Softcover publication formats on international markets

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This page expands on the differences between the softcover publication formats "pb" and "tp" as defined in the publication format rules and discusses problems with these formats for non-English publications and markets.

At the current stage, this page shall also be the basis for a possible vote about a solution for this problem. At a later stage, in case there has been a vote, this page should maybe stay and changed according to the vote, with a link leading here added to the publication format rule page.

Contents

Background

Although the ISFDB designations "pb" and "tp" were originally created to catalog English-language paperbacks, the current ISFDB data entry standards do not match the industry-standard US definition. In the US, the distinction between "trade paperbacks" and "mass market paperbacks" is as follows.

  • "Trade paperback". If a book fails to sell during a certain period of time, it is returned to the distributor/publisher. The vast majority of "trade" paperbacks are larger in size ("tp" in ISFDB terms), but it doesn't have to be that way. Some "small size" paperbacks ("pb" in ISFDB terms) published by certain specialty publishers are technically "trade" paperbacks; they are supposed to be returned to the publisher if they do not sell. Some of them carry a special warning on the copyright page to prevent bookstore employees from treating them as mass market paperbacks.
  • "Mass market paperback". If a book fails to sell during a certain period of time, its cover is stripped. The rest of the book is then pulped while the stripped cover is returned to the publisher as proof that the book has been destroyed. (You may occasionally find stolen cover-less mass market paperbacks sold at flea markets.) Most "strippable" paperbacks are "pb" size, but some are larger than what we define as the "pb" format.

Back when the ISFDB project started, the designers were only dimly aware of the differences between trade paperbacks and mass market paperbacks. Later on, when the distinction was made clear to them, they decided to continue using the terms "pb" and "tp" to capture book sizes instead of the way they are used by bookstores and publishers.

What this means is that our "pb" and "tp" are uniquely ISFDB designations which do not map neatly onto current publishing practices in the US or anywhere else.

The problem

When the ISFDB started, its was focused on English-language publications and the software didn't support publications in other languages. Therefore, the publication format field only distinguishes between the two major softcover formats "pb" and "tp" used in English markets, which are defined and distinguished in the ISFDB by their minimum and/or maximum width and height (see Template:PublicationFields:Format).

Semantically, "pb" and "tp" roughly mean "lower-quality, smaller-sized mass market paperback" and "higher-quality, larger-sized paperback". And to add from the English Wikipedia: "Trade paperbacks are typically priced lower than hardcover books and higher than mass-market paperbacks."

The fixed size-based rules for "pb" and "tp" worked ok as long as the software didn't support other languages, but it does support other languages now for some time already. This can, depending on the language of a publication and the market it published for, lead to a problem with the current "pb" and "tp" formats: the market may have only one instead of two softcover formats (making no distinction at all), it may have two similar formats but with a different size definition, or it may even have more than two softcover formats. Some softcover formats may even be defined by other parameters than just their size.

We could simply ignore this and say: choose "pb" or "tp" based on its size as stated in the rules and that's it. From the "pb/tp" rule's point of view, these data would be "correct": you have a size, ergo you can derive a format. However, from the publication's market, an editor's and a user's point of view, the chosen format would be completely arbitrary and incomprehensible. Simple example: if a market makes no distinction at all between different softcover formats, why should some of its publications be "pb" and others be "tp" just because of their size in the ISFDB? A more complex, real-life example follows below.

In addition to all this, this problem leads to recurring, time-consuming discussions about this topic and also repeatedly needs explaining these "strange" rules to new editors who enter non-English publications.

In short: the current definitions of "pb" and "tp" are not suitable for non-English publications if the publication's market uses other softcover definitions.

An example

As a more detailed example, let's take the German market. It also distinguishes between two softcover formats. However, to make it a bit more difficult, important German market participants include more than only the size in their softcover format definition. There doesn't seem to be an "official" definition for the German formats, but a probably "most authoritative" one: the bestseller list of weekly magazine Der Spiegel, which is compiled for them by buchreport.de. According to them, these are the softcover formats in the German market (using the German terms here):

  1. "Paperback" [sic!]: must be >= 20.5cm and must have inner flips on front and back cover
  2. "Taschenbuch": every other softcover which is not a "Paperback", no matter how tall or wide

The first one is usually a higher-quality, larger-sized paperback with a higher price, the second one a lower-quality, smaller-sized paperback with a lower price.

The same definition is used by other important German market participants as well. Examples:

  • vlb.de (the German "Catalogue of available books")
  • boersenblatt.de (interview with the CEO of Random House Germany)

I don't know how old or new these German softcover definitions are. They may not apply to older German paperbacks from, say, the 1970s. But even if we ignore them as "new definitions" and only look at German softcover publications as a distinction between "lower-quality, smaller-sized mass market paperback", "higher-quality, larger-sized paperback" and lower/higher prices do we have a problem with the current ISFDB definitions of "pb" and "tp":

Older, German smaller-sized mass market paperbacks were often slightly bigger than English ones. Many of them were 11.5cm wide or even a little bit wider,which is too wide for the current "pb" definition already. Moreover, they've become bigger over the years and are often up to 19cm high and 12.5 cm wide now. All these publications would have to be entered as "tp" according to the rules for "tp". And that's the crucial point: they aren't "tp" in a sense of "higher-quality, larger-sized paperback" and "higher price". They are the "lower-quality, smaller-sized mass market paperback" with lower prices. Even if we don't have an official definition about the exact width which distinguishes the two German softcover formats, experience shows that it's definitely not the current one for "tp". Entering these publications as "tp" is at least misleading if not entirely incorrect and, again, seems completely arbitrary and incomprehensible from a German user's perspective.

Possible solutions

1. Add a new "softcover" format and keep "pb" and "tp"

Add one new format "sc" for "softcover" as a catch-all for all softcover formats, and keep the existing "pb" and "tp".

"pb" and "tp" will only be used for appropriate languages and markets (which are maybe only the English markets). Everyone else uses "sc" for softcover publications.

Affected existing non-English publication records should be changed to "sc". This could happen either:

  • by a database change, which replaces all "pb" and "tp" forrmat with "sc" for all non-English records in one go
  • or by a database change, which replaces all "pb" and "tp" forrmat with "sc", but separately per language and decided per language by the editors
  • or manually via a new clean-up report "non-English titles with 'pb' or 'tp' pub format"

Optionally also add two new fields "width" and "height", each with an additional field defining its unit (a selection containing "inch" and "cm"). Changing the unit recalculates the previously entered value to the new unit. This is the way LibraryThing handles it.

Optionally also add a new free text field, which can describe the publication format in more detail (see ISFDB:Community_Portal#The_paperback_formats_again)). Depending on what we want to achieve with it, we can either make it available in the edit form only if "sc" is chosen, or for all formats. The question is also, if we should allow any value, or if we need some new rules for it about the allowed values, the latter likely leading to similar moderation problems as described for solution 3 below.

Advantages

  • Only one software change: add "sc" to the list of format and add a "sc" definition to the rules. Only if we want them: also add the fields for width, height and their unit (and maybe a free text field)
  • Easy to understand, because most (even all?) markets use softcovers and certainly all books have a size

Disadvantages

  • Are there any?

2. Add a new "softcover" format and delete "pb" and "tp"

This is very likely not popular at all among ISFDB editors: one could do the same as in solution 1, but remove "pb" and "tp" from the rules, from the list of publication formats and change all existing records using "pb" and "tp" to "sc".

3. Add new formats for other markets

Add new formats to the list of publication formats in the publication's edit form. For example, add the German formats "Taschenbuch" and "Paperback", also adding their definitions to the rules.

Advantages

  • Users can immediately recognize the publication format if they are familiar with it
  • More granular data accuracy regarding publication formats (if that's desired for softcovers at all)

Disadvantages:

  • Moderating submissions may lead to a lot of overhead because moderators very likely aren't familiar with all the different softcover formats in all languages
  • The list may grow very long eventually (though some JavaScript could make the list searchable)
  • Each new format needs a software change.

4. Rename "pb" to "mmp" (stands for "mass market paperback") and "tp" to "paperback"

(see ISFDB:Community_Portal#The_paperback_formats_again).

This doesn't solve the problem because the size-based definitions in the rules, which are the cause of the problem, would stay the same, and the distinction between "mmp" and "paperback" would look as arbitrary as between "pb" and "tp" before for several markets.

5. Add exceptions to the "pb" and "tp" rules

Idea: add exceptions to the definitions of "pb" and "tp" for certain languages and markets. For example, add an exception for language "XY" with a larger minimum height of 20cm for "tp".

Problem: this is only feasible under the assumption that all markets distinguish between two softcover formats only. Since this is probably not the case, this is not a sustainable solution.

6. Leave everything as it is

Advantages: None. Go back to the beginning and read again.

Disadvantages: Seriously, go back to the beginning and read again :)

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