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March 16, 2010

Where have all the mass-market paperbacks gone?

All right, wouldn’t you know it? My twenty-five year old mass market paperback copy of The Tiger in the Tiger Pit by Janette Turner Hospital (which had a very unappealing cover and I found in a box on the sidewalk) turned out to be a wonderful novel. So much in common with Orpheus Lost, the other book I’d read by her though– literary allusions (though here they were Shakespearean instead of classical), musical references, bits of it taking place in her native Australia. Are all her books like this? Perhaps I’ll start combing the sidewalks and soon I’ll find out.

I found it interesting also that such a literary book would have come out in mass market paperback– does that still happen (unless you’re Margaret Atwood, whose mass market The Blind Assassin is fantastic)?  Did they even have trade paperbacks in 1984? Because I never find those in sidewalk boxes.

Recently, when I read How the Heather Looks (published in the mid-sixties), I noted the passage where Joan Bodger recounts the university town her family had once resided in where they sold books at the supermarket, a necessary staple along with all the others– milk, cheese, etc. And she thought that was so brilliant. A funny perspective, since books in the supermarket are the worst thing that have ever happened to books in most places– because they’re sold at such a knock-down cost, of course, that publishers make no money, booksellers can’t compete, and all the books they sell there are crap anyway. So it’s too bad about that last point, or we could just about put a positive spin on the whole thing, but alas.

So, anyway: whither art thou, literary mass-market paperback? And where is the modern-day Allen Lane when we need him/her most?

3 thoughts on “Where have all the mass-market paperbacks gone?”

  1. August says:

    I have a bunch of Penguins from the ’60s, and in terms of quality and size they more closely resemble the small end of the trade paperbacks than they do the mass markets (even my copy of The Hidden Persuaders, which is not very well made at all and should not have survived its first reading, has more in common with the trades than with the mass markets). I think the mass markets started to take on their current form a little later, in the ’70s and ’80s, though I can’t be sure because I’m not quite old enough to remember the ’70s (though I am old enough to have made an appearance). I’m glad to see them gone, and won’t buy them unless a book is literally unavailable in any other format, which almost never happens anymore. If they were still the slim, efficient little things like my mass market Penguin of Intruder in the Dust, then I would miss their place in the world of Literary fiction, but unless they go back to that I will continue to shake my fist at genre publishers for choosing them over trade paperbacks.

  2. Kerry says:

    I love mass market paperbacks– so portable, so cheap. I suppose really FAT mass market paperbacks are cumbersome (but these are usually crappy books anyway) but I mean the ones of a manageable size. My second-hand Penguins are along these lines, and a bit battered, but I just admire their accessibility.

  3. Bantam prints literary classics in cheap/mass market editions, and one or two NCL titles are still made pocket-sized – Who Has Seen the Wind, anyway. But front list titles? I can’t think of many, unless they also happen to be genre titles.

    What baffles me is what happened to the Penguin paperback. The original model worked because they were cheap, good quality and stylish. The new ones are expensive, badly bound and forgettable.

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