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Those popular paperbacks

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 11, 1982


The rent's due, the cat doesn't eat anything but pate de foie gras, and you have this incredible urge to expand your book collection. What do you do? Build a paperback library.

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Although a few readers still consider paperbacks the literary equivalent of junk mail, they have gained greater respectability in recent years. The New York Times Book Review, for example, recently featured a paperback on its front page - ''a rarity,'' according to Sarah Newell, assistant to the review's book editor. It also represents a shift from the conventional publishing wisdom that says only hardbound books get reviews.

The paperback, traditionally the poor cousin of the publishing world, has become so popular with so many publishers in recent years that there's stiff competition for shelf space in stores.

For readers, this explosion of paperbacks offers several advantages. So many paperbacks are available nowadays that Tom Hart, paperback editor at Houghton Mifflin Company here in Boston, says, ''I don't think there's been a better time for a person to go out and buy a book.''

The two most touted advantages of paperbacks are:

* Cost. Although all book prices have skyrocketed in the last decade, most soft-cover books hold a sizable price advantage over hardcovers. According to figures from the Association of American Publishers (AAP), the average price of a mass-market paperback (the popular, small-size variety that can be found in the grocery store) is $2.65. Trade paperbacks (usually larger-sized and printed on better-grade paper) average $9. Hardcover books fetch about $26 on average.

* Portability. Readers are much more likely to carry a paperback than a hardcover. ''I think they're convenient,'' says Carole Horne, a buyer for Harvard Book Stores Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. ''They're lighter, and you can stuff them in your purse.''

These and other factors have led to growing acceptance of paperbacks among consumers, with paperback sales exploding in the past two decades, according to publishers and booksellers. Last year alone, revenue from sales increased 12.7 percent, according to the AAP.

''I have walls and walls of paperbacks,'' says Ms. Horne. ''Most people simply can't afford to buy the hardcovers.''

Brad Miner, senior editor with Bantam Books Inc., agrees: ''There's been a dramatic shift that started in the '60s. Hardcover sales have gone down, as paperback sales have gone up.''

The explosion in paperbacks has led not only to greater numbers, but greater variety, as paperbacks continue to challenge hardcover books.

Whereas some book stores used to carry no paperbacks at all, they often prefer them to clothbound books now. ''By and large, I will buy the paperback edition,'' says bookstore-buyer Ms. Horne. In many cases, store owners can't afford to hold a $15.95 hardcover book on their shelves, but they will stock the

Even for paperbacks, shelf space is getting fiercely competitive as publishers put out more titles.

''In 1979 we hit the wall,'' explains Mr. Miner, whose company (Bantam) claims to be the largest mass-market publisher. After two decades of dramatic growth in opening new sales outlets in bookstores, grocery stores, and specialty shops, the publishers ran out of markets. Although booksellers opened chain stores, the stores themselves carried the same number of books, and couldn't accomodate an increased number of titles, he says. This, in turn, poses certain problems for the consumer.