THAT small paperbook you may be carrying around with you - for a quick read on the bus, at lunch, or perhaps involving a peek or two at work - is much more than just a pleasant form of escapism at a modest cost of $3.95 or so. It is also a genuine economic success story. And it represents big business at perhaps its most unobtrusive level.
Paperback novels, no matter how diminutive they may be in terms of form, are in more cases than not the products of giant publishing enterprises. Anyone reading the fine print on the latest multibillion-dollar Wall Street merger battle involving Paramount Pictures, Time Inc., and Warner Communications, could not have helped but note one common link involving the three companies: They have all been major players over the years in book publishing. For example, Paramount, which used to be Gulf & Western Inc., owns Simon and Schuster, which in turns owns Pocket Books.
Yet, ironically, it was 50 years ago this month, in June 1939, that Pocket Books revolutionized the publishing industry in the United States with the release of some 11 paperback books at the low cost of around 25 cents per book.
Many of today's paperback houses are owned by giant international firms. Consider Bantam, another major early paperback publisher. It, along with Doubleday, is owned by Bertelsmann A.G., a West German media conglomerate.
``Over the years much of the profit margin for the publishers has been in paperback publishing,'' says one media market analyst. By buying the hardback title at a huge cost, the paperback division or company was underwriting the hardback publisher. And then, by mass marketing the paperback, with press runs in the hundreds of thousands to millions, paperback publishers were assured of substantial sales on their own.
By contrast, press runs for hardcover books were usually limited to 10,000 copies or less.
In recent years, however, the economics of paperback publishing has changed dramatically, according to industry sources. In large part, that is a result of the higher and higher bidding taking place for the paperback rights of major hardcover books. Now, hardcover and paperback divisions of the same company are increasingly working together to share bidding costs. But publishing rights for a successful hardcover can still run into hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars.
The reality of what has happened to the publishing industry - with many companies now taken over by giant conglomerates - is underscored by how Wall Street itself monitors the industry. While publishing trade groups scrutinize the industry through an assortment of trade magazines, investment houses typically assign ``media,'' or ``entertainment'' or ``leisure'' securities analysts to oversee such companies as Time Inc. and Paramount Inc.
The challenge now driving the industry, according to media analysts, is five-fold:
The rising cost of newsprint, which in turn drives up publishing costs, and thus retail costs.
Increasingly crowded shelf-space, with 6,000 or more paperbacks released yearly in the US. No wonder publishers are now cramming their books into as many outlets as possible, from drug stores to small mom-and-pop stores. Only about 60 percent of all paperback products are now found in traditional bookstores.
Increasing segmentation within the market. General mainstream fiction, such as Pearl Buck's ``The Good Earth,'' which sold for 25 cents in late 1939, has always been but one small part of paperback publishing. There were also crime novels, Westerns, adventure novels, and science fiction. But today there are dozens of subcategories, from self-improvement books to ``sword and sorcery'' tales, to romances, to Gothic love stories.
``Our romance novels are very, very popular,'' says a spokeswoman for Bantam, which publishes at least six romance paperbacks a month, compared with four crime titles.
There is less margin for error in choosing and printing a title. Currently, a significant part of the entire distribution of many paperbacks, particularly by first-time authors, is returned unsold. That, says one media analyst, invites caution on the part of publishers, who are looking for proven books that sell year after year, such as those by James Michener or Stephen King.
The increasing ``internationalization'' of publishing. Paperback houses always sold books by European authors. Now, given the changing ethnic mix of the US, they are looking for popular writers who gear their products to Hispanic, Asian, and African-American audiences.