Friday, February 06, 2004

I confess, again 

I started realizing this a couple of years ago, back when I was still working at the bookstore. But my recent trip to New York and the book haul I brought home with me cemented this conclusion. I don't know whether to be happy or sad, but I think I'd better accept that:

I am a trade paperback snob.

I love them. They are the perfect compromise between the bulky hardcovers that I don't want to ruin because it'll make their first edition value decline sharply, and the mass market paperback that feels cheap to the touch and can--and often should--be thrown away after one use. Trade paperbacks still fit on the bookshelves, have spiffier covers and somehow treat the words they contain within them with respect. No wonder most, if not all, literary fiction these days is reissued in trade paperback.

The disadvantages? Well, they are more expensive than mass market, and at least in Canada it makes me just a little bit queasy to spend 20 bucks (or more) on a paperback. And they don't fit in your purse and pocket quite like a mass market one does, but really, those are minor quibbles. Because when I find that a hardcover release I've eyed for a while but put off is suddenly available in trade paperback, I'm a very happy girl.

It?s only in the last 10 years or so that trade paperbacks have become so prevalent on bookstore shelves. In large part, it's due to the proliferation of book clubs, which demanded a compromise between the bulky, expensive hardcover and the "cheap throwaway" that is the mass market format. A paperback that was printed on better quality paper with a nice typeset and a reader's guide at the back did the trick, and at least in literary fiction, they are everywhere?when was the last time a contemporary novel was released in mass market? They exist, but are getting rarer. But in genre fiction, trades are only more recently gaining a larger foothold. For romance readers, they buy trade paperback when they want chick lit, erotic romance, or occasionally, anthologies. They still grumble--not uncommon in a genre that screams bloody murder when a favorite author "graduates" to hardcover--but are slowly reaching out to the larger-format paperbacks. Science fiction & fantasy may be even slower to the mark, but even so, I'm seeing a gradual increase in the number of trade format books available. Sometimes it's to start a new line; Catherine Asaro, who is one of the few SF/F authors I read, has just written her first fantasy novel, published in trade by Luna, a new line of novels geared towards female readers. The jury's still out on whether trades will stick in SF/F, but my guess it that it will--eventually.

What, then, of crime fiction? It's a genre that looks down somewhat at the mass market form. On the one hand, mass market is crucial for increasing sales of authors who may have only had middling to fair success (if that) in hardcover. But of course, then there's the Paperback Original, which I've dubbed the "ugly stepchild" of the mystery genre. Many readers simply won?t look at a PBO, deeming it too lightweight, the writing quality weaker, or whatever insult one wants to give. There are gems amongst the rubbish, but finding them is difficult even to a dedicated reader like myself. Fortunately, the trade paperback PBO is increasing somewhat, thanks to the efforts of some concerted publishers. Three Rivers Press publishes Maggie Estep, Sparkle Hayter and Lauren Henderson in trade; all authors who write distinct books that don't quite fit, somehow, in mass market format, but are, for whatever reasons, not ready for prime time. Hence, trade paperback. Estep, in particular, did quite well in the mystery crowd last year with her debut mystery HEX (which, inexplicably, was not submitted by her publisher for Edgar Award consideration in the PBO category.) A love song to Coney Island, horseracing, and the power of friendship, it was a delightfully quirky, somewhat experimental book?and would have died completely in mass market format. So Kudos for Three Rivers for realizing Estep had an audience waiting to find her, and which eagerly awaits her next book. Other publishers getting on the trade bandwagon include upstart publisher Akashic Books (which published Nina Revoyr's Edgar nominated PBO SOUTHLAND, as well as highly regarded books by Chris Niles, Daniel Chavarria and Tim McLoughlin), HarperCollins' new imprint Dark Alley (releasing reissues like Dennis Lehane's MYSTIC RIVER and new titles with offbeat voices), and Random House's Strivers Row (which specializes in African-American voices). 2004 promises even more trade PBO novels; I'm looking especially forward to the newest from Estep, Hayter, and Nichelle Tramble, to name a few.

Are all books suited to trade paperback? Not necessarily. Suspense and thrillers that are meant purely for entertainment (and do so wonderfully well) seem perfectly fine for the mass market, and I'd think the publisher made a big mistake if those authors had suddenly moved up a notch to trade paperback. But some recent releases in mass market have made me give pause. Michael Gruber's TROPIC OF NIGHT is not your garden-variety thriller; not when it delves into African culture, Santeria, and magical realism. I would have pushed for trade paperback, but HarperCollins elected otherwise. They made the same decision for Lawrence Block's SMALL TOWN, which is certainly a thriller but is also very much a novel of New York?one that only Block could write, with his skewed sense of humor and ferociously clean writing style. I harbor the idea that Laura Lippman's EVERY SECRET THING will be released in trade paperback later this summer; it, to me, seems more suited to it, but I don't necessarily think this will be the ultimate decision. I, too, was happy to see books like Ken Bruen's THE GUARDS, David Corbett's DONE FOR A DIME (pending release is June), Kevin Wignall's PEOPLE DIE, and Sujata Massey's THE SAMURAI'S DAUGHTER (pending release is July) get the trade paperback treatment, because I think those authors belong in that format.

And why, you may ask, do I care so much? Because when a publisher chooses trade paperback, they want the book to stay in print for a long time. They want the book to last. When they choose mass market, they don't necessarily expect a legacy, or success in perpetuity, but instead, want quick sales right now. So what's better, short term sales or long-term importance? It's a tough call, but some books simply lend themselves more to one format or another. And publishers, when faced with such a choice, should try to make the right call as much as possible.

All I know is that if it were up to me, there'd be lots more trade paperbacks available.

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