The Evolution of the Paperback

Paperback books are beautiful things these days. Their covers are stiff and thick, their coverart has clearly had some real effort put into it to make it look modern and relevant, and the general quality is very good. Unfortunatley, they’re also called Trade Paperbacks and cost $14-18 a pop.

I think my generation has been the one that has straddled the the transition for Literature from the basic paperback to the trade paperback. I think I remember seeing the change begin in earnest about ten years ago, as these large, obviously well-made books began creeping onto bookshelves amongst their smaller, flimsier brethren. Where this happened first was The Classics, thier status amongst the other books apparently lifting them to higher quality stock.

I also remember noticing the clear price difference between the conventional paperback and the Trade Paperback.  Where I could grab a copy of Breakfast of Champions for $5 in the standard paperback, the Trade Paperback wanted to pry $15 out of my wallet. but I guess that’s the price you pay for Classics.

And now it’s the price you pay for Literature. I got a couple of Borders gift cards through my credit card company last week and, coupon in hand, ventured into Borders to get a “free” book. Well, as free as having used my credit card for hundreds of dollars of purcases so that I could use my Reward Points for a couple of $25 gift cards, at any rate.

I picked up The Last Town on Earth, a debut novel by Thomas Mullen. This in no way is to reflect the quality of the novel. I haven’t read it yet but I bought it so I clearly think it’s something that at least stands a chance at being pretty good.  But it also cost $14. With my coupon, it took the cost plus tax down to just under twelve.  And we wonder why it’s hard to get young people interested in books. I’m betting price has a reasonable hand in it as they make movies look affordable.

And we’re starting to see the Trade Paperback drift into the genre sections as well. Phil Dick and Ray Bradbury were among the first of the genre writers I remember seeing with these big, sturdy editions of their classic work. And now I’m seeing William Gibson’s Spook Country retailing for $15 (though, kudos to Amazon for having it and many other books on significant markdowns). 

For all of the talk about the RIAA pillaging music fans with ridiculous prices on CDs and deserving to be similarly plundered by filesharing programs, I can’t help but think that the publishing companies have followed a similar path. The covers might be a little nicer and the books a little bigger but I’m not sold on these developments requiring a $10 price hike over the more conventional paperback. And I also wouldn’t hesitate to just buy a conventional paperback if given the choice.

But we’re not given that choice and I have to wonder if the prices are not hurting the growth of the book industry. While once someone becomes a reader they are probably hooked for life, and will continue to buy (and gripe) regardless of the price,  I have to think it turns away potential readers. I also wonder if it doesn’t limit the possibilities for success of new writers. If someone is on a bit of a budget and they have a choice between the new novel from a writer they’ve read and enjoyed or a new novel from a new guy, I’m betting the old and familiar usually wins that tug of war.

And maybe I just miss the days of being able to buy a good book for $6.

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