Whatever Happened to Mass Market Paperbacks?

A cheap Signet classic

Whatever happened to mass market paperbacks?  Do you ever wonder?

Over the years  I’ve gone from a cheap Signet mass market paperback edition of Pride and Prejudice to  a more attractive Penguin trade paperback to an oversized Folio Society illustrated hardback–and the latter was unnecessary.

In the mid-20th century, anybody could acquire an inexpensive library of classics. At bookstores you could opt for rival brands: a Penguin, a Signet, a Bantam, a Dell, a Washington Square classic, or a Pocket Book.  We carried around copies of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (the David Magarshack translation),  Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Orwell’s Animal Farm, D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, Trollope’s Phineas Finn (a BBC tie-in), George Eliot’s Middlemarch, and Dickens’ Hard Times.  Books were the cheapest entertainment.  No wonder we were all so well-read.

But the accessibility of cheap mass market paperbacks has declined, according to Publishers Weekly.  Publishers originally considered mass market paperbacks the “gateway” editions to entice readers, and  these small books began to dominate the market after World War II.  The publication of this format has declined, partly because publishers are cutting out the midlist writers, partly because of  e-books. Walmart is the biggest seller of mass market paperbacks these days.  Genre books like romances and mysteries are often published as trade paperbacks.   PW says, “According to NPD BookScan, which tracks roughly 80% of print sales, mass market titles accounted for 13% of total print units sold in 2013; that figure dropped to 9% last year.”

In college we moved away from mass market paperbacks. The more scholarly the books, the more expensive.  And we developed expensive tastes.

Imagine a  town of backpacking undergraduates burdened with hardcover chemistry tomes and anthropology textbooks. As a freshman I lugged The Complete Pelican Shakespeare to a class where a chain-smoking professor squinted at the small print in columns and made dry allusions to poets I had not yet read.  At home  I “cheated ” with comfortably compact Pelican paperbacks, because I had an aversion to reading text in columns.  But the hardback accompanied me to class, in case the professor suddenly called on me, which he never did.  Perhaps I imagined he would ask me to recite a footnote!

Professors of other literature classes often assigned inexpensive Penguins, which until the ’90s (?) were still  mass market paperbacks.   They also assigned Signets, Modern Library paperbacks, and others I don’t remember. And so we pored over Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Bronte, Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, Chekhov’s plays, Tolstoy’s The Cossacks, Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa, and Machiavelli’s The Prince.

Mind you, my classics (Greek and Latin books) were  hardbacks.  But in my other literature classes, we read paperbacks.  I became hooked on trade paperbacks with footnotes.

Most of my books are trade paperbacks. I have to say, mass market paperbacks don’t hold up well over the years.  The paper gets very brittle.  They’re for one-time reads.  Of course many trade paperbacks are printed on cheap paper, too.

I wonder if people read as many classics now that so few mass market paperbacks are available.  In my world, everybody’s a reader, but that may not be the same in THE world.

10 thoughts on “Whatever Happened to Mass Market Paperbacks?”

  1. You remind me of many happy hours with those cheap editions. Now my aging eyes don’t like their small print. The printers must economize on ink because the print is gray, not very contrasty with the off-white paper. So now I only buy the trade paperbacks. By the way, have you noticed that in the market of used books on-line (where I usually shop), some of the best prices are on old hard cover books? A little heavier in the hand, but better print.

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    1. Oh, I feel the same way about mass market paperbacks nowadays. I loved them, but trade paperbacks and hardbacks have bigger print. I’ll have to look at the prices for hardbacks online. Sometimes I do buy the used hardbacks because the paper also seems to deteriorate less. Even my Penguins get tanned and acidic!

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  2. My recollection is that the Signets had good paper and held up well. I got rid of most of mine over the years and regret it.

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    1. I loved our Signets! They’re still around, but I don’t see them in bookstores Paper deteriorates after a while, but I miss them.

      On Wed, Mar 13, 2019 at 7:47 AM Thornfield Hall: A Book Blog wrote:

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  3. The Signets in my memory did have nicer paper, but in my experience the glue on the binding was often too tight and would break completely after time has passed. And, yes, how I do miss mass markets. When I was working in a bookstore in the ’90s, we had two sections devoted to the new mass-market releases and it was such fun to be able to gather up two or three for the price of a trade paperback (which were also, of course, delightfully cheap, compared to hard covers, which were lovely but – mostly – out of reach for my budget, given how many I wanted).

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    1. Yes, the bindings sometimes did break. I still see mass market mysteries but weirdly SF seems to have gone the trade paperback way. No idea when they began to disappear. One article said they lost distribution in the mid-90s, but I don’t know if this is accurate.

      On Wed, Mar 13, 2019 at 9:29 AM Thornfield Hall: A Book Blog wrote:

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  4. Great post – never really thought about the disappearance of mass market paperbacks before. I think now that many people buy books for their ‘looks’ they want a good quality book. If they just want to read the book without being bothered by the size or cover, they can get a cheaper e-version or a second hand physical book.

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    1. Thank you! Yes, I prefer the look of the trade paperbacks, and God knows, I prefer them . The mass market books don’t stand the test of time, and we long ago replaced ours with Penguins, etc. Penguins have grown from small mass market editions into trade papebackr. Mass market paperbacks brought the classics to the hoi polloi and the very young: you couldn’t beat that 75-cent price. I often read free e-books of the older classics. You can’t beat that price!

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      1. I used to go for the cheapest classic editions but now I get medium priced ones like Penguins. I have a few free ebooks but somehow I prefer to read classics in physical format.

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