Book Insights — Mass Market edition

One of the questions I get from interested fans and aspiring writers is whether I will be releasing hardcover versions of various books, or why this other book is only available in trade paper, etc. My first answer to these questions is always “Well, I don’t decide, the publisher does” but then I usually talk a little bit about how those decisions get made and why. And since it seems to be something some people are interested in, I thought I’d do a post discussing it.

As with all these types of posts, a reminder that I’m only a writer. I’m sure people even deeper inside the industry than I am will dispute some of my claims, and that thinking about these kinds of things changes over time, or from house to house. But these are my observations.

With that out of the way, let’s start by discussing the three types of editions. They are Hardcover (HC), Trade Paper (TP), and Mass Market (MM). I’m using the abbreviations that Borders used to use, because that’s where I worked.

Hardcover books are large format, hard cover, usually with higher quality paper, probably color illustrations on the front and back matter, maps, etc. Used to be the industry standard, and for certain genres (looking at you, YA) they still are.

Trade Paper is almost the same size as HC, but with a soft cover and usually more resilient but slightly lower quality pages. Rapidly becoming a favorite for the reasons I will discuss below.

Mass Market is your stereotypical pulp edition. Smaller, less wasted space on the page, soft cover, cheaper pages.

The first thing to discuss is the margin on each of these editions. Margin is simply the profit the publisher makes on each copy sold; the difference between how much it costs them to produce the book and amount of money they receive for it. The secret sauce is that there’s not a huge difference in production costs between MM, TP, and HC. Sure, there’s some, but it’s not commiserate with the increase in cost to the reader.

In adult fantasy, your typical MM costs around $8-10, while TP is $16-20, and HC goes for ~$30. But everyone involved is making a higher percentage of money back on both the HC and the TP than they are on the MM. It simply doesn’t cost two or three times as much to produce a hardcover book as it does a mass market.

So why not produce everything in hardcover? Because of demand. Readers aren’t going to spend $30 every time they want to read a book. So there need to be lower price points to meet demand. Mass Market was the original answer to this, but it’s starting to leak into Trade, because publishers have found they can train the reader to pay a little more and make a better margin without taking the HC jump.

One of the considerations for booksellers is shelf space. When shelved spine out, TP and MM take up just about the same amount of real estate, but the margin on that space is much higher for the Trade. That means bookstores will have a tendency to keep TP releases on their shelves longer than MM, because the potential sale is higher value.

Hardcover in adult fantasy is usually used in two situations. First, if you have an incredibly popular or hyped release that you know is going to sell a lot of copies no matter what format it’s in. Why not make as much on that event as possible? The second situation is if you have a release that has a small following, but an incredibly dedicated one. Again, these readers will pay whatever you ask, so why not make as much on that as possible?

Just a quick note to point out that most YA fantasy comes out in HC, and is priced considerably lower than adult fantasy. The typical new release in YA comes in at around $18, while the exact same size book, with the same treatment and paper stock, will be $28 on the adult shelf. They charge what they know the customer will pay.

Once the publisher has capitalized on the initial release, they’ll usually rerelease the book in TP once HC demand has tapped out, and again in MM a year or so later. Only incredibly successful books see this kind of treatment.

A lot of fantasy releases start in TP and then go to MM a year or so later, especially if they’re part of a series. For example, my Hallowed War series came out in Trade, each one year apart. But the same month the last book came out in TP, the publisher rereleased book one in MM, and the rest of the series in MM six months apart.

Trade Paper is popular because it’s a nice balance between price point, margin, perceived quality of product, bookstore reception, and cost. If a reader’s going to pay $10 for a tiny mass market, why not pay a little more and get a larger book that is easier to read, is more durable, etc. The bookstore is happier with this purchase, the reader is happier with this purchase, and the publisher is much happier.

There is a strategy among some publishers to release books in MM initially. This is simply a form of market research. Let’s be honest, publishers aren’t really sure which books will do well and which will fail, so they’ll put out a bunch of books in MM and see which ones get traction, then maybe rerelease those in Trade or omnibus editions. I don’t think this is terribly fair to the authors, nor do I think it’s good business, but I’m an author, not a publisher, so I might be biased.

There are publishers that work almost exclusively in MM, TP, or HC. They have a business model and understand their version of publishing extremely well.

I think that’s enough for now. Do you have any questions about this side of publishing? Are you a publisher who wants to correct me stridently and with great authority? Please leave a comment below! And thanks for listening!

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