December 9, 2011

Some (more) thoughts on books...

I’ve been reorganizing my apartment lately, and that means, in large part, reorganizing my books. My books and bookshelves for sure comprise the most significant definition to the (quite limited, of course) space in my apartment. I like being surrounded by books, and that’s reason enough for my reticence to purchase ebooks in any real quantity.

Anyway, what I’ve been thinking lately, more than anything else, is how much I dislike the Mass Market Paperback format. These have never really been my favorite, and particularly when the book starts pushing 400-500 pages they really start to become less pleasant. Given my genre tastes, I have more than a few of these fat little books, some that push up to 700, 800 or more pages, and as much as I still prefer paper to pixels, these suckers have to lean back and hold each other tightly to avoid falling over that precipice.

I’m also not a huge fan of hardbacks, except for books that I just really love, or if the edition itself has some additional aesthetic value. The truth is that my favorite format for books is what I’m pretty sure they call Trade Paperback, though it should be noted that there seem to be few hard and fast rules about the specific dimensions of these books, much as is the case for hardbacks1. Still, they tend to be somewhere around 9” x 6”, which feels better to me. They’re often — though not always — printed on better paper than your MM edition too.

So this leads me to a compromise position I’m going to just go ahead and put forth, for the time being, without any deep analysis of the business implications and focus on what I think would make me happy…

  1. Discontinue Mass Market editions entirely (or nearly so). The Mass Market paperback owes it’s existence primarily to people’s desire to have a lightweight, portable and less intrinsically valuable (and therefore also inexpensive) book to carry around with them. Sound familiar? These are precisely the arguments in favor of ebook adoption at present. The eBook is the new mass market.

  2. Make the primary physical edition of a book a higher grade Trade Paperback. Something that would be towards the high end of current TPBs in terms of materials, cover art, and finish. These will cost somewhat more than current TPBs, but still less than a current new-release hardback.

  3. Print hardback editions in much lower volumes, as a premium product for people who care more about the benefits a hard-bound volume provides. They’ll cost somewhat more than current hardbacks due to lower volumes2 and better materials, art, and perhaps other “value added” type perks, but that’s ok, because the people who want that stuff will happily pay for it.

  4. Maybe the more important thing to me, is to find some way to offer a package deal, or a credit towards alternate editions. I would take more risks on books I’m not totally sure about in advance if I could buy a cheap eBook edition, and know that if i end up falling in love with it, I can buy a physical copy at 1/2 price (or reduced by 1/2 of the price of the eBook, or some such arrangement).

I have several higher level concerns about eBooks that have to do with DRM, the quality of the displays, the quality and qualities of the software3 and the social implications of short-lived digital file formats as compared to pressed wood pulp and ink, but the above would make a huge impact on shifting my feelings on the matter.

I’m not a representative consumer, I suppose, and it’s highly possible that even high volume purchasers like myself actually represent a negligible percentage of industry profits, so making me happy doesn’t really count for much. That said, with the exception of number 4, which would have to be analyzed more carefully, I can’t see that any of these suggestions would lose the industry money, and I suspect that transitioning away from bajillions of Mass Market Paperbacks would be a financial benefit, not to mention an ecological one. That it also alleviates Kerry Benton’s prickly aesthetics can only be considered a bonus.


1. In fact, I’d say the uniformity of width and height is the single thing MM paperbacks have going for them… I can stack them horizontally 15 tall and it’s nice and uniform.

2. Though not so low as to provide overmuch artificial scarcity… in the digital era, I can’t really tolerate the idea of anything ever being "out of print."

3. These are things like organizing series into virtual box sets; ensuring the cover art is all consistent with the rest of the series, or letting me change it to be so; making the cover icons all the same size, or, better, making them scalable so I can size them how I want them; integration with OpenMargin or it’s successor so that annotations can be a social conversation; and so on and so forth…

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