ARE LOSING POPULARITY IN THE U.S.
There was a time when the lowly and cheap paperbacktucked on a drugstore rack was lavished with high praise, ranked in the revolutionary stratosphere with the advent of the Pill, or at the very least, air-conditioning or color television.
Publishers gleefully compared the 1939 beginning of the contemporary American paperback revolution to that earlier French revolution. And students of the late 1950s and early 1960s were duly labeled “the paperback generation” – a baby boom of masses raised on Dr. Spock’s “The Pocket Book of Baby and Child Care” and inspired by copies of “Catcher in the Rye” that seemed engineered to fit in blue-jean pockets.
But today there is less room in those pockets or, perhaps, some top publishers speculate, the aging eyes of that generation are growing a little dim for the printed type of the purse-sized, mass-market paperbacks, which were once promoted as “good reading for the millions.”
Since 1995, the number of mass-market paperbacks sold in the United States has declined by almost 9 percent, falling to 484 million copies last year, about three times the percentage loss in consumer books over all. And the immediate future offers little comfort; the publishers’ research arm, the Book Industry Study Group, is projecting continued slight annual declines for the paperback market over the next several years.
With the average price of a paperback climbing toward $7, the $1.5 billion market for the books remains profitable. But it has increasingly been losing ground to discounted hardcovers, which chains and independent bookstores generally prefer to stock along with quality trade paperbacks, which are larger and more expensive than ordinary mass-market paperbacks.
The paperback has also been buffeted by other forces – the consolidation of the wholesalers who stocked mass-market paperbacks in the nation’s supermarkets and drugstores; sagging public interest in paperback-friendly genres like westerns; the general aging of the industry’s biggest group of customers, and the declining popularity of mall stores that drew more impulse buyers than superstores do.
There are also enough unproved theories in the publishing industry to fill a paperback chapter. Are people devoting less time to casual recreational reading and more to booksoffering professional enrichment? Are people simply reading less? Or are people getting their reading fix from audio book tapes or the Internet?
“You’ve got a business that hit a wall; it’s still a business, but no one can figure out how to make it grow,” said Jack Romanos, the president of Simon & Schuster, which owns Podet Books, the paperback publishing house that started the business in 1939 with the experimental publication of “The Good Earth” and “Wuthering Heights.”
Since 1993, the ubiquitous 4-l/4-by-7 inch mass-market paperback has slipped from 39 percent of book purchases in the United States to 36 percent in 1997, according to the most regent report, from the Consumer Research Study on Book Purchasing. Meanwhile, hardcover sales, while generally sluggish, rose to 31 percent of the market, from 28 percent.
“Twenty-five years ago, we used to sell 8 to 10 mass-market paperbacks for every hardcover that we sold,” said Laurence J. Kirshbaum, the chairman of Time Warner Inc.’s Trade Publishing Group, which includes Warner Books. “Now the ratio is a 2-to-l relationship. So there’s been a tremendous transformation.”
The contemporary history of the mass-market paperback in the United States dates to 1939, when Robert de Graft, an ambitious publisher, introduced a line of plastic-laminated books that sold for 25 cents each.
Within a few years, Mr. de Graff’s company, Pocket Books, and its kangaroo mascot, Gertrude, ushered in the paperback revolution, creating an alternative mass distribution network. It moved beyond the elite carriage trade of existing bookstores and turned to a sprawling network of magazine distributors who took books to where Americans walked – thousands of newsstands, candy stores, cigar shops and food stores.
So, if today’s readers are buying fewer paperbacks, where has there attention been diverted? One prevalent theory is that they are spending more time on competing diversions such as exploring the Internet. Albert N. Greco, as associate professor of business at Fordham University who follows the publishing industry, said there were indications some readers might be finding more entertainment on videotapes. In 1997, for the first time, consumers spent more on home videos than books, a narrow gap projected to increase through 2001, according to figures from the Statistical Abstract of the United States.
“This is how people are voting with their dollars,” Mr. Greco said, referring to the Abstract’s data. “The average American spent $88.79 buying or renting videos and spent $88.09 on books. That’s less time and fewer dollars being spent on reading.”
But readers still spend enough on paperbacks to convince publishers that it remains a viable business.
by Doreen Carvajal, New York Times
put in a convenient position in a narrow space
Pill the birth control pill for women
grounds fail to defend a position of advantage
buffeted struck forcefully or repeatedly
wholesalers businessmen selling large quantities of goods at low prices
sagging bending downward or sinking
fix drug-taking slang for injection
ubiquitous something existing everywhere
mascot an object or animal chosen as a symbol and for luck
carriage trade trade from well-to-do people
sprawling spread out haphazardly
diverted cause to turn attention away from something
viable able to succeed in operation
QUESTIONS TO THE TEXT
1. When was the first paperback published? What were the first two titles?
2. How much did the first pocket books cost? How much does the average paperback cost today?
3. What is the difference between mass-market paperbacks and quality trade paperbacks?
4. Do Americans today spend more money on videos or on books?
5. What role did distributors play in making paperback books successful?
6. How many words to express “increase” and how many terms for the idea of “decrease” can you find in the text?
7. Who likes paperbacks most – young people or older people? Why?
8. What writing genres are published primarily in paperback form?
9. Was this article written for a book section or business section of the newspaper? Why do you think so?
10. Why do you think a kangaroo was chosen as a mascot for Pocket Books?
PROBLEMS FOR DISCUSSION
Compiled by Erin Bouma
1. Are texts with lots of dates, statistics, monetary amounts, etc. difficult to read and understand? Do you know how to read those numbers?
2. What does this article say about the changes in American lifestyle, reading habits, shopping patterns and tastes?
3. What are the strengths and weaknesses of hardback and paperback books? Which do you prefer? Why? When?
4. Why do Americans listen to books read on audio cassettes?