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On the Shelf: Death of the Mass Market Edition

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The Brooklyn Book Festival celebrated its 6th year this past weekend. One of the panels I was looking forward to was “Crashing Genres” with science fiction and fantasy authors Cory Doctorow, Jewell Parker Rhodes, and Kelly Link—the latter unfortunately was unable to make it. The panel was moderated by Stephanie Anderson, the manager of WORD, an independent bookstore in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, a great place for book buying, event going, and general nerding out. Between the three of them there was so much energy the conversation never waned.

Both Cory and Jewell, proponents of childhood literacy, have written novels for young readers as well as books for adults. Jewell’s much-acclaimed book Ninth Ward, an inspiring story with a twist of magical realism, is about a young, black girl living in New Orleans right before Hurricane Katrina. Cory’s Little Brother is a modern-day urban dystopic novel set in the wake of a terrorist attack in San Francisco.

To begin, all confessed they had no idea what “crashing genres” meant but agreed to go with it. While sussing it out, the discussion weaved through the increasing popularity of the young adult novel, the growing acceptance of once-taboo topics, and the sense of identity genre readers carry with them and what that means when their beloved subversive lifestyle goes mainstream. What struck me most during the talk was something Cory said: “You only go to bookstores once you know you’re a reader.” It felt true and hit me as something I’d never given any thought.

As a bookworm I take it for granted that the first place I think of when considering where to spend my time is a bookstore. There are plenty in my area, all with a carefully tailored selection. Bookstores are where I’m most likely to feel most comfortable and meet like-minded people. Doesn’t everyone go to bookstores? The bubble in which I live burst at that moment. Not, not everyone does.

The question Cory opened with this statement was, “where do new readers go to find books?” As someone in the publishing industry, and as a passionate reader, it’s an important one.

Always a wealth of information, Cory went into a brief history of the mass market paperback, the main format of genre fiction and often the cheapest, which makes it a great “gateway drug”.

According to Cory (a brief internet search didn’t bring up much information so this is un-fact checked), before the bookstore chains and big-box stores there were 400 distributors of books, now their numbers have been significantly reduced, possibly to the single digits (again, couldn’t find reliable information). The larger stores who were able to buy in bulk and negotiate for better discounts with publishers passed on larger discounts to their customers. Good for customers but bad for the industry as a whole. Before this massive growth, books could be found in grocery, candy, and drug stores but with chains gobbling up the competition, and with fewer distributors, these numbers have significantly decreased. Cory’s point in all of this is that the majority of “non-readers” found books in these unconventional locations and the inexpensive price of mass markets made them a low-risk purchase..

Michael Connelly, best-selling mystery writer, in the New York Times article The Dog-Eared Paperback, Newly Endangered in an E-Book Age, said, “Growing up and reading primarily inexpensive mass-market novels, it allows you to explore. I bought countless novels based on the cover or based on the title, not knowing what was inside.”

The article, citing a survey done by the Association of American Publishers and the Book Industry Study Group, says that since 2008 the publishing industry has expanded over all but mass-market paperback sales have fallen 14 percent. Claims of the mass market’s death is nothing new, it’s been going on since the 1980s. This was when the chain stores pushed out many independents with their discounts on hard cover titles—people no longer felt the need to wait for the cheaper edition.

Today, the same thing is happening with e-books. The affordable pricing of the electronic version, available for sale the first day of publication, makes it more appealing to readers who otherwise would’ve waited for the paperback to come out a year later.

And therein lies the double-whammy: although the price of e-books is right, the distribution is not. At the moment, they lack a physical presence in the stores listed above, regardless of how many distributors there might be. While I don’t believe e-books are a threat to publishing, their possible triumph over the cheap mass-market just might mean fewer non-readers finding their passion for the written word.

What do you think? Are non-readers exposed to books in more unconventional ways now than in the days of dime stores? Comments are open. 

This week’s selection owes many thanks to the great podcast Books on the Nightstand and their uncanny ability to talk up a book.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
This book is getting a ton of attention in the media but as Ann Kingman of Books On the Nightstand says in the latest episode, it’s buzz not hype and there certainly is a difference. Here’s a bit about the book from IndieBound:

The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.

But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway—a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will. Despite themselves, however, Celia and Marco tumble headfirst into love—a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands.

Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth by Apostolos Doxiadis, Christos H. Papadimitriou, Alecos Papadatos (Illustrator), and Annie Di (Illustrator)
Michael Kindness of Books on the Nightstand mentioned this one in the episode on graphic novels. He warned that it was a bit of a difficult read but if you’re into Betrand Russell and all those other logicians, you’ll want to grab this one.

Here’s a bit about it, also from IndiBound:

This exceptional graphic novel recounts the spiritual odyssey of philosopher Bertrand Russell. In his agonized search for absolute truth, Russell crosses paths with legendary thinkers like Gottlob Frege, David Hilbert, and Kurt Gödel, and finds a passionate student in the great Ludwig Wittgenstein. But his most ambitious goal—to establish unshakable logical foundations of mathematics—continues to loom before him. Through love and hate, peace and war, Russell persists in the dogged mission that threatens to claim both his career and his personal happiness, finally driving him to the brink of insanity.

Brave New Worlds: Dystopian Stories edited by John Joseph Adams
John Joseph Adams is a busy man. When he’s not getting married at Worldcon he’s working hard earning award nominations for his science fiction and fantasy anthologies. Not only does he edit short story collections, he’s also the editor of Fantasy Magazine and Lightspeed Magazine and co-hosts the podcast The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy. Brave New Worlds, as the subtitle suggests, is a roundup of dystopian fiction written over the past 30 years. Contributors include Ursula K. Le Guin, Cory Doctorow, M. Rickert, Paolo Bacigalupi, Orson Scott Card, Neil Gaiman, and Ray Bradbury.

Written by Gabrielle

September 22, 2011 at 5:52 am

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