This post, by David Wilk, originally appeared on the Booktrix Blog on 3/15/11.
I think today it is both revealing and helpful to think about e-book pricing in the context of the rise of mass market paperbacks in the 1950’s and into the 1960’s.
As a book industry veteran friend of mine has pointed out to me, when mass market paperbacks first became popular, they were priced at approximately 10% of the retail price of the then prevalent hardcover editions, on average about $.25 for a mass market paperback at a time when hardcover books were selling for $2.50 or $3.00.
At that time, paperbacks were cheaply produced in huge quantities and displayed in drugstores, supermarkets, department stores. Some of the relatively small number of independent bookstores did not even carry mass market paperbacks, and if they did, they were in racks and spinners supplied to them by the wholesalers that controlled magazine distribution and therefore had access to retailer channels.
Mass market paperbacks were initially differentiated by being reprints of books that had come out first in hardcover, and because publishers knew they would compete with their higher priced new books, they simply held back mass market releases until the hardcover sale had run its course, usually a year, to be sure they harvested as much demand as possible at the higher hardcover price. Some titles, particularly those in genres like westerns, mysteries, science fiction and romance, were released in mass market first (or only), to feed the burgeoning demand of general readers for inexpensive entertaining books (which publishers differentiated, sometimes snootily, from the “serious literature” and nonfiction they saw as the core of their business).