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Paperbacks-looking better to readers and publishers as hard cover prices soar and sales lag

Browse through your favorite bookstore with a $20 bill in your pocket. How many items can you buy? Probably just one, especially if you want a hardcover book. And if you choose something fancy, $20 won't cover it.

Ordinary clothbound books are priced from $12 on up nowadays. "A Confederacy of Dunces," the 1981 Pulitzer winner for fiction, for instance, is near the bottom rung at $12.95. Peter Massie's thicker history, "Peter the Great: His Life and Times," costs $17.95. "The Ultimate Baseball Book," a lavish compendium of photos and facts, rings in at $35.

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But cross over to the paperback section, and suddenly your $20 seems to stretch. That Pulitzer novel is $3.50, Massie $10.95, and the baseball book $14 .95.

Of course paperbacks are more expensive than they used to be -- now normally less sharply than hardcovers. For this reason and others, readers now seem to like paperbacks better than ever.

As a result, so do bookstore, owners and publishers. Paperback sales climbed last year, while every other category fizzled, according to the Association of American Publishers.

To gauge the importance of the paperback surge, I talked with a number of publishers and some booksellers. Among their conclusions:

* Careful shoppers can save half or more of the hardcover price by buying (which sometimes means waiting for) a paperback edition instead. And some paperbacks -- though not all -- are nearly as durable and attractive as hardcovers.

* While the overall percentage is still modest, more and more books are being printed in paperback only, without ever being issued in hardcover.

* A lot of hardcover titles won't ever make it into paperback, and many of those that do are less likely to be advertized and reviewed -- and therefore are harder to find out about -- than are most hardcovers.

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* The cost of cover and binding alone doesn't account for the difference in price between a paperback and a hardcover. Paperbacks bear less of the burden of authors' royalities, publicity, and production cost than do hardcovers.

Above all, conversations with publishers suggest "paperback" is no longer a dirty word, even at the most prestigious and traditional hardcover houses, which now are reprinting soft-cover editions of their own books and buying paperback rights from other publishers.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux Inc. has earned a reputation as a hardcover publisher specializing in "literary" books, yet for the last two years it has "put more muscle" into paperback publishing, says Roger Straus, president. "Paperbacks are one, perhaps them one, area in general trade publishing that are markedly on the increase in sales -- over 20 percent here last year, a year when publishing was not exactly peaking. We hope for another increase this year."

Little, Brown & Co., another venerable hardcover firm, also "has been doing more paperbacks lately," says George Hall, a vice-president. "People in their 30s and younger, who are used to paperbacks, seem to prefer them whatever the price. They don't have much room for keeping books, and they find it easier to throw away a paperback than a hardcover when they're finished with it."

Tom Hart, paperback editor at Houghton Miffin Company, predominately a hardcover house, predicts, "We'll be seeing more dual editions" -- simultaneous printings of a small number of hardcovers for libraries and a large number of paperbacks for bookstores -- "and more paperback originals" -- books published only in paperback. "Putting a book into paperback is no longer giving it a second-class send-off."

Attesting to that idea is Quality Paperback Book Club, a 7 1/2 year-old offshoot of Book-of-the-Month Club. Offering about 120 books a year, a few of them not available elsewhere in paperback, the club expects to reach a membership of 250,000 this year. So far there are no competitors.

While pleased by their new respectability, some long-established paperback houses find both hardcover and other paperback houses are giving them stiffer competition today, while manufacturing costs continue to climb.

"Costs of producing paperbacks have certainly been rising at a much higher rate than cover prices," says Martin Asher editor in chief of Pocket Books, a large paperback house. "It's tight. We're very much dependent on petroleum related materials and freight, which have been going up astronomically. There has been cutting back of production costs in every possible way."

"There are at least 400 new mass market books cascading into the marketplace every month," says Stuart Applebaum, director of publicity at Bantam Books another large paperback house. "The rack space apportioned by the retailer, whether a newstand operator in St. Paul or a full-line bookstore in Los Angeles, is becoming a very, very valuable piece of real estate. If you're successful -- if you have a lot of turnover -- you're going to stay a long time. If you don't sell in a couple of weeks, you're out, and next month's books come in. I wouldn't say it's a ruthless business now, but I would say that the pressures are greater than ever, and the shelf life of a book in paperback is shorter than ever."

Pocket Books and Bantam are known as "mass market" publishers, while the industry classifies Farrar, Straus & Giroux and Little, Brown and Houghton Mifflin as publishers of "trade" paperbacks. The distinctions help explain why mass marketers feel a pinch while trade publishers are in an expansive mood.

Like trade publishers, mass marketers sell to bookstores, but they have an additional distribution channel: independent distributors, or IDs, who deliver magazines as well as books on a weekly schedule. The IDs reach thousands of drugstores, supermarkets, airports, and newsstands across the United States, which trade publishers can't. Mass marketers also offer larger wholesale discounts and lower retail prices than trade publishers usually can, because the former deal in volumes of hundreds of thousands of books, while trade publishers normally deal in tens of thousands.

Traditionally mass market books are smaller and more cheaply produced than trade paperbacks. If the mass market editions don't sell by the bushel in the first two or three weeks, retailers take them off the shelves, strip off their covers, and return the covers to the publisher for credit. Trade books, by contrast, have a longer opportunity to prove themselves in bookstores. Also, they must be returned whole and in good condition in order to receive credit.

Yet the boundaries between the two modes of publishing are blurring. Several mass market houses, including Bantam and Pocket Books produce trade paperback lines. Some paperback houses have come full circle and now publish hardcover lines. And some of the paperback giants own, or are owned by, hardcover houses. Diversity, publishers claim, makes firms less vulnerable to market fluctuations.

Their comments indicate publishers themselves are still assessing the surge in paperback popularity -- seeking new markets, experimenting with new kinds of soft-cover books, and, as always, looking for ways to economize reducing overprints and returns.

For readers, all this offers an attractive alternative to high-priced hardcovers, a greater variety of paperbacks on store shelves, and a shorter time lag than ever between hardcover publication and appearance in paperback.

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