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.