Those popular paperbacks

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.

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.

For one thing, the increased competition means that slow-selling paperbacks go off shelves and then out of print sooner than in the past, Mr. Miner says -- sometimes just six months after publication.

''You can't have deadwood on the shelves,'' says Denise Johnson, acting manager of a Paperback Booksmith store in Boston. The chain has instituted a sophisticated system for assessing titles; some are kept for as little as six weeks, she says.

Booksellers stress that they can order any book in print, if a customer requests it. When a potential buyer can't find a paperback title on the shelf, he or she should query a salesperson, they say. The book can often be at the store within a week, sometimes at no extra charge.

Clothbound editions still hold certain advantages over their flimsier counterparts, however. For one thing, they usually are issued ahead of paperback versions. Readers anxious to get the latest book as a rule have to buy them in hardcover - or wait, on average, a year for a paperback edition, publishers say.

And readers still buy hardcovers as keepsakes, or because they are easier to hold or to read, says Melanie Fleishman, a buyer for WordsWorth bookstore in Cambridge, Mass.

But even these advantages are not as pronounced as they used to be. Booksellers and publishers alike agree that consumers now are getting better-quality paperbacks, with some editions reaching the bookshelves a lot sooner than before.

Ms. Fleishman remarks that, 'Much more care and consideration is given to the cover design.'' What's more, publishers are using better-quality paper, especially in the trade paperbacks.

Publishers, aware of the paperback popularity, sometimes print simultaneous hardcover and paperback editions -- or dispense with the hardcover altogether and put out paperbound originals. ''Without question, it's the inevitable trend, '' Mr. Miner notes.

This upgrading has not come without a price, however. Even paperback costs have climbed substantially in the past decade.

For example, ''Bricks & Brownstone,'' an oversize, well-illustrated edition about New York City's row houses, cost $17.95 when it came out in hardcover in 1973. The new paperback version issued by Abbeville Press costs $16.95.

According to AAP estimates, average mass-market paperback prices have skyrocketed 250 percent since 1971. Yet -- as a measure of the books' continuing popularity, despite the higher costs -- gross sales of mass-market paperbacks are estimated to have increased 12.7 percent last year, while the overall increase in all categories of publishing was only 2 percent.

Indeed, some publishers and booksellers worry that paperback prices are too high. Mr. Hart of Houghton Mifflin, for example, says they are too expensive now for impulse buying. His company, which puts out trade paperbacks as well as hardcovers, recently priced ''The Mathetical Experience'' at $9.95, ''The Ultimate Baseball Book'' at $15. The days of the 25-cent new paperback, he adds, are gone.

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