A few years ago I walked into a Barnes & Noble with a question. I was looking for the cheapest possible edition of “Dreams of My Father,” the Obama autobiography. Yup, guilty. I knew on some level that I would never actually read this book, but while travelling I had seen a teeny-tiny sized $8 copy and thought, “Yeah, I could buy that. It’s cute.” I didn’t, but I thought maybe the book would be available next to the mysteries and romance novels in the little paperbacks’ section. It was worth $8, I thought, but, like, only that much.
When I asked customer service whether they had this edition, I got a surprising response. Not only did they not carry it, but they assured me in their obnoxious bookseller voice that the publisher had “never released the book in mass market size.” Like, at all.
I hate being told I am wrong, but there was a good thing that came out of this exchange – I learned the industry name for those cute paperback editions that are $6-$8 cheaper than their glossy giant (ie. clunky) cousins. Still, B&N was not being a friend because I had absolutely seen “Dreams of My Father,” in mass market size. It had been sitting in a very real, very existing airport newsstand.
Since the day I was LIED TO by B&N, I have been obsessed with finding modern literature in tiny size. Aside from being lighter, cheaper, and cuter than traditional paperbacks, they are what I always imagined I would be reading yellowing copies of in my bohemian 20s. This image was definitely related to the fact that the popular children’s series I grew up on, “The Baby-Sitters Club” and “The Boxcar Children,” were regular trade paperbacks while the classics we read later in school were usually mass markets. Mass market books were my first experience with “grown-up” reading material, and I still think reading dog-eared tiny books makes for a delightfully on-point bohemian intellectual visual. Plus it leaves one hand free to paint and/or sip black coffee.
Mass market paperbacks appeared just in time to hit the Beats generation and feel Greenwich Village-y. They were initially a depression and wartime innovation, back when books were primarily sold as hardcovers by specialized dealers. Used for reprints of popular books and classics, these cute editions used less paper than hardcovers (which during the war was a major consideration) and were affordable to a larger consumer base. They were intended to be sold alongside magazines in places like drugstores, supermarkets, and Woolworth’s, not in the major bookstores of the day. In fact many mass market publishers came from the magazine world. This is probably why it seems so appallingly obvious that nobody with a literary background has ever been in charge of releasing these titles. (The proportion of sensationalistic and genre crap among these editions is…to venture a conservative guess, really high.)
By the mid-1940s, mass market books were a booming business, and in the late 1940s the first original works were published as mass market paperbacks. A lot of now famous authors began their careers as mass market writers. Anybody heard of a man named Ray Bradbury? Kurt Vonnegut? He was the first author to publish a mass market book that was later sold in hardcover.
Regardless, being a mass market author has never offered much in the way of respect. Mass market publishing found a home in genre fiction while trade paperbacks (the bigger paperbacks) were used for second runs of hardcover works. Basically, mass market books grew to target cliché bored housewives who read poorly written romance novels and silly mysteries while waiting for the laundry to dry. Oh, and commuters. To this day, most literary authors try NOT to be published in mass market size because they worry they wont be taken seriously if their books get sold next to Tom Clancy novels and maiden/sailor romances. This is probably stupid of them since mass market authors often make much bigger money than self-important “literary” types (Tom Clancy probably owns a boat or something), but who am I to judge?
So the facts don’t look good for somebody in my situation. Somebody who loves adorable paperbacks but still has what I like to call “taste.” Good books are rarely published to look cute. Still, the overwhelming evidence that I am crazy has not deterred me from looking. Frankly, having an appropriately bohemian adulthood is more important to me than reality. And these books are around, just in random places. It turns out, for example, that lots of real, readable, popular but good books get sold in mass market size in other countries. Mass market books are cheaper to ship, after all, and the bulk of book shopping done by English speakers abroad is in airports, a traditional mass market retailer.
Still, do US travelers not have a need for lighter (actual weight-wise, not topic-wise) reading material? Are US travellers so susceptible to symbolic acts of commerce that we willingly pay $6 more just to avoid looking like we are reading a romance novel?
Well, yes. Obviously.
Still, discovering mass market copies of books I purchased in regular paperback in the states and lugged a great distance always stings. I brought my usual four books with me to Lebanon only to learn that at least two of them (the two heaviest weight and topic-wise) were for sale in Beirut in mass market size. They were smaller, made of recycled paper, and half the price. I read them in giant-size, left my giant copies in Lebanon, and filled up on highbrow mass market lit and a few paperbacks that are still in hardcover in the states. Of course if you talk to Barnes & Noble none of this ever happened because my new books do not exist. So enjoy paying $15 a pop suckers!
And my book? Yes it DOES fit in my tiny purse. And yes, it is Paul Auster.