NEW YORK — As the hard-working parents of two small children, John and Lisa Carper certainly understand the value of comparison shopping. But not when it comes to books. Both are absolutely adamant: If an inexpensive, 4-by-7 mass-market paperback were standing side-by-side on the bookstore shelf with a larger, handsomer trade paperback version of the same book, they'd pass right over the bargain book and gladly pay extra dollars.
"Those little ones, the spines crack and you get lines down the back," Mr. Carper says.
It's an aesthetic question, his wife agrees. "You like the way [the more expensive book] looks."
The purchasing preferences of readers like the Carpers are speaking to publishers in clear dollars and cents. Mass-market paperback book sales in the United States dropped by nearly 9 percent between 1995 and 1998, three times the decline in consumer books as a whole.
But the desire to own an edition more likely to please when flashed on the commuter train or stashed in a home bookcase is only one factor in a more complex series of changes hitting the publishing industry and weakening demand for the once-beloved mass-market paperback.
Perhaps most significant is the consolidation of book distributors from a myriad of small local groups into a handful of large players who don't cater to low-volume outlets like newspaper stands and corner drugstores, vendors that once helped fuel mass-market sales.
"The bigger companies have a more national approach," says Daisy Mayles, executive editor of Publishers Weekly. "They go only to the bigger outlets."
As a result, according to numbers from the Consumer Research Study on Book Purchasing, the mass-market books claim a smaller part of total book purchases, having slipped from making up 39 percent of the market in 1993 to 36 percent in 1997. Hardcover books, by contrast, grew to 31 percent of sales in 1997, up from 28 percent in 1993.
"Certainly snob appeal is also a factor" in the decline in mass-market paperback sales, Ms. Mayles adds. "But it's only one piece of the puzzle."
Other industry observers cite the rise of huge-volume booksellers like Barnes & Noble and Borders, companies that can afford to offer discounted hard-cover books, and prefer to push those and reap higher profit margins.
Paperback trade volumes are also more attractive to a bulk seller. "It's good old-fashioned American economics," says David Harrison, director of books and tapes at Kiplinger Books in Washington, D.C. "If I can sell you a book for $10, why sell it at $8?"
A further blow was dealt to mass-market paperbacks, Mayles says, the day Oprah Winfrey became an arbiter of literary tastes. Of the 23 books readers have seen the talk-show hostess wield on her televised book club, almost all have been the larger trade paperback editions.
When it comes to paperback reading, "She's helped to make it the edition of choice," Mayles says.
The mass-market paperback was born 60 years ago in 1939 when a company called Pocket Books launched a line of small, inexpensive volumes at 25 cents apiece. Fueled by advances in printing technology, the advent of mass media, and a burgeoning US population, the little books sold fast - until now.
But publishers say the drop of interest in the mass-market paperback is hardly a trend that's caught them by surprise. "It's a correction that's quietly been taking place for some time," says Jack Romanos, president and chief operating officer of Simon & Schuster.
Blame it on the baby boomers
According to Mr. Romanos, the dynamic most responsible for the shift away from the mass-market books has been a change in a core group of customers: the baby boomers. "They're more affluent and they're less patient," he says. They don't like to wait, and if the hardcover or trade version is available today, they're unlikely to wait until next month when they could save a few dollars.
But while many publishers have responded to the massmarket downturn by trimming their lists and shipping fewer volumes, Romanos stresses that "on a book-by-book basis, it's still an incredibly strong market for the right book."
Essentially, he says, there's nothing wrong with the fact that the baby boomers, once strong buyers of the mass-market book, have matured into consumers of a different type of volume.
What does worry him, however, is another question: "Who is going to replace them [as buyers of less expensive books?]" It's a question Claire Zion, executive editor of mass books for Warner Books, ponders as well. "I love mass-market books and I really believe in them," she insists. "There are still more mass-market paperbacks sold in this country than any other format."
But, Ms. Zion acknowledges, "We're in a period of flux." In part, she says, it's due to "volcanic changes in the distribution system." But at the same time, she fears, "There are fewer book readers in this country." Even more than television, Zion worries, the Internet has been responsible for luring readers away from books and toward a computer screen.
Despite such concerns, Zion perceives some fresh opportunities remaining for mass-market paperbacks. For one thing, she points out, the fact that high-volume sales outlets such as the Price Club, Target, and Wal-Mart stock large numbers of the books means that some viable new sales channels are replacing the old. What may be needed, she speculates, are some changes in the way such books are handled. There could be room for some lines of higher-quality mass-market books, she suggests.
"The readers we've retained are the true readers. They encourage a better quality of books." That's not to say there would be a move away from "genre" books like romance and science fiction that remain popular among mass-market readers. "But there could be room for more mainstream thrillers and general fiction to come out as paperback originals," she says. "A more commercial read. Something fast and accessible, but at the same time engrossing, thought-provoking."
Zion recognizes that readers of higher-quality books often prefer more deluxe packaging as well. "But it'll be a long time before that small, handy, cheap paperback isn't accessible and useful to most people."
Zion may be right - to a degree. Madeleine Crowther and Gerry Fagan, who are having fun browsing in a New York City Borders bookstore on a lovely spring afternoon, say that they have no objection to saving a few dollars by purchasing mass-market paperbacks. Not only are they cheap, says Ms. Crowther, but they're convenient. "They fit in my purse," she points out. "The small size is good."
But when shown two copies of Russian classic "Crime and Punishment" side-by-side on a shelf, there's a sudden shift of opinion. Each contains good, standard translations of the full text, but the short, stocky mass paperback version for $5.95 has a cheap black cover and looks like a low-budget crime thriller.
The taller $15 trade paperback next to it, however, features high-quality paper and a durable cover with tasteful graphics that create an aura somewhere between artistic and intellectual. It's a book that would look at home tossed on the desk of a hip college professor.
"Oh, you mean a good book like that," says Crowther. "That would be different."
"A book like that you'd like to keep," says Ms. Fagan. "I'd definitely buy the expensive one."