Another voice weighs in on the death throes of the mass market paperback. Agent Richard Curtis, in a fascinating series of articles at Backspace (and excerpted this month in the Authors Guild newsletter), lays the blame at the "implosion of the wholesale book distribution business" in 1996, which:
…transformed the way business was done throughout the industry. It was a traum from which the book industry never recovered.
…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
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..
He says the rise of bookstore chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders (as well as the power of Amazon) took business away from wholesalers. Computerized sales info allowed publishers, retailers and wholesalers to better track what was selling.
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.
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.
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.
As much as authors would dearly love to bring back the robust mass-market paperback erak, it’s no likelier than a return to steam locomotives.
In his view, the future lies with print-on-demand and e-books, though neither format has yet reached its potential.
Richard S. Wheeler blames writers. Richard Curtis blames distrubtion. What do you think?