Kindle-reading-on-your-sideWe already covered the story of the Harper Lee estate (or said estate’s publisher) killing off the mass market paperback edition of To Kill a Mockingbird, and the trade paperback publisher offering that edition at an educational discount.

But this paragraph from one of the news stories on the matter prompted me to consider whether this is a trend, and if so, why.

That said, mass-market paperbacks have been on a precipitous decline lately, though TKAM’s success, particularly in the education market, makes it a notable exception. But many publishers are moving away from the format. Pressed for further comment, a HarperCollins spokesperson informed me that “Like many American classics, To Kill A Mockingbird’s primary paperback format will be the trade paperback edition.” That’s an important distinction: The general trend in publishing has been against the mass-market and toward more expensive (and durable) editions—many American classics, including The Great Gatsby and The Grapes of Wrath no longer have mass-market editions.

The link in the above quote goes to a 2011 New York Times story that I managed to miss the first time around. It offers this provocative tidbit:

The growth of the e-book has forced a conversation in the publishing industry about which print formats will survive in the long term. Publishers have begun releasing trade paperbacks sooner than the traditional one-year period after the release of the hardcover, leaving the mass-market paperback even further behind.

Cost-conscious readers who used to wait for the heavily discounted paperback have now realized that the e-book edition, available on the first day the book is published, can be about the same price. For devoted readers of novels, people who sometimes voraciously consume several books in a single week, e-books are a natural fit.

It makes sense, if you think about it. Book and e-book sales don’t happen in a vacuum. If someone buys an e-book, they’re probably buying it instead of a paper edition, and the paper edition closest in price to e-books tends to be the mass market paperback.

In that light, maybe it’s not so surprising that the MMPB of To Kill a Mockingbird has gone by the wayside. Could schools have been the only people buying it anymore? And if so, was it worth it to continue publishing that edition?

I wonder what other changes e-books will have in store for the paper book market as time goes by.


  1. If only it was still true that the eBook price and paperback book price were close. For example, “Illidan, World of Warcraft”, eBook price $13.99, hardback price $7.34. Total eBook sales for the Big 5 are down at least in part because they are frequently pricing eBooks higher than hardbacks.

  2. No great loss. Mass-market paperbacks are cheap in both senses. They’re typically a pain to read. Rather than lie open, you have to grip them both hands to keep them open. Besides, with popular books you can often pick up a used trade paperback for less than the mass-market paperback sells new.
    Technology often moves directions no one predicts. In the mid-80s, I worked for a cellular company (later purchased by AT&T). The assumption then was that cellular would remain what radio telephones had been—a device for cars that’d be so expensive only professionals could have afford it. A brick-sized portable phone from Motorola was considered an expensive and impractical joke.

    At $10,000 each in today’s money, you could see why people might feel that way.

    Now look at what’s happened.Cellular has brought phones to poor countries that could have never afforded wired phone systems. Ebooks may not be quite as revolutionary for publishing as cell phones were for telephone service, but they could move in directions no one expects, particularly when linked to self-publishing.
    One illustration. When I finish my latest book in the hospital series, a guide for hospital staff on easing patient embarrassment called Embarrass Less, within hours the digital versions on Amazon and the iBookstore will be available around the world and within a week the same will be true of the print version.Someone on the remote Falkland Islands, for instance, will be able to buy it, postage paid, from the Book Depository.

    That’s nothing like the traditional print market, where a completed and typeset book often waited months for the advertising and marketing teams to ready its distribution. And don’t even think about the delays that accompanied global publication, including finding publishers and selling rights.

    And given all those growing complexities, it’s understandable that publishers might want to simply by reducing their number of editions. And if one is dropped, it’d be the low-profit mass-market one.

The TeleRead community values your civil and thoughtful comments. We use a cache, so expect a delay. Problems? E-mail