5% royalties on a $14 is still more than 8-10% on a $7.99 book.) But it’s harder to grow your readership until you can get the exposure. This isn’t to say trade isn’t a good format, and for YA I think it’s the preferred format of readers (my 13 year old avid reader loves trade and hardcover and doesn’t like MMP; on the flipside, my 64 year old avid reader mother likes MMP and hardcover–she does not like trade and will not buy it. She doesn’t like to hold them because the pages flop.)

    I think in the end, it’s about the final product. Marketing and sales usually know what they’re doing. They see a book, it’s put in a "slot" (genre–is it romance, thriller, mystery, science fiction) or is it commercial? Literary? They look and see what’s the best format for the type of book they are buying. They put the book in that format because they want to make the maximum profit on the title. End of story.

    For an author, it’s about finding your readers–which is exactly what marketing wants to do. Help you find those readers. Because it’s the readers who keep you "employed."

    re: trade as a transitional book between HC and MMP–I don’t have any empirical evidence that tells me this is successful or not. I don’t think they would do it if it weren’t successful. I’ve seen some MMP move to trade after a movie comes out, or because it was a surprise who the readers were, or it was reissued because they were trying to reach a difference audience. Maybe an industry person knows more about this.

  27. pari noskin taichert

    I posted this morning and must’ve deleted rather than saved the darn thing . . . ARGH.

    What a great post. I learned so much from it. Unlike your works, all three of my books were published in HC first. And I have MMP envy. To reach a large audience is a dream of mine and it’s so much more difficult when your books sell for $24.95. Two of my books are now available in TPB, but that’s still a lot of money for people to shell out. It’s also a lot of money for me to feel like I can give the books away to gain more readers . . .

    So, I’m hoping with my new series that they’ll come out in MM. We’ll see.

  28. Marley Delarose

    Ditto what Julia said. I copied this to my Allison Says folder, lol.

    I rarely buy hardbacks anymore mostly for two reasons. Size – I can’t fit a hardback J.D. Robb into the same space with the 25 other J.D. Robb paperbacks I had before. And I don’t intend to go back and purchase each of those in hardback at $25 a pop, when I’ve already spent $6.99-$7.99 each and they fit nicely in my hand and on my shelf. Personally I thought that was inconsiderate to switch formats mid series but your article helps me understand the advantages to the author for doing so. It’s a matter of space and convenience.

    Expense – I can purchase three MMPs for the price of one paperback and use less space in my library and carry the book to the tub (more space issues) if I choose.

    Thanks for the great post on a subject which I have never seen covered so thoroughly.

  29. Allison Brennan

    Darynda, I think your publisher will decide based on who they think your readers are. Some books don’t do as well in MMP because the target readership doesn’t read MMP. My books do well in MMP because I write very commercial, blended genre books. This doesn’t mean I couldn’t have broken into hardcover, but it would have been harder (I think) writing romantic suspense to start in hardcover. I would have to have written a straight mystery or thriller to have had a shot, IMO.

    Mark, I didn’t focus on trade PBOs because I honestly don’t know enough about the market to offer anything. I, personally, like trade and think it’s a great price point, and it has become the format of preference for some genres (i.e. YA) which would have flopped in MMP. But you’re right in 1) small press and indies like trade, and that’s a good thing; 2) reviews are tanking fast. What’s changing is on-line reviews, and the popular sites will become more popular, while the "mom and pop" sites will be more ho hum. RT is branching more into mysteries and thrillers (they have always reviewed them, but in a smaller percentage) and they review between 250-300 titles ever month. They have a great niche and have been able to create a viable business. But other magazines haven’t been able to do quite the same thing. I’d love to have another venue.

    The other thing, we talk about reviews, and yeah, I’d love to have SOME in the mainstream, but the review itself is secondary to putting the quote on a book, or generating buzz or using it on a web page or as a lead-in to pitch an article to your local paper or for the sales sheet at buy-in time. This is why I think author endorsements are becoming more important in the industry–they are being used almost in place of reviews that are much harder to come by.

  30. Misa Ramirez

    I agree, Allison, very informative. I know in my case, Living the Vida Lola came out in hardcover and it’s been a blessing, and also an obstacle. Library sales and reviews are the big pros of this format, but lack of marketing dollars has slowed exposure and sales, and for a debut author, it’s very frustrating to have mediocre sales on a book that was fabulously reviewed (Pub Weekly, RT, and a blurb by you!) and to have little control over what marketing will be done by the publisher on the next release. Yet there needs to be growth in order for the series to continue.

    It’s a Catch 22 because Living the Vida Lola probably won’t come out in paper back, as originally talked about, because sales have been slow, yet it would probably do GREAT in paperback. All I can do, as a hard cover author, is try to market and promote as much as I possibly can, gain exposure wherever I can, and hope that word of mouth will eventually spread.

    The grass is always greener on the other side, isn’t it?! I’m happy to be published, happy that others are loving Lola and the mystery series, but sure hope the series will continue.

    Great article, Allison!

  31. Allison Brennan

    Thanks BCB 🙂 . . . I do have all the IN DEATHs in Hardcover (I really love those covers, too!) I started the series at book 5 or 6 and never read the first titles (I know, I’m weird) but have read every one since. Love the series. (Ok, I’m two behind.) I buy hardcovers of my favorite authors and my friends. My mom doesn’t save her MMP, she trades them at the UBS. I save some of my MMP, but usually I’ll give them away–I have three times the number of hardcovers I save as I do MMP. But hardcovers look nicer on the shelf, no doubt.

    Marley, I know what you mean about the tub . . . I don’t mind if my MMP gets a little damp, but I’d be apoplectic if I dropped a hardcover! 🙂 . . . I remember reading an article where Nora Roberts talked about the move to hardcover for her JD Robb series. It was market and audience driven, and she also (because she has clout) insisted that the MMP be released in less than the traditional year. I think it’s 6-8 months for her. Most publishers want that full 9 months of hardcover time on the shelf (before they start getting shipped back or remaindered in anticipation of the MM release 2-4 weeks before the new HC.) She is acutely aware that her core readership are MM readers. She also writes one single title stand alone romantic suspense every year (my mom just read BLACK HILLS and said it was fantastic–one of the best she’s read–and Nora keeps getting better, which makes me bang my head thinking how can someone who has written 150 books KEEP GETTING BETTER? Talk about pressure. But she does. Kudos to her.) She also publishes at least one PBO a year, often two. Her new wedding contemporary romance series is beautifully published in trade. When you go to the bookstore, just LOOK at the book. It’s gorgeous, with special cut covers and a rich feel, and the paper is incredibly high quality . . . not that I’m stalking her covers, mind you 😉

  32. Allison Brennan

    Misa, LOLA is a FANTASTIC book and absolutely SHOULD come out in paperback. It’s kind of hit or miss, but honestly, sometimes the poor-performing hardcovers SHOULD have come out in MMP and thus should be given the second chance. And you get all those reviews to tout your book to create the buzz. I think the economy had more to do with sales than anything else, IMO.

  33. Allison Brennan

    JoAnn, thanks for visiting and offering your experience, which is invaluable. I think that you’re right about the indies–it’s honestly a romance issue, though MMP thrillers have seen some tough times in the indie stores. Maybe some PBO authors can speak to this (other than me, because I only have my own experience to share!)

    I went into the Tattered Cover last year when I spoke to the Denver RWA chapter. (Thanks to Margie Lawson for driving me around!!!) At the time, TEMPTING EVIL had just come out. They had one copy of KILLING FEAR and one copy of TEMPTING EVIL. I was shelved in mystery/thriller/suspense like many of the RS authors. When I went to the romance section, in the big flagship store there were only TWO BOOKSHELVES of romance. It was dominated by the mega-sellers, ie Nora Roberts and Debbie Macomber and Danielle Steele. This is a huge store, BTW. It’s sad because if I lived in Denver I’d be in the Tattered Cover every week buying books, hanging out, browsing, researching, sitting in their little cafe. I loved the store, the smell, the fell, all the books . . . I absolutely LOVED it. But I was disillusioned that there were not many romance titles at all, and that the romantic suspense titles (my favorite genre) were minimal.

    NOW, to give them the benefit of the doubt, perhaps the reason they don’t stock them is that they don’t sell many. Because romance readers, as I’ve mentioned, are AVID readers. They buy their books at Walmart or Target because of the discount. Most indies might discount hardcovers, but they don’t discount MMP because the margins are so low on them. When you can buy 4 books for the price of 3 at Amazon, or often at Borders (they do a great PB promo once a year–I think 3 for 2) why pay full price? When you read 5 books a week, you seek the deals. I get that. But sometimes I think I’m missing potential readers who might shop only at indies . . . but maybe they’re not my readers. And then there’s that list thing that I don’t want to talk about, but my theory that indie sales are weighted heavier by the NYT than sales from Walmart.

  34. Allison Brennan

    JT, GREAT comments. I completely agree. Some indies are fabulous. Some less so (for PBO authors.) One store I attempted to arrange signed stock–with the offer of sending my fans there to order books from them–said no. I was welcome to come in and sign the two copies of my current release, but they would not stock more than that even if I sent a notice to my 4,000 newsletter subscribers that they could order signed books from the store. Maybe it’s the margins, or someone just doesn’t like me. 🙁

    Okay, I need to go off-line to write that ending I still don’t have . . . I have about 60 hours to finish this book, and I need an ending . . . I’d hoped it would have come to me in my sleep, but alas, it didn’t. But I’ll check in later and answer any of the questions I missed. Thanks for participating! I’ve loved these comments, especially from readers about format.

  35. Beth Groundwater

    Great post, Allison! I, too, have been examining the differences in format lately as I’ve found how difficult it is to sell hardcovers during these hard economic times at my recent book signings. My agent has been very helpful to me in looking at the market trends and differences, so I think this is yet another area where a literary agent can help you choose publishers and formats that are appropriate for you.
    – Beth

  36. Neil Plakcy

    Great article, Alison– this is so valuable to all authors to understand. I have been published in HC and in trade paperback, and would love to get into MM. I think it would be so much easier to convince someone to spend $6.99 or so instead of $14.99 to try a book.

  37. Rob Gregory Browne

    Great post, Allison. I have mixed feelings about hardcover and paperback. I was a little concerned when I first went to PBO after debuting in hardcover, but decided that a lot of people tend to prefer paperbacks. But then there’s that prestige factor you spoke of with hardcover that’s hard to ignore.

    I’m happy either way, however, and prefer not to dwell on whether there are hardbacks or paperbacks in my future (or both). All I care about is writing a great story.

  38. Allison Brennan

    Rob, I think you came in at the time when thrillers were starting to take off in MMP when for years they’d been pretty entrenched in hardcover. I think you’ll do well in MMP, and if you get back to HC, great. I hope you didn’t mind me using you as an example, but you and James Swain were all I could think of off the top of my head at midnight last night 🙂

    JD, you make excellent points. A lot of these decisions are made by past trends, and sometimes we can’t predict the future solely based on how readers behaved in the past. In addition, I think some readers are stuck in the past because they make assumptions about types of books (like my mom used to!) related to hardcover and MMP.

    Unless there is a lot of pre-book buzz, which is hard to manufacture, debut hardcovers are increasingly difficult because of the economy. When the economy turns around–because it eventually will (sooner or later, that I can’t predict)–it’ll be "easier" than it is now, but it’s never easy. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard industry folks who have a plan that they believe will work because it worked for similar author A, but similar author B it’s a total flop and they scratch their heads and wonder what went wrong. And change is hard–taking advantage of the internet in a proactive way, leading a new marketing strategy rather than following strategies that aren’t working as well as they used to. I don’t have answers because I’m not in advertising or marketing (two different animals, BTW) but I’ve tried different things for my books and I can’t honestly say what works and what doesn’t.

    Anyway, I went off-topic! Thanks everyone for commenting, and if I missed a question, post it again and I’ll take a stab at an answer.

  39. Eika

    *applauds* Incredibly informative, as are the comments. 9 months between Hardcover and MMP? I’m not sure I can wait that long on some of my favorite series- that’s why the early books tend to be MMP and the later ones get into my grubby hands as soon as I can grab them.

    Thanks for picking me. I sent you an e-mail with my address and such. Be warned: once I’m done, my mother will probably borrow it, and then they’ll both go to a friend (provided she doesn’t wrestle them out of me sooner).

  40. Jessica Scott

    Great post and thanks for the wrap up of the choices as well as pros and cons between the two formats. As someone still holding her breath for that first deal. it’s nice to know that you’ve put out some fantastic information on the publishing industry. Thanks for being such a great resource for us newbies.

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