The final figures for book production in the United States last year have at last found their way into the pages of Publishers Weekly. Like almost all sets of statistics they are subject to as many interpretations as there are people who read them, so any judgments offered here are to be taken as nothing more than horseback opinion. Still, the temptation cannot be resisted.
During 1982 the American book industry produced 46,935 new books or new editions of old books, a modest 4 percent reduction from the 1981 total. Of these, 36,238 were hard-cover or trade paperback editions of new titles; 6,712 were hard-cover or trade editions of previously published titles; and 3,985 were new mass-market paperback titles. Each of these figures is lower than the same figure for 1981, but in no category is the reduction significant--the great shift from hard-cover to trade paperback publication that so many of us have predicted, in other words, has yet to take place.
Broken down into broad categories, these figures are at once provocative, because they seem to suggest certain trends, and frustrating, because it is difficult to see precisely what those trends are. It may at first seem an indication of the allegedly parlous state of fiction that between 1980 and 1982 new hard-bound and trade paperback editions dropped from 2,835 to 2,448, a decline of just under 14 percent. Yet what have actually fallen off are new editions of old titles, from 917 to 406; new works of fiction have actually gone up, from 1,918 in 1980 to 2,042 in 1982.
Certainly this is clear evidence that the reprint opportunities for fiction--or, more accurately, for serious fiction--continue to shrink; but beyond that, the figures seem to contain no significant signs and portents, and they offer no evidence at all that the publishing industry is shying away from new fiction, as is so often charged by its critics.
A considerably more startling, if equally unilluminating, development can be spotted in a large increase in the publication of "general works," from 1,643 in 1980 to 2,338 in 1982, a jump of 42 percent. This category (Dewey Decimal numbers 000-099) is a grab bag designed to accommodate subjects that do not fall into other categories, and its sudden expansion is an utter mystery. So too--to me, at least--is the dominant position of those two dismal sciences, sociology and economics; their combined total of 7,449 titles is more than 2,000 ahead of the closest competitor.
Of those 7,449 titles, only 49--barely one-half of 1 percent--were mass-market paperbacks, and a safe bet would be that virtually all of those 49 were pop sociology and pop economics. If in all of these baffling statistics there is one absolutely incontrovertible point, it is that the mass-market paperback industry can no longer be considered, as a whole, a serious publishing enterprise. Of the 3,985 new mass-market paperbacks published last year, 2,971--an astounding 75 percent--were works of fiction, and another safe bet would be that something on the order of 80 percent of these were romances, Westerns, detective stories and science fiction.
In 1982 the mass-market paperback industry did not publish a single new work--not one--in the categories of music, philosophy, psychology, poetry and drama; there had been a total of 97 titles in these categories the year before. It published one--one!--nonfiction book about the law, four about agriculture, 13 about business, 14 about science. Apart from fiction, juveniles (222) and sports and recreation (209), no mass-market category made it into three figures. It is true that some good books get published in mass-market editions, and that some mass-market houses have small "literary" lines designed primarily to enhance institutional prestige, but it does not seem much of an exaggeration to say that the mass-market paperback industry now exists primarily for the publication of junk--harmless and sometimes diverting junk, to be sure, but junk all the same.
As the mass-market people have moved away from virtually everything except category fiction, the trade paperback people have entered the gaping void. Although no breakdowns are available for trade paperbacks, they presumably reflect the aforementioned figures for trades and hard-covers combined--which is to say a broad and reasonably balanced spectrum of categories. While total mass-market titles declined slightly from 1981 to 1982, the trade figure for 1982 of 12,658 new titles is a slight increase over 1981--and a 17 percent increase over 1980. The lesson to be drawn, however tentatively, may be that although trade paperbacks have yet to make significant inroads into the traditional role of hard-covers, they have replaced mass-market paperbacks in the more serious end of the reprint business.
The one kicker here--and it is an important one--is that prices for trade paperbacks have risen out of sight. While the average price for a mass-market title rose from $2.65 in 1981 to $2.93 in 1982 (up 11 percent), the average price for a trade title went from $9.76 to $12.32 (up 26 percent). And this tells only part of the story; what may be most significant is the trade jump from 1977 to 1982--a moon-launch leap of 108 percent. To be sure, these figures include highly specialized and extremely expensive books that will never be found in the paperback departments of most bookstores; but the steep rise in prices cannot be gainsaid.
What it means for the trade paperback market can only be guessed, but it is not good news for bookbuyers when--as is now the case--reprint editions of biographies, histories and other works of nonfiction of interest to the general readership commonly retail for $12.95 or more. These books may have sold for $18.95 in their hard-cover editions, and $6 is not an insignificant difference to many purchasers. But the hunch here is that whatever benefits the trade paperback edition gains from the price contrast with the hard-cover will be more than offset by buyer resistance to paying $12.95 for a paperback--a price that only a few years ago was standard for hard-covers, and a price that many bookbuyers still regard as excessively high.
Speaking of prices, let's end on a gloomy note. The average price for new hard-cover fiction in 1982 was $14.75, up 101 percent in a decade; for new biography, memoirs and letters it was $20.43, up 91 percent; and for new history it was $22.88, up 71 percent. More than ever, alas, a new book is not merely a joy, but a luxury.