The Shatzkin Files

Ebooks are making me recall the history of mass-market publishing

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The ebook revolution is really beginning to remind me of the mass-market papeback revolution.

The mass paperback was really “invented” by Sir Allan Lane when he created Penguin in Britain before World War II. (Wikipedia credits a German publisher with the first cheap paperbacks a few years earlier, but Lane was certainly the first in English and deserving of some extra credit because the company he started continues in the same business to the present day.) Pocket Books in the US was also born just before the war. During World War II, historian and polymath Philip Van Doren Stern (who wrote, among other things, the New Yorker short story on which the movie classic  “It’s A Wonderful Life” was based) ran a program for the US military by which inexpensive paperbacks were made available to the troops.

After the war ended, mass market publishing really grew. Many houses — Ballantine, Bantam, Signet, Avon — were launched immediately following the war. The key to mass-market publishing was that it achieved distribution through the network of wholesalers that put magazines on newsstands and in local stores (often drugstroes) nationwide. Unlike trade books, which required an agreement between publisher and bookseller to get a copy of any book on a retail shelf, mass markets were “allocated” by the publisher to the wholesaler and in turn pushed out by the wholesaler to the racks they controlled.

The advantage of this distribution technique was that it enabled lots of copies to be pushed out to lots of places with much lower sales and distribution costs. The disadvantage was that it really only worked if books were treated like magazines, with “on sale dates” when they went out and “off sale dates” when they were pulled back and, like magazines, had their guts pulped while only the covers were returned for credit.

The paperbacks were typically priced at 25 cents when hardcover books were $2 or $3. (Compare that 8-to-1 or 12-to-1 pricing ratio to what exists today. It doesn’t.) And mass-markets were available in tens of thousands of locations nationwide, perhaps more than a hundred thousand, when bookstores were few, department stores tended to have only one location, and trade books were typically available in hundreds of locations, or at most a couple of thousand.

The much more widespread availability of these titles combined with their much lower prices created legions of new readers. And, in the beginning, most mass-markets titles tended to fit into “genres”. Westerns were a really big one fifty years ago. Bantam’s perennial bestselling author of westerns, Louis L’Amour, may still be the biggest-selling author in unit sales in (what is now) Random House history. Crime and science fiction lines were also popular as were raunchy books. I’m not sure that romance lines existed in the way they do now (although I’ll bet that among the readers of this blog are people who will tell me that answer); at that time there were lots of magazines peddling romance stories (as there were for other genres.)

If this is ringing some bells for an observer of the ebook transition who didn’t know paperback history, it is entirely intended to. Let’s ring a few more.

The hardcover publishers were very snobby about the paperback houses. Over time it developed that the mass-marketers were able to create enormous additional revenues from books previously published as hardcovers. (This did require the mass-market publishers to keep some titles on sale for longer than a normal cycle, which was not simple, but worth the trouble for books that sold really well.)

The name recognition of successful books, along with the ability to put words which said “established bestseller” on the cover, could be converted into huge sales given the much lower prices and much wider distribution mass-market could achieve. Over time this led to rapidly rising paperback license payments from paperback publishers to hardcover publishers. These were, by traditional contract, shared 50-50 with the authors. They provided a substantial, if temporary, bonanza for the trade houses in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.

But the new marketplace also led to the growth of genre authors whose audiences were established for low-priced paperbacks. It was often difficult for those authors to move “up” to more expensive hardcover publication. Their audiences didn’t want to pay the higher prices, but they also didn’t necessarily shop in the bookstores and book departments where those books were found; they were used to buying their books at newsstands and in drugstores.

When I was first coming into New York from the suburbs as a kid in the late 1950s and early 1960s, there was a fabulous selection of paperbacks at a drug store that occupied the corner location in the Grand Central building at 42nd Street and Vanderbilt Avenue. I found a series of baseball biographies there published by Sport Magazine. I remember a book about 1001 things you could get for free by writing away for them. And, of course, the public domain classics were all there. And I got some great trash like “I Sell Love” and a book about airline stewardesses whose title now escapes me but which was great naughty reading for an early teenager.

Then in the summer of 1962, when I was 15, I worked a 2-month stint at the very classy Brentano’s Bookstore on 5th Avenue and 47th Street. My assignment was downstairs in the brand new, just-opened, paperback department. The center of the basement contained the “trade” paperbacks, mostly academic, on shelves. Around the outside were the mass-markets in racks. The mass-markets were on racks arranged by publisher, because the publishers’ reps serviced them on a weekly basis.

Scribners Bookstore, across the street, didn’t deign to stock paperbacks for some years thereafter.

My dad, Leonard Shatzkin, told a story about the legendary Jason Epstein’s Anchor line of paperbacks at Doubleday (perhaps the first line of quality, or trade, paperbacks, but almost certainly the first such line to come from a mainstream trade house). Dad’s responsibilities as Director of Research extended to the sales force and he ran the sales conferences. At one such conference when Anchor Books (and Jason) were very young, Dad told me that Sid Gross, the head of merchandise for the company’s Doubleday Book Stores, tore into the whole concept of the cheap paperback. He hated them. From his perspective, it was bad for a book retailer to be selling 25 cent items instead of $3 items! Many other booksellers back then felt the same way.

My father’s reaction, pretty typical for him, was to support the contrarian and revolutionary view. He pushed the reps to make Anchor Books a success and, a few years later when Epstein had moved on to Random House, Dad created the Dolphin Books line of quality paperbacks to complement Anchor, whose title selection was pretty highbrow, with public domain and more popular current titles.

That anti-paperback snobbery was widespread and the separation between trade and mass-market publishing persisted for a long time. For at least a couple of decades, paperback houses didn’t do hardcovers and didn’t try to put their titles directly into bookstores (as bookstores started to carry mass-markets, at first they bought them from the wholesalers who racked them) and the trade publishers didn’t try to access the mass-market distribution system. This changed in the 1970s. First Peter Mayer and Bill Shinker pioneered the use of mass-market techniques for oversized trade paperbacks published by a mass-market house (Avon). Then a few years later, Bantam starting publishing hardcovers with distribution to mass accounts.

In the end, mass-market distribution was dismantled by a number of forces. The best retail accounts started buying direct from publishers rather than through the local wholesalers. The number of titles grew so that the “allocation” methods wouldn’t work anymore; there were too many publishers and too many titles for a diminishing number of pockets to handle, so the more expensive negotation method became required.

Patterns are being replicated now with inexpensive and widely-available ebooks. New authors are being spawned. Genre fiction works best. Books that were previously successful in more expensive formats can find new audiences as their prices come down and they go where new customers are shopping. And traditional publishers are sure that their “quality” protects them from low-brow competition, even while that competition is taking millions of customer dollars and countless hours of customer mindshare off the table.

But here’s how that old story ended. Mostly, the mass-market publishers won. Penguin bought Viking. Bantam bought Doubleday and then Random House. Simon & Schuster survived largely because they merged very early with Pocket Books. What is now Hachette is largely called Little, Brown, which was a hardcover house, but it really developed over the last two decades of the 20th century as Warner Books, a mass-market house. Really, only HarperCollins and Macmillan of the current Big Six are true descendents of the trade publishers that were dominant when mass-market publishing arose.

There are a slew of differences between the transitions; ebook publishing has a title glut to deal with just like mass-market did, but the challenges are not the same when you don’t have printed books to manufacture and ship around and your distribution isn’t limited by shelf space or pockets to display them. And authors couldn’t do it themselves in the mass-market era the way they can today. But there is a very basic lesson I think publishers better take on board from this history.

Much-less-expensive editions, combined with access to audiences for authors that couldn’t get past the gatekeepers in the established houses, can create millions of new readers that weren’t available to the legacy products at the legacy prices.

And that can lead to economic power that can ultimately swallow up large chunks of the legacy publishing establishment.

I posted more than six months ago that I had read my first self-published ebook, a history of the 1962 New York Mets called “A Year in Mudville”. Then I had an exchange in the comments string of my last post with Joe Konrath, who used to be published by NY publishers but is now finding it much more lucrative to do it himself, and a reader named Chris. They urged me to read a self-published ebook bestseller, “Wish List” by John Locke. It was fabulous, sort of a cross between contemporary bestselling author Carl Hiaasen and a relic of the early mass-market days, Jim Thompson: bold, caustic, and funny with characters you like who suddenly do outrageously anti-social things. Locke has apparently come out of nowhere with just his talent to help him and is selling shedloads of ebooks. (He’ll certainly sell another one or two to me!) I am not price-sensitive about my reading and I haven’t ever shopped the 99 cent pile, but Locke is certainly evidence that there is stuff in there that is the equal of anything the big publishers are doing at major multiples of that price point. It will be an interesting challenge to see if any major publisher can deliver enough added value to make a deal with Locke or Amanda Hocking, another writer who has found a huge market without any help from the establishment.

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  • JA Konrath

    Terrific post, Mike. And I love the wrap up:

    Much-less-expensive editions, combined with access to audiences for authors that couldn’t get past the gatekeepers in the established houses, can create millions of new readers that weren’t available to the legacy products at the legacy prices.

    I'm convinced, based on my sales of self-published ebooks compared to my legacy published ebooks, and the amount of email that I get, that my legacy background has very little to do with my current success. My previous fans aren't following me to ebook. In fact, I'm finding new fans who never heard of me before, who then go on to buy my tradtiionally published backlist.

    Authors like Locke, and Hocking, and dozens of others who never had a legacy backlist are further proof that these new readers are real, and don't care who was a bestseller or who wasn't in print.

    • The thing that I'm beginning to realize, and which may have been obvious to

      you all along, is that there are markets in pockets. There are people who go

      into Facebook and don't come out. If you want to reach those people, you

      have to reach them there. There are people who shop the 99 cent ebooks at

      their favorite ebook store. If you want to sell them a book, you have to

      have one there. And there are, increasingly, conversation nodes growing

      around the Internet (among your fans, Amanda Hocking's fans, John Locke's

      fans, and others) about what to read that have great power among the people

      participating. These are sort of free-form and unbranded megaphones and

      publications that are spreading the word in ways the establishment can't


      The first tweet back to me on this post was somebody saying “but how do we

      find the good stuff?” But readers as a group always beg for better curation.

      It evolves.


      • Chris

        Nice post, Mike. A great history lesson for me there, so thanks for that.

        Glad that you liked 'Wishlist' too. Also thrilled that you may have read a Hiaasen or two!

        As for market pockets…

        Finding/identifying them then participating in/exploiting them is going to be key. Marketers can drill down like never before and they will have more data at hand within the next few years.

        Take Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat Pray Love – it's 'Liked' by 762,440 women in the US. This pocket can be targeted via Facebook but it is also obvious that the core reader for this type of spiritual travelogue can be reached in various other locations – spiritual web communities, self-help/personal development forums, travel forums, Twitter lists, etc. Not to mention the return data you receive from Facebook after running a campaign. That info is gold. It will give you a ton of niche topics to target.

        Of course, most of the Eat Pray Love readers mentioned probably don't own a Kindle/iPad yet but imagine what the market data will look like when they do?!

        That said, I think I read recently that more than half of Facebook's users access the site via mobile. Which means every one of these users has an ereading device masquerading as a smartphone already!

      • I suspect that a very high percentage of the Facebook fans of Eat Pray Love

        have a screen on which they might have read EPL, but on which they certainly

        can read the next book we suggest.

        The question is: how many of these people ever visit a bookstore? I'd bet

        fewer than own a reading screen. Or if not yet, very soon.


      • Fran

        I put the start of the paperback revolution in the 18th century. Often, books were published only as paperbacks. At the bookstore, prospective purchasers could initially use the half-title page to see if it was a book of interest, without beating up the real title page. The purchaser could have the book bound to match the rest of his/her personal library, or merely read the paperback without binding it. The latter was more likely if it was a novel, regarded as a book of dubious or at least transitory value because it was pure entertainment, not offering solid education or moral enlightenment.

        I object to the term “legacy” publishing because it implies that “print is dead.” There is no indication that print will ever be dead. New forms of entertainment tend to me merely added to the existing mix. We still have live theaters, and film theaters, and DVDs, and television.

        I do not think that the price of ebooks will ever shrink to nothing, or even 99 cents in the long term (except for special promotions). Printing is not the only expense. There is still the author's time, expertise, and financial investment. There is still editing, often illustration, page formatting, often indexing, sometimes translation. Even a self-publisher has overhead–office space, computer hardware and software, office supplies, services from accountants and lawyers. Every book has to be marketing, and that costs money. Then, retailers such as Amazon want a cut of the profits in return for making the book readily available and providing fulfillment.

        Finally, the costs savings from printing large quantities of mass-market paperbacks have always depended on selling a large number of copies. There are many excellent books that will never sell large numbers of copies–nonfiction on niche subjects, scholarly books, various kinds of specialist books. Even with an ebook, there are significant costs, and those costs have to be amortized over the number of copies sold.

        I've published niche books since before Amazon was in businesses. Amazon discounting those books up to 37% has not increased my sales a bit. I'm still selling the same number of books, and I have to do the same amount of marketing to the same audience. I could probably put the lot out on a big table at 99 cents apiece and no one could buy them except the people who do so already (at a much better profit for me).

        It's well to remember that not every book is a novel.

      • Fran

        Sorry for the typos. The type on your site is rendering very small on my monitor. But another comment:

        It's a lot easier to pirate an e-book than a print book. Any suggestion of this seems to send e-book advocates into a tizzy. But the fact is, people do pirate e-books and it does cut into sales. Furthermore, things like the Kindle lending program (plus websites set up for strangers to exchange loans) can effectively cut sales in half even without any piracy.

        One thing I am noticing is that the e-book audience contains an unusually large number of people who don't want to pay for books. This is being encouraged by authors deep-discounting self-published books in the hope of huge sales–even though most books will never be bestsellers, whatever the publication format. I'd rather stick with readers who are more willing to pay. If printing the book on paper sends out the message that “this book is worth paying for,” that's a very good marketing statement.

      • You're right. Ebooks are cheap and they attract people that don't want to

        pay a lot of money for books. Printed books effectively kept those people

        out of the market or forced them to pay more. That's a competitive problem

        for people who make their living from printed books.


      • Fran

        The used book market and public libraries have been around for a very long time, and have long been resources for people who don't want to pay much for books. And they didn't have to pay for an e-reader or any other device to read them.

        As a broke college student way back when, I scoured the used bookstores near the university and found as much as I needed to read. More than–I had a to-read pile even then. Now, if I want a used book, I can almost always find it on Amazon marketplace or by searching When my mother-in-law wanted a biography of a certain politician for Christmas, I bought her a large, never-read hardcover on Amazon for 50 cents. One of many copies for sale there. There are lots and lots of remaindered books, unwanted gifts and so on around, and now no one has to scour physical bookstores in the hope of finding them. And if you're willing to buy a copy that's already been read, the used price can be very low indeed. I passed up on selling one of my never-read paperbacks on Amazon Marketplace when I saw copies on sale for one cent.

        As for libraries, I have always found them to be inconvenient and preferred to buy all my books. However, the mileage of many people varies.

        So,. no, e-books do not bring books before a starving public who could only afford to pay a few books. There were plenty of those books available before.

      • Fran

        Also, Mike, not all books are such “creative” endeavors that everyone wants to work just for fun. I spend approximately two years of full-time work on every book I spent seven years of exceptionally hard work on one book, four of them full time. This is how I earn my living. I need to get paid. So do most other writers.

        Frankly, hearing people happily assert how eager I will be to work for them free, forever, just makes me feel exploited. I've got an actual profession here and related expertise. I do real work, I spend real money, and I run a real business.

        You have no grounds for asserting that “99-cent books will be around forever.” Or at least, if you've got a time machine I want to know where I can buy one of my own.

      • This subject is not personal to me. It obviously is to you. Thanks for a

        stimulating discussion, but I think that's where I'd like to stop.

        And as for the crystal ball, it's part of what I do. “Futurist” is in the

        metadata for this blog (if you Google for it in publishing, you'll probably

        get to me.) I know it's presumptuous and I sometimes find that a bit

        embarrassing, but it is a part of what I do for a living. You don't have to

        accept it. Most people don't a lot of the time.


      • Fran

        And, if what readers see as the glad day ever comes when no one will pay me for my books, guess what? I'll just go right back to Silicon Valley (where I've worked quite successfully before” and write computer manuals for a handsome regular salary, health insurance, very likely a good company cafeteria, and other benefits. Why hot? I've also been offered jobs writing marketing copy for a handsome salary, which I did not take at the time, but I always can now.

        Beats busting my tail to turn out books for people who don't want t pay me.

      • Fran


        Someone making a quilt for themselves, possibly not very well, is not doing it professionally. If you buy one that has been expertly made, and has not been outsourced to a third-world country, you will pay a significant amount of money for it. Likewise, many writers really are professionals, and most publishers of any size are professionals. And we have to pay for our housing and groceries just like our readers so. Readers are not working for their employers or customers for free. Why should writers?

      • Chris

        Fran, as much as this hurts, ebooks will probably be free.

        Online newspapers are free, blogs are free, pirated movies and music are free, ditto games.

        You gotta be ready for the hustle.

        Just because something is free doesn't mean the content producer can't make money.

        You need to trust the free market economy. Ain't nothing really 'free'!! 😉

      • Well, sure.

        But it is really an entirely different thing to be able to choose from lots

        and lots of books that will be delivered to you instantly for a very nominal



      • Well, let's see.

        Your dating of paperback publishing provided some useful education, but

        doesn't persuade me to change my nomeclature.

        “Legacy publisher”, to me, means a publisher with an economic structure

        built around selling print books. That doesn't mean that publishers created

        as ebook or ebook-first publishers won't sell any print. And I agree that

        print won't disappear within the lifetime of anybody thinking about it

        today, but I don't think print will be the primary revenue source for most

        publishers within the working lives of most people working in publishing


        There will be lots of ebooks for 99 cents or less forever. And “proving”

        they won't by roughly describing the economic requirements of writers isn't

        a persuasive argument. There is no particular guarantee that creative

        endeavors that people want to engage in will be lucrative. Ask your favorite


        The “costs” of making an ebook available, if you're willing to do a little

        work, *can be zero*. The costs of making a print available can only be

        equivalently zero if you own the press and make the paper.

        And I congratulate on your successful business selling niche books. Books in

        some niches will command higher prices than books in other niches. Print or

        digital. I'm glad you're apparently in a lucrative one.


  • JA Konrath

    Terrific post, Mike. And I love the wrap up:

    Much-less-expensive editions, combined with access to audiences for authors that couldn’t get past the gatekeepers in the established houses, can create millions of new readers that weren’t available to the legacy products at the legacy prices.

    I'm convinced, based on my sales of self-published ebooks compared to my legacy published ebooks, and the amount of email that I get, that my legacy background has very little to do with my current success. My previous fans aren't following me to ebook. In fact, I'm finding new fans who never heard of me before, who then go on to buy my tradtiionally published backlist.

    Authors like Locke, and Hocking, and dozens of others who never had a legacy backlist are further proof that these new readers are real, and don't care who was a bestseller or who wasn't in print.

  • I too am convinced that new readers are emerging. They read, I suspect, on Smartphones, and have probably never bought a printed book in their lives. Consider, for example, the success of Vianka van Bokkem. According to Joe Konrath’s blog she sold more than 2,500 ebooks in the month of December alone. Her ‘books’ typically run from 6,000 to 15,000 words. She makes numerous mistakes in grammar, spelling and punctuation. She has picked up the fact that dialogue is normally placed inside inverted commas, but has not quite grasped that you don’t need a pair of commas around each sentence. She also writes patients when she means patience, and aloud when she means allowed.

    But her readers obviously don’t care. They aren’t the kind of people who re-read Proust every couple of years.

    I suspect that Vianka is demonstrating an important point here. The goddess of the digital revolution presents her opportunities even-handedly. She doesn’t care whether you’re a master of exquisite prose or not. All that matters is whether you have enough imagination to concoct a story which will glue your (new) readers to the text.

    The old-time publishers who resisted paperbacks will be equally appalled by these new readers and by those who enjoy success in writing for them. But personally I’m rather amused by it. Those brilliant gatekeepers who rejected so many books which went on to be huge sellers are being taught a lesson here: it takes all sorts.

    • Thanks for the comment and the new info, Michael. One interesting question

      is whether copy-editing Vianka would make her sell better or worse.


  • Eric Christopherson

    But how do you find the good stuff (from amongst the gazillion self-pubbed titles)?

    * Best seller lists
    * Amazon's “customer's who bought, also bought” recommendation system
    * Reader reviews at Amazon, Goodreads, B&N, etc.
    * Book bloggers/reviewers who focus on indie works (e.g., Red Adept Reviews)
    * Samples, i.e., free downloads of opening chapters
    * Word of mouth, online and off

    There are limitations to each of these methods. But together not a bad array, and I've probably left something out.

    More generally, consider how many websites there are in the world–Google searches about three trillion unique urls now–and yet it's not hard to find that handful of sites perfect for you.

    Enjoyed the history lesson, Mike. That “creative destruction” of Schumpeter's is just relentless.

    • Your list of curation sources is a good one. And it will only grow longer

      and get more personal. Of course, the number of titles to be curated is also

      growing by leaps and bounds.


  • Brilliant analogy & history lesson. I also think that it harks back to the old marketing levers of the four “p”s – product, place, promotion and price. One can't really design a marketing strategy without considering all four, because each combination could be a window into a whole new market that you wouldn't consider otherwise.

  • Excellent item with layers of lessons for publishers… I wonder how many will heed it? Teasing out just what is different this time round is the real task.

    • The key thing “different” is the lack of limitation. There is no lower limit

      on price; today it is 99 cents but tomorrow it could be 50 cents and at some

      point there could be a lot of good stuff available free (in fact; there

      already is, and lots of it from real publishers!)

      And the mass-market business had editors screening manuscripts and capital

      costs limiting the number of titles publishers produced. Ebooks have neither



      • Chris

        I think over time (sooner than we expect) we will find some pretty savvy marketing efforts tied to free ebooks.

        Will I buy related product based on Captain James Cook's 19th century exploration diaries? Probably.

        Will I buy product launched from Eat Pray Love? No… but my bloody wife probably would!!

      • Yes, makers and vendors of other things will find that content sells

        product, and free ebooks will be a way for them to sell some. I think that's

        saying what you said in a slightly different way.


  • MerchManiac

    I think the mass market paperback/ebook market analogy is quite apt except for one respect. Mass market paperbacks never required a sizable upfront investment. It's fine to talk about the explosion of self-published authors and the 99 cent pile, but before you can buy anything for 99 cents — or get it free from Project Gutenberg — you've got to invest in a device.

    From the comments I've read so far I'm sure someone will point out that most everyone has a smartphone these days and so buying a dedicated ereader — or, at even greater cost, an iPad — isn't necessary. But I'm not yet convinced that a sizable portion of ebooks are being bought by readers who do all their reading on a smartphone. The explosive sales of iPads, Kindles, Nooks, and so on tells me most readers are going the dedicated device route. And until the cost of these devices falls well below $100 I make the following assumptions about the readers of ebooks: 1) they're affluent and 2) they're older (which is what you generally have to be to be affluent).

    In other words, they're *not* the same people who benefitted so mightily from the mass market paperback revolution.

    Perhaps I'm picking nits — and perhaps my point will be gone with the wind when ereading devices do become an impulse purchase at Staples (as your basic pocket calculator is now) — but as someone who bought his share of mass market paperbacks in his youth and never had to think much about the cost, I'm troubled by the barriers to entry ereaders present to the very class of people who once enjoyed picking those westerns and romances off a drugstore rack.

    If nothing else the rise of iPad and NookColor users illustrates the growing gap between the haves and have-nots — they sell like hotcakes at a time when unemployment refuses to drop below 9%. (For the record, I was laid off from Barnes & in January and am still part of that 9%.)

    Don't get me wrong: I recognize the revolution ebooks have wrought, and there's no turning back. It's gratifying to learn of successful self-published authors and exciting to think that all of us now have a chance to discover a John Grisham or Elmore Leonard or John Updike or David McCullough without the aid of a major publisher or a crib like the New York Times Book Review.

    But are ereaders spreading literacy and an appreciation of the value of reading … or simply making reading and bookbrowsing easier for that 5% of us who were doing it all along?

    I don't think there's any question that the mass market paperback grew the reading public. I'm not sure we can make the same claim (yet) for ebooks.

    • Data is still hard to come by, but there are substantial indications that

      new readers are being recruited from tablet (iPad) and smartphone buyers:

      people who didn't read books much before, got the devices, and now are using

      them to read books.

      And I think the below-$100 threshhold you want will be satisfied by the

      secondary market for devices on ebay and other such places. I was with a

      friend in London last month who was planning to buy an iPad the minute the

      new ones came out “because I'll find them on ebay for fifty quid.” And, of

      course, he'll sell the one he buys now in a couple of years for *ten* quid!

      The evidence that ebooks are growing the market is sketchy, but it exists.

      The publishers I have talked to are seeing an increase in unit sales: print

      isn't declining as much as ebooks are adding. One distributor I know did a

      study using a basket of backlist titles newly converted to ebooks and found

      the decline of print sales was less than the new ebook sales.


    • Chris

      I still haven't bought a Kindle, iPad, iPhone… but I do read ebooks on my PC and MacBook with the kindle app. It's certainly not as enjoyable as it could be but sometimes I just can't help myself downloading stuff like 'Wishlist' and reading it. With that particular title I got lost in the tale and forgot about the stupid computer screen!

  • Speaking for myself, I would love to get a Kindle, but being unemployed does not allow me to spend $139 on such an item at the moment. I did download “Kindle for PC” and installed it onto my laptop, then got a few of the free books to try it out.

    The convenience is great – being able to read a book basically immediately after deciding to order it is a wonderful selling point of e-books and, presumably will cause more impulse buys. Reading a book on my laptop, not so great. I prefer a physical book, not words on a screen. The issue is, to get a physical book, I have to 1) pay more and 2) wait for shipping of the item. So, the “impulse” to buy is not as strong, given the impending delay in achieving the satisfaction of actually reading the book.

    If I actually had a Kindle (when the price drops and/or I start working again), maybe I would use it. I just think I am too old fashioned to ever want to eliminate the relaxation and enjoyment I get from reading actual, physical, paper books.

    • Kevin, reading on a PC is a bit difficult. But I, for one, had a Kindle and

      switched over to reading on the iPhone when I got one and they created a

      Kindle app for it. Now I have the Kindle, Kobo, Nook, and iBookstore apps on

      it and I actually use them all.

      The convenience factor you mention — speed of satisfaction — is a big

      deal. So is having your book with you all the time.

      Good luck with your job search.


  • Howard

    Excellent and enjoyable post. Thanks Mike.

  • The comparison of eBooks to mass market is apt. I remember when I started in publishing how some people at the “hardcover imprints” looked down on the lowly mass market group. But the numbers started growing and growing for mass. The rapid rise of mall-based chains Waldenbooks and BDalton's also helped spur the growth. It was not unusual to have 10-12 monthly dumps of 27, 36 or 48 copies of a single title.

    Plus returns expenses were limited because all one had to do was strip the cover off the book. Freight costs went down dramatically.

    There are a lot of parallels to eBooks. Thanks for writing this, I am not thinking about this all in a bit of a different light.

    • Jack, thanks for this.

      I am thinking that your early days at Random House might have been not long

      after they acquired Fawcett to go with Ballantine. (I can't remember offhand

      exactly when Random paired up with Ballantine; it might have been pretty

      early.) Fawcett was a really pure mass-market house; they had very little in

      the way of direct sales muscle (unlike, for example, Bantam.) And they were

      very category-driven. It is easy to imagine a cultural gap there.

      The reconciling of mass-market cultures with pure trade cultures was a

      challenge all the big companies dealt with. At St. Martin's (now part of

      Macmillan as I know you know but not all our readers might), they built the

      mass-market division from scratch but the other five big companies all dealt

      with the cultural merge.


      • Jack W Perry

        When I arrived at RH, the Ballantine Group was quite separate from the otters. The mass mkt driven imprints were Ballantine, Fawcett, Ivy, Del Rey. No other RH publisher touched mass. A lot of good authors from Knopf and RH were funneled into Ballantine. I remember Michael Crichton (at the height of Jurassic Park) and Anne Rice (her Vampire Lestat was as big as Twilight) each had 3-4 titles flying out of the stores. We would create mixed displays and pump out the backlist by the millions of units. Warner mass was also distributed and sold by the Ballantine ID sales group for a bit.

        But it was all about lower prices, putting books where consumers were shopping and being very aggressive. All could apply to ebooks today.

      • Thanks for adding some detail to the history.


  • Michelle Styles

    In answer to your question about romance. Mills & Boon started publishing romance as a major genre in about the 1920s but as hardbacks for the circulating library. Ironically the first book they published was a romance. It wasn't until Harlequin was started as a pulp fiction publisher in part to keep the presses of the Toronto Star running in 1949 that the books went into the NA market in a big way. Harlequin started bought doctor and nurse romances from Mills & Boon in the mid 50s which proved highly profitable. By the early 1960s all of Harlequins output was romance. The trend kickbacked to the UK, and by 1966 half of their books were in paperback — this was late compared to other British publishers. Sometime in the 1960s they hired a marketing man from P&G who transformed the way they looked at customers… There were other sections of the romance market in particular the Gothic as explemified by Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt and Phyliss Whitney. Barbara Cartland who never wrote for Harlequin is another example. But the huge growth in romance mass market happened during the mid to late 70s.
    It is interesting by the way that the Telegraph recently reported Harlequin Mills & Boon is one of the leaders of digital books in the UK. They postulated that it enabled readers to hide the covers, but HMB did have first mover advantage (they had learnt from the late entry to paperbacks) and romance readers read a lot of books — I met a woman last week who reads between 6- 9 books per week, most of them HMB and her sister does the same. They have moved to ereaders to save space.

    • Thanks for vindicating my faith in my knowledgeable readers! And thanks for

      the history of romance publishing.

      Indeed, romance has been one of the strong categories for ebooks precisely

      because of the continuous diet some people like to make of these books.


    • Yes – very interesting indeed! Thanks for sharing.

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  • We are pass the point of no return I'm afraid… It's all about ePublishing, eReading and eEverything. Do any of you have any site recommendations, where you get your eBooks from? I found NOVOink to a good source. They have all kinds of fiction /nonfiction /science / and interactive magazines etc… I need variety – thoughts?!
    Almost forgot!

    • Haven't used Novoink. I buy from (in no particular order) Kindle, Nook,

      Kobo, and Google. I have found among those four all the choice I want.


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  • Ellamenta

    Question, please: how do you compare the “mass market paperbacks” of the 40s and 50s to the dime novels of the earlier times?

    • The dime novels probably are legitimate predecessors to the mass-market

      paperback. I'm not as solid on their history, though, because I think their

      heyday was the late part of the 19th century. (Anything that happened before

      my Dad's time is not so thoroughly documented in my mental database.) So the

      connection to today's publishing scene is not nearly as direct. But I

      suspect they also worked mostly in genres and probably often introduced new

      authors. Nice catch.


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  • Claire Martin

    Was the vaguely naughty book about airline stewardesses called “Coffee, Tea or Me”?

  • Richard1990

    Thanks Mike! Very interesting one. I hope my PDF Editor will be of use to you.

  • Petrin

    Very interesting is how the cheap publishing for ebook readers allows not only for mass market books, but for niche markets books as well. There are for example ebooks with maps of cities – for free at – but I believe it would not make sense to publish these books in paper.

    • There will be a lot more of that. It’s like “short” ebooks. Can’t really do them in paper either.


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