The Future of the Paperback – What Can The Trade Learn From Mills & Boon?

It’s hard to know whether you are on your tail or your head when it comes to the future of the paperback market.

With an article in The Bookseller today saying ‘Paperbacks must evolve as ‘e’ encroaches’ and Nielsen reporting a dip of 28% in sales since 2008, it feels as though the paperback has slid a little too far down the slippery slope to make a successful return.

Sometimes hearing comments from people like Simon Winder at Penguin Press stating that paperbacks remain the dominant publishing form globally is arbitrary and feels a tad like ‘ostrich syndrome'; burying your head in the sand and hoping the ‘e-monster’ will go away.

“That may of course change . . . but it would require some really serious convulsion: the collapse of chain-bookselling or some further unguessable technological fix— direct injection of literature into the brain?—to deal the death-blow to such a cheap, disposable, friendly and democratic form of reading.”

Judging by the exponential growth of the Internet in the past two decades, it isn’t going away. The Internet is here to stay; technology is now an intrinsic part of our lives, whether it be smartphones, tablets, laptops and e-readers. Eventually, and I hate to say it, I think the e-Book will rise above the paperback. Its dominance over the hardback will remain to be seen, though.

Chain-bookselling is on the rocks, along with most of the entire high street in the U.K. For that, I blame Amazon.

As for ‘cheap, disposable, friendly, democratic reading'; how does an e-book NOT satisfy these criteria? 69p e-Books, free content, adjustable text sizes, self-published content and the falling price of tablets all make e-Books increasingly democratic. Given the plummet of the e-reader against the tablet, I predict that the ‘cheap’ technology in your basic kindle will be appropriated into the manufacture of inexpensive devices which provide equivalent ‘mass-market’ access for everyone.

The time for talking is over

Rather than clinging on to the idea that the paperback remains the dominant form, it seems prudent to start looking forward. I thought this was being encouraged in the publishing industry anyway?

The ‘66%’ market share of paperbacks is great, for now. Mintel reported in 2011 that the e-book market share was 1-3% of all print sales, however a recent Bookseller article found that in March 2014, e-Book sales have now risen by 20%. How can Simon Winder be so obstinate?

Yes, e-Reader use maybe dying off, but tablets and smartphones are going to take over. Get your heads out of the sand, people! The publishing industry needs to continue adapting and on a faster timescale that it is used to. Today is a fast-paced world and only the strongest survive.

As an MA student, about to dip my hopeful, yet hesitant toe into trade publishing, I cannot help but feel like I should be running for the hills. I’m praying that my digital skills and ability (I built this blog, you know!) will see me through the choppy waters. So, you would think that one of the biggest global paperback publishers would be having proverbial kittens right now, but HALLELUJAH! They have made a change.

Hearing encouraging signs like Mills & Boon releasing a direct-to-consumer sales app is wonderful and music to my (hopefully) soon to be employed ears.

The Future is Bright, The Future is… Mills & Boon?!

Since I was a child looking at the spinning rack of dog-eared Mills & Boon titles in my local library, it has seemed that the company has been the paragon of cheesy, clichéd romance titles read by aging women. I say ‘aging'; as a 5-year-old child, anybody over the age of 18 seemed ‘old’, so my perspective may have been skewed!

Their relevance in the age of E.L. James, Katie Fforde and Cecelia Ahern seemed shaky. So, to hear that M&B, of all companies, is making the move toward providing digital content direct to the consumer makes me smile inside, but it also makes complete sense. Given their output is almost solely paperbacks, they had to adapt, or die. Simples. Imminent death tends to necessitate changes.

Maybe larger publishers feel a little more protected and cushioned by their big-name authors and larger financial reserves? In any case, it is a relief to hear of Mills & Boon taking two huge steps forward into the digital future, tackling both e-Book sales and the move toward D2C/B2C selling in one fell swoop.

This isn’t merely online e-book B2C selling however. By crafting a bespoke app, they are stepping between rival e-tailers and the M&B consumer.

Joanna Kite from M&B explains: “It’s not a competition with Amazon, we just want our readers to be able to buy the books in the places they want to buy them.”

They have re-designed their entire website into a community hub, thus allowing them to tap directly into their loyal fanbase. Readers can buy the books, talk about them and share their thoughts, thereby strengthening their position as THE place for fans to buy the newest Mills & Boon releases and fostering loyalty which keeps their customers away from rival sellers. This is an incentive which Amazon and their ilk aren’t yet able to provide. If M&B decide to interlink the user/community content and discussion with their product, then they will open up a world of added benefits and enhancements which will only further encourage repeat sales and loyalty.

It’s the old adage of ‘thinking outside of the box’, or book in this case. Mills & Boon identified their strengths and are using them to re-establish their footing within an evolving book market; they have adapted and hopefully, they will survive. There is no use stagnating when your very foundations are turning to quicksand, and this is a lesson I hope that more trade publishers will begin to take on board.

Share Button

Victoria is the creator of Blurbify, which was created as part of her creative dissertation project at the end of the MA course in 2014. She has a background in graphic and web design, having gained a First class degree in the subject from Anglia Ruskin in 2010 and is a lover of digital publishing, editorial and design; though she still prefers holding a real book, rather than a Kindle!