This started as a comment about the future of publishing on Billie Sue Mosiman’s Facebook page (nice lady; buy her books), and I thought it worth preserving here.
(Yes, I’m the sort of jerk who may drop a short essay into your Facebook comments. Writers, eh?)
What I think is going to happen is that the mmpb is largely going to go away, replaced by electronic editions. (Within ten years, maybe five.) Hardcovers and trade paperbacks will be reduced, but still sell for the foreseeable future.
Most of us don’t remember it, but there was a time before mass market paperbacks. (The modern mmpb was introduced in the 1930s.) But when they were introduced as a low-cost alternative to hardcovers, hardcovers didn’t go away; some people have always been willing to may more for the nicer edition.
Publishers seem to be trying to position electronic editions as less-expensive alternatives to hardcovers, but readers see them as less expensive alternatives to mmpb. I don’t see how the publishers can win that one. I also don’t think it’s going to turn into a four-tiered market (hardcover/trade paper/mass market paper/electronic). That’s too much division in the market and I think readers will gravitate to one end or the other, squeezing the middle. It’s going to be hardcover/trade paper/electronic. Booksellers, plan accordingly.
Longer range, we may see bookstores make a comeback, in a somewhat different form. You could browse through the sections of display books, neatly organized. Select the books you want at one of the in-store terminals (maybe looking at a few reviews in the process), and decide which edition you want. Select an electronic edition, and sends you a digital copy. Select print, and a copy is printed up for you right there in the store for you to take home.
Perhaps that’s just wishful thinking, but there is no technical reason why it’s not possible.