Science fiction and fantasy author Edward W. Robertson has added a new insight to the post mortem on Hachette’s response to Amazon’s open letter. And it’s one more that Hachette probably wishes would go away.

As well as pointing out, as Chris Meadows has already noted, that Hachette CEO Michael Pietsch either doesn’t know the history of his own industry, or is openly lying to the public about it, Robertson emphasizes that the first paperback houses were trying to do an Amazon on the publishing industry of their time. “Paperback rights were purchased by competing publishers who were able to sell their paperbacks for 10% of the price of the original hardcovers,” he insists. “In other words, they were invented to disrupt the hardcover industry.”

And at first, that’s just what they did. But Robertson then does some very interesting, and sometimes speculative, analysis of the recent history of the paperback market.

In 1961, some paperbacks cost as little as $0.35, just $2.79 in modern dollars. Then a funny thing happened. Starting around 1966, costs climbed to an adjusted $4-5. By 1975, they hit $6-7. And by the mid-1980s, mass market paperbacks cost the equivalent of $7-9.50. They’ve hung around $7.99-9.99 ever since.

Why? Robertson ascribes this to “the conglomeration of the publishing industry” in the 1960s, in the course of which “major publishers quit selling off their paperback rights.” Instead, they took paperback production in-house, and saw to it that both the pricing and the timing of paperback releases stayed far more favorable to hardback runs and hardback prices. They basically eliminated paperbacks as disruptive competition. (Anyone thinking of the Apple e-book price-fixing case here?) “Whatever Hachette would like us to believe, this is a radical change in intent from the paperback’s original role,” Robertson concludes.

So for Hachette, the appeal to history takes them back to Square One – another precedent of an incumbent industry player trying to eliminate or co-opt a competing format for its own interests. I’d buy that when it comes out in paperback …


  1. When I worked at Little, a Brown in the early 1980s there was open condescension toward mass market paperbacks as “cheap and tawdry” and they chose only to sell paperback rights and not create their own new imprint the way many others did. But mass market paperbacks did in fact open new mass market distribution channels as their $4.99 price points made possible for the popular interest categories. There is a lot of misinformation floating around on Amazon’s paperback pricing claims.

    There will always be battles between manufacturers’ beliefs their products can fetch more in the marketplace and retailers desire to offer the consumer lower prices. The loss-leader tactic probably makes more sense in brick and mortar given getting people into stores is important as they often will buy other items. But all retailers know there are important pricing thresholds such as 4,99, 9.99′ 19,99, 24,99 and so on. Book prices have been odd for the past two decades as publishers break those levels hoping to squeeze some extra margin. I doubt they know how many sales were not made because of this, though. Amazon probably does.

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