In praise of mass market paperbacks

I can't stop thinking of the item from yesterday's Book News Roundup about Harper Lee's estate pulling the plug on the mass market paperback edition of To Kill a Mockingbird. Mass market paperbacks, of course, aren't nearly as profitable as hardcovers or trade paperbacks; that's why you don't see them so much anymore. If you can coax audiences into paying more than double for the same set of words, I guess the thinking goes, why wouldn't you?

But here's the thing: I prefer mass markets. Always have. I prefer the size — I like how they fit comfortably in the hand. (They can even fit into the back pocket of most pairs of men's jeans.) They're easy to hold, easy to read, and a whole shelf's worth of mass markets, all lined up and of uniform size, are a uniquely beautiful sight. I read all of Kurt Vonnegut's books in mass market. When I went on a Nabokov tear in my early 20s, I actively sought out all of his novels in mass market, because they made Nabokov somehow less intimidating and more approachable.

Rather than running away from them, the publishing industry really ought to be embracing mass market paperbacks right now. While it's true that e-book sales have declined in the last year, publishers would see even more consumer investment in print if they published and promoted cheap, durable paperbacks. Why buy the e-book, after all, if you can get an attractive print version for less?

This is something that genre publishers have known for a long time now — it's why when you think of mass market paperbacks, you likely think of romance novels, or mysteries, or sci-fi. Over the last two decades, publishers have stopped printing literary fiction in mass market format, and I suspect that by avoiding the sub-$10 paperback niche they're ultimately preventing these books from finding a wider audience.

Would books like Catch 22, Portnoy's Complaint, Fear of Flying, and To Kill a Mockingbird have achieved the kind of broad cultural fame that they did without the mass market format? It's entirely possible. But the fact is, publishing those books in mass market certainly didn't hurt their popularity. By scaling down literature, making it fit in the palm of a hand for less than the price of a cheeseburger and fries at a fast casual restaurant, you're certainly opening it up to a new set of potential buyers.

I'm all for books as beautiful objects — hand me a gorgeous McSweeney's hardcover and I'll coo and fondle the thing like anyone else. But I'm also for the utilitarian appeal of a mass market paperback. There's something enticing about the way that all mass markets are basically shaped the same; by standardizing the form of a book to a pragmatic one-size-fits-all receptacle into which the words are poured, you are putting more emphasis on the ideas in the book. And aren't the ideas the point of reading in the first place?