How To Raise Prices? Blame It On Poor Eyesight

August 12th, 2005 · 1 Comment
by Booksquare

While we are fundamentally opposed to doing stuff like research around here, sometimes research cannot be avoided — it comes knocking at the door, asking if we’d like to play. No, no, we say, knowledge only muddies opinions. Mostly research goes home; sometimes it parks on the front porch, holding its breath until we agree to listen.

Such was our experience with so-called upperbacks. We found them amusing, if a bit pointless. Sure, the eyes need help as one gets older (just as hair color needs help), but did that require the introduction of a new, higher-priced book format? We’re going with no. And this was before the first book arrived via UPS. It was, as we’d expected, a regular paperback, but taller. The print was not noticeably larger, though the price was.

This is where research should have given up, but then we started seeing a slew of messages from readers, all, well, puzzled by the new size o’book. Nobody seemed to be saying, “Love it, love it, love it.” It was more along the lines of, “Well, I’m not going to pay more for that. Several members of the target audience shook their heads and shrugged. Reading glasses seem to work just fine.

Our friend* Edward Wyatt takes a look at this new format, leaping to a conclusion right off the bat:

Readers appear to be responding well. Larger-edition paperbacks of six authors have made it onto the New York Times paperback best-seller list since last month, when they started appearing regularly in stores.

Though we would never consider taking issue with Wyatt, we would suggest the possibility that these same titles, probably from authors with devoted fanbases, would have hit the charts anyway. Probably he should get one of his minions to do some statistical analysis, just for fun. But we digress, because he gets to the drawbacks faster than you can say “scroll down”.

And at least some readers have complained about the new format. On the electronic message board on the Internet site of Vince Flynn, whose latest thriller, “Memorial Day,” was published in the new format last month by Pocket’s Star imprint, some fans have said that the new books feel clunky and are difficult to hold.

There are lots of statistics about the new format (32 lines per page versus 38) and Wyatt does get around to addressing the notion that mass market sales have declined due to eyesight issues (who knew that the sales of reading glasses have increased? We think it’s a function of cuter frames, but what do we know?), noting:

Sales of mass-market paperbacks have also been declining for reasons other than America’s worsening eyesight. Book superstores and warehouse clubs routinely discount the price of hardcovers by as much as 50 percent, giving readers less reason to wait – customarily, a year – after a new book is published to buy the cheaper paperback version.

In addition, the decline of the mall bookstores led to fewer impulse purchases of the lower-priced books, and the popularity of trade paperbacks grew significantly when Oprah Winfrey began recommending those books exclusively for her book club.

And, then, then, Wyatt uncovers what we believe is really driving this shift, ye olde profit motive:

Because price-conscious discount merchants like Wal-Mart and Target also grew in importance as booksellers, publishers of mass-market paperbacks have been unable to raise prices, which have been essentially flat for a decade. To maintain their profit margins, publishers have resorted to lower-quality paper and other methods of lowering production cost.

But the smaller pocket-size paperback is still used for the authors whose books sell the most copies, like John Grisham, whose novels reside for eternity on the backlist, the most profitable part of a publisher’s inventory. And it is those continuing sales – which sometimes total five or more times the number of hardcovers sold – that allow publishers to pay the large advances that those most popular authors demand.

. . .

But Mr. Romanos of Simon & Schuster said that without the change, the mass-market segment was in danger of withering. “If you go back 20 years, the mass-market paperback was really driving the business,” he said. But more recently, “it hasn’t been carrying its weight.”

“As long as we have to continue to pay what we do for brand-name authors, we need a healthier paperback format to make it work.”

Sometimes, we don’t need to say more.

* – Okay, so it’s all on our side, but ruining a fantasy is downright mean.

File Under: Books/Mags/Blogs

1 response so far ↓

  • David Thayer // Aug 12, 2005 at 10:03 am

    Mr. Romanos logic seems to be that we’re not reading his ‘branded’ authors because we can’t see. We can see, we just don’t like what we see. If this persists paperbacks will eventually be taller than the average reader, and fail the United Airlines test for carryon luggage.