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The Problem with Pricey Paperbacks

Discounting paperbacks so that more people read more of the same books won't make the country less politically polarized overnight, but it might help close the gap.
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Long ago, hardcover books were cherished, proudly displayed on bookshelves in the sitting-room, while paperbacks resided on bedside stands and bathroom sinktops. Hardbacks were like theatrical releases, while their paperback counterparts were like VHS tapes, released a year later, easily scratched and easy to distinguish from the real thing. No longer. They've shed their shame.

Now, softcover books have never looked more beautiful. Go into any bookstore and feel the delicate rough texture of the pages, unevenly cut so that the sides form ridges your thumb can rest upon as you turn the page. The text appears in clear distinct fonts with perpendicular serifs. The words are printed on acid-free paper so they'll last for decades. But while paperbacks' former low-rent appearances once made them accessible to people who couldn't afford the hardcover, their pricey facelift has closed them off to that audience. And that's a shame.

In the publishing world, there has always been a separation between books marketed for intellectuals and the books for the masses, high literature and genre fiction. Instead of blurring over time, in recent days those distinctions between intended audiences are becoming sharper than ever, and again it's because of paperbacks. Once upon a time (really just a decade or two ago), it seemed you could buy almost any title with any sort of wide appeal, no matter how hifaluting, no matter how thick, in a format called "mass-market paperback" -- this is the ubiquitous airport bookstore size, 7 inches tall and $6.99. Nowadays, however, more and more literary books are foregoing the mass-market format for what's known as a "trade paperback," creamy, beautiful, variable in size, and at least twice as expensive as mass-market. Those books are very likely to hold up for your great-grandson to read, but they come at a price that excludes most casual readers looking to purchase on a whim, and all readers who can't afford to pay $15 for a novel. Undoubtedly, the higher price and higher cache of these books support sales models that work out to the financial advantage of the publishers, despite the readers lost at the lower end. But this means that the democracy of the least expensive books, once a mix of high and low and the one place where Jonathan Kellerman and John Updike could sit side by side, is fast becoming the exclusive province of genre fiction. High literature now comes exclusively at high prices.

This price discrimination reinforces elitism in reading material. It's probably safe to assume that subscribers to the New Yorker and US Weekly have different books next to their beds. The more that prices reinforce this, the less reading material in common Americans will have. J.K. Rowling and Dan Brown have recently managed to buck this trend, writing books that have been read by nearly everyone; however, neither writes high literature, and both have had their books available in mass-market paperback. (This was true for the first three Potter books, though the last three have only been available in trade paperback.) In other words, the only universal fiction is non-literary fiction. That is not necessarily a good thing. Nowadays, people of different backgrounds follow different books, different magazines, different websites, different cable news channels; where there is no common experience, there is no shared truth. Discounting paperbacks so that more people read more of the same books won't make the country less politically polarized overnight, but it might help close the gap.

The dead-tree arts are fast approaching retirement age, while their digital relatives are rapidly gaining steam. Electronic versions of print publications are far more inexpensive, portable, and easily accessible. By the time electronic media fully supplant print, price will no longer be an issue, and association and reputation alone will determine who reads what. The importance of the mass-market paperback is in the notion that there are certain books that everyone might read, from the 9/11 Report to Shakespeare. The more we have in common, the better we trust each other, believe each other, understand each other. Making books more affordable is desirable on its own merits, because many people love to read but can't afford $18 for a book, like me. Making literature universally available, combating literary elitism and bridging the polarized divide, is a worthwhile goal entirely above and beyond sticker shock. I hope Random House agrees.

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