Natawurly is going to tan my hide. First I impinge on her candy fetish with posts about chewing gum and jordan almonds, now I ‘m venturing into her newest territory, books.

I’ve been living a bit of a cloistered life lately and have consequently and uncharacteristically not been haunting bookstores as is my wont. Imagine my surprise then, while waiting for a prescription to be filled today, I wandered over to the “literature” section of the store and saw a completely new phenomenon.

No, I’m not referring to the Twilight books being shelved with normal ones. After all, this is the kind of store where fake books thrive and real books cower at the innermost reaches of the shelves, where a rarity like Brave New World is displayed in the “inspirational” section. I’m talking about a bonafide and –forgive the pun– novel development: the new, improved mass market paperback.

Nowadays just about everyone who’s even semi-literate knows the difference between a mass market paperback and a trade paperback, neither of which are ever confused with hardbacks (a.k.a. hardbound, clothbound, et al.). I first became familiar with the technicalities of their differences back in the early 1990s when I worked part time at an independent bookshop. This was the era when trade paperbacks came into their own and roamed the Earth. Larger, better-designed, and printed on higher quality paper than their trashy, quick-aging mass market cousins, whose forebears were the uncouth pulps of yore, the Trades were two or three times the price of the Masses, and usually more than half the cost of the Hards.

Since that time, mass market paperbacks have increased in price from $2.99 to $4.99 to a staggering $7.99 to $9.99 and perhaps upward. Don’t even ask about the Trades. Perhaps because their medium is dying, publishers are apparently feeling pangs of guilt and/or are trying to convince consumers that they’re getting more value for those higher prices. The solution: new, improved Masses.

What kind of wonderful improvements have they made? Acid-free paper? Glue that holds the pages together through more than two readings? Nicer covers? No, no, and  no. Witness, behold in awe, the Greater Mass Market Paperback. This new creature measures 7.5″ × 4.2″, compared to the familiar 6.6″ × 4.2″ brick of the old style. I was too scared by these new beasts to open one up to see if there was actually more text or merely more margin per page. (That’s a lie. The pharmacist fetched me because the prescription was ready and I forgot to go back and examine one of the books.)

jim butcher

My first thought was, “gimmick,” since they crassly towered over their siblings, though they were no wider. My second thought was that they are the analogues to the “king size” candies (yes, I’ve got candy and books in this post; eat your heart out, Natawurly!) which first came to prominence in movie theaters but can now be purchased at most supermarkets. Those too, had their origins in manufacturers sheepishly increasing the portion (value) a scant fraction of the increase in price.

Item Regular Size King Size % Increase
Snickers 2.07 oz. 3.29 oz. 58.4
M&M Plain 1.69 oz. 3.14 oz. 85.8
M&M Peanut 1.74 oz. 3.27 oz. 88.0
Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Bar 1.55 oz. 2.60 oz. 67.5
Mass Market Paperback 27.72 in² 31.50 in² 13.6

As you can see, the ploys of  publishers are embarrassingly eclipsed even by the oh-so rapacious candy-industrial complex. These are tough times indeed for the reading public.

Upon further reflection, I somewhat mollified my cynicism. Why, why would I abandon my most trusted of allies? Because, Dear Reader(s), I had a revelation. A minor one, but a revelation nonetheless. No, I exaggerate. It was a mere insight, no more.  What, I ask you, is the height of a DVD case? That’s right! In the neighborhood of just under 7½ inches. Since many people store mass market paperbacks on shelves designed for DVDs, why shouldn’t the publishers take advantage of the extra room afforded by their new digs?  With this in mind, I find it entirely respectible and estimable that they should capitalize on the existing circumstances; to ignore them would be irresponsible and kind of fuddy-duddy. On the other hand, the elitist in me finds it a bit shabby that books should heel and toe to the johnny-come-lately digital video medium, but c’est la vie.

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