Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Mass Markets - the red-headed stepchild of the industry?

Before I start talking about mass markets, I just wanted to plug my last post one more time. Only two people commented, so if you have something (anything) to say about submissions, from an editor/agent or author (published or not) perspective, please comment and/or refer people to the post.


Now, I wanted to discuss the subject of the mass market format because, from the day I entered my first publishing master's class (all those years ago) I have been given the impression that mass markets are the lowest of the low, red-headed stepchild, underbelly of the publishing industry. This makes me sad because, well, I'm a stepchild who has an appreciation for redheads and, well, I love mass market books. And not just the format itself, but as a reader I tend to go for the type of books (usually dark urban fantasy) that start out in mass market.

I've heard a ton of disparaging remarks. I had a friend once who, when asked why she didn't read mass markets, responded with, "because I like to read books that are well-written." Needless to say, I was incredibly insulted and said so. Where had she gotten this notion that mass markets weren't well-written? So I, in my indignant rage, made her read some of my favorite mass markets. Vintage Anita Blake, Bitten by Kelley Armstrong, one of the first Sookie Stackhouse books by Charlaine Harris. Within a month, she was hooked and was making her own discoveries -- Sherrilyn Kenyon, MaryJanice Davison -- and cruising on past the more well-known names to discover authors and subgenres that I had never heard of. Now I can't vouch for the quality of the writing in everything she found, but I opened up a whole new world of reading for her. She still loves books by authors like Sarah Dessen (one of her favorites) or Michael Chabon who are published in hardcover, but she can now appreciate the mass market world. In a way, I feel like that was a gift that I gave her (wow what a cheesy and arrogant thing for me to say).

Somewhere else, I saw someone say something along the lines of, "why would you ever want to have your mass markets autographed?" As if it almost wasn't worth meeting the author and having them personalize the book you had loved so much if it wasn't in a "better" format.

Now I'm aware of the realities. Mass markets are not as good in terms of production quality. The paper is not as nice as its larger counterparts, it falls apart easier, it's cheaper and therefore more expendable/replaceable. But mass markets also give publishers the opportunity to give a shot to some authors who they might not otherwise be able to afford. Because mass markets are cheaper, it's a great place to debut an author, especially in a genre like fantasy, and see how they are received on the market. If they sell well and continuously, they will eventually be released in hardcover as well. Many of the authors I've mentioned above have made this transition. This is such a great plan, and I am so glad for it because otherwise, some of our favorite authors may never have been given a chance. So what's with the negative MM vibe in the air? Where did this come from and when will it end?

Clearly there's a lot that could be said about mass markets. In fact, I almost wish I could go back in time to those graduate school days and change my thesis topic to this very subject. But then I would never have written that L. Frank Baum/Wizard of Oz retrospective, which helped me get my job. Oh bother -- too much paradox. But I'd love to get a good discussion going on mass markets and general thoughts on the subject in general. Mass markets -- how do you feel?

And again, feel free to link me and refer others who can contribute to the discussion. I tend to lean toward HUGE posts and that can deter people from reading, so I'm trying not to do that. But if we can get people to contribute in the comments, that would be great.

ETA: I just wanted to throw in a quick edit to add that, in case it wasn't obvious, I love mass markets and think there are MM authors who write just as well as HC/TP authors. I was having a few moments of terror wondering whether I made that clear and hoping I hadn't implied something offensive, since I've been telling people to "go check out my new blog post about MM books." LOL!


jody said...

oddly enough, i was just discussing mass market paperbacks recently. i have always HATED them. but never for their content, as you pointed out but for the production value. i hate the cheap yellow paper, the tight leading, the small font, the too-thick-spine that cracks entirely too easily, and the god awful art work that is commissioned for the covers. sometimes reading what would otherwise be a perfectly good book as a mass market paperback makes the story unbearable for me. one of the best mass market paperbacks (which i saw this past weekend) was the penguin edition of LORD OF THE FLIES, designed by a guy name ben gibson. now, granted he had help from the pricing folks since the paper quality was amazing. but it caught my eye in the middle of a display table at B&N and i had to have it.

in other related topics, i am not a sci-fi/fantasy reader to the extreme. i read some fantasy for work, and i dig it, but generally i don't visit the sci-fi section of a bookstore. that said, i feel that sci-fi suffers the most from the mass market syndrome. i have great respect for sci-fi writers in the sense that sometimes i feel their writing requires more work. many of them create entire UNIVERSES complete with a history from the beginning of time, government structures, societies, languages, etc. but their books seem to get such ugly art work that takes away from the integrity of the story. or else makes it look cheesy. it doesn't do anything to pull new, non sci-fi readers in. and that's a shame.

the one thing you can't beat for mass market though is the price. then again, i collect books and i to be a total snob, mass market books don't look as pretty as trade paperbacks on my shelf. (yes, i do prefer to read trade paperbacks to jacket hardcover.) there is also a stigma attached to mass market paperbacks as being pulp, or of less quality due to the quick ability to churn them out and, as mentioned, their appearance. which is unfortunate and sometimes true... but in case we hadn't noticed, not everyone wants to read the great literary novel of the 21st century when they pick up a book. sometimes a reader just wants some entertainment, even if it's "mindless." and mass market paperbacks seem to be excellent sellers and a great way to keep backlist titles in print. so... they are here to stay.

that said, someone needs to redesign mass market paperbacks and make them more aesthetically pleasing to the buyer. someone get on that.

T.S. said...

Oh, bad covers aren't limited to mass markets and as you mentioned with Lord of the Flies, mass market covers aren't always low quality. I think the bad quality covers is a trademark of certain types of Sci-Fi/Fantasy. I'm sure it goes way, way back when there probably wasn't a lot of money in the budget for covers in general, and SF/F was a HUGE risk. It's almost become somewhat of a tradition to have bad covers on your sci-fi. Likewise, there are mass markets out there that have GREAT covers. Charlaine Harris is a good example. Her early Sookie books started as MM originals but they're still using the same cover art style. Now that she is a bestseller, they can afford more specs (like the glitter they've been using) but I've always loved those covers.

But then, I've always judged books by their covers and now that I work in the industry, I realize I was right to go against that old "judging" adage. The books with the higher budgets get the better covers and the designers are able to spend more time on them, and it usually shows. For instance, John Jude Palencar is one of my all time FAVORITE cover artists and I'm sure he charges a TON. But I've actually picked up MM books to read because he is the cover artist and I haven't been disappointed yet. That's how I discovered some of my favorite fantasy authors (Lynn Flewelling, Sharon Shinn, etc.)

alex milway said...

I actually love this format - i love the way the books fit in your hand, and i love the fact that they're usually really light to carry around. You can also get more on your bookshelf.

I can't quite put my finger on why I find the format so pleasing, but it is probably more to do with feel than looks. They maybe feel more personal, and less like a statement to everyone sitting on the train?

When I'd first finished writing my book, I designed it in this format and had one copy made through the cafepress website, . Unfortunately, my friend lost it, but I have such fond memories of carrying it around in my bag and proofing it on the train.

Colorado Writer said...

I love books. Doesn't matter what format they come in. In fact, I love shopping at my kid's book fair because I can get MORE MORE MORE for the low prices.

Most of my childhood books are the mass market paperbacks, and I still have them 30 years later.

Of course, nothing beats a beautiful hardcover with a thick jacket, but at upwards of $24.95 a pop, it is hard to choose just one.

Colorado Writer said...

How do you decide what goes Mass Market?

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

I hadn't heard the disparaging comments toward mass market books until recently, actually.

My beef with MMs is this "new" sizing (and price to match). Yeah, it's been a couple of years now and I'm not over it. They don't fit on my shelves as neatly as the old and I keep thinking someone gave the old standbys steroids. I'd sooner go without than get stuck with one of these new oddball sizes.

Rosalinda said...

I've always preferred mass market titles--my wallet always has, anyhow, lol. Still, I do prefer them in terms of how comfortable they are to hold and there are some very nice ones, like the Patricia Briggs urban fantasy series, with its spot gloss and matte covers.

I do admit, though, that if I fall in love with a hardback cover, I'll buy it (like the Melissa Marr books I recently bought--Have you SEEN those awesome covers?).

Susan, are you referring to the premium edition books that cost about $2 more? I agree--they are a little odd. I just try to keep in mind that they're for the baby boomer generation whose eyesight might not be as keen. I'm not too fond of them, though.

T.S. said...

The Patricia Briggs books are SO aesthetically pleasing to me. The minute I saw Moon Called I knew I wanted it.

Rosalinda said...

I know, right! I was a production assistant at Penguin when Moon Called first came out. I snatched it up and knew it would be a winner. And I agree about the Charlaine Harris covers, which were great from the start and have been made even better with the glitter.

Rosalinda said...

And I just had to add another urban fantasy comment (since I'm looking right at it): Robin McKinley's Sunshine has a cool cover, though her agent told me it's being redesigned. I can only hope the book's sequel will look just as nice!