Momentous transition” is the phrase Jonathan Galassi and Steve Rubin recently used to describe the state of trade paperbacks. That term, from the publishers of two of Macmillan’s divisions, came in an announcement about Stephen Morrison being named v-p and publisher of the house’s vaunted paperback division, Picador. Morrison was hired to replace Picador’s longtime publisher, Frances Coady, who left in February. Coady’s departure marked another in a string of high-profile defections among paperback publishers. Also in February, Tina Pohlman left Crown to become publisher at the digital Open Road Media. Last summer Carrie Kania left HarperCollins to become an agent in the U.K.

While some in the industry said that the departures must be seen individually, there is tacit acknowledgment that trade paperbacks, as a format, no longer represent what they once did: the cheaper (and more portable) option to hardcovers. Although no one in the industry is predicting anything as drastic as the demise of the format, many agree that changes will need to be made to the way the major houses handle their trade paperback programs. As one agent put it, trade paperbacks will certainly exist in 10 years, but maybe not trade paperback divisions.

The trade paperback format lost some ground to e-books through the first nine months of 2011, according to Bowker Market Research, but it remained the most popular print category. Still, the question being asked is what consumer segment the trade paperback is serving in a time when e-books often capture readers looking for the things paperbacks used to offer: a lower price point and a light-weight alternative to hardcovers. Although publishers remain committed to the format, many agents say the biggest shift, and the most damning, has been the demise of Borders. A number of agents PW spoke to said that with Borders gone—all agreed that one of the things Borders did best was sell literary fiction in trade paperback—the barriers to bringing a title out in trade paperback are higher than ever.

As one agent explained, off the record, a trade paperback publication is no longer a foregone conclusion. “[Publishers] are deciding not to do paperback editions of a book that, in the past, sold well enough to warrant a trade paperback. Hell, every book [used to] warrant a trade paperback, but now e-books keep a title in print, so they don’t bother.” But the notion that the trade paperback could go the way of the mass market category, where sales have plunged dramatically, is misplaced. Many publishers PW contacted said that, if anything, the concern is how digital is cannibalizing hardcover sales. Bob Miller, publisher of Workman, said trade paperbacks at his house have been performing notably well and, long-term, he thinks more about the way digital will affect the hardcover format.

David Shanks, CEO of Penguin Group USA, agreed. “My feeling is that those two—the hardcover and mass market—for different reasons, are under much more pressure than trade paper.” Shanks insisted that, of the three print formats (hardcover, trade paper, and mass market), trade paper is the strongest. “For newer generations of readers, trade paper is preferred. Does that generation necessarily have the income to buy a [digital] reader? I don’t know.”

For Shanks, the worry is that the industry will buy into the hysteria-inducing stories about the death of print coming from the consumer press and fueled by the ever-growing percentage point gains in e-book sales. Noting that looking at e-book sales gains of well over 100% in a vacuum is misleading, since e-book sales a few years ago were at zero, Shanks believes people need to be more careful in what they glean from the numbers. “My concern is that everyone is looking at two or three years of e-book sales and saying we need to start printing less.... I think it’s premature to do that right now.” He adds that even with the growth in digital, for most publishers e-books still account for only 20% of their business.

For smaller presses the transition may mean doing more trade paperback originals or, interestingly, more hardcovers. Charlie Winton, publisher of Counterpoint, said the question of what will happen to trade paperbacks is part of a larger question the entire industry is struggling with: “What’s the dynamic of each format?” As the head of a small house, Winton thinks there are now more advantages to doing certain titles in hardcover instead of trade paperback original. “The higher yield in hardcover... means that, with certain fiction titles we might’ve done in trade paperback original two years ago, we’re now doing in hardcover. It doesn’t mean we’re not doing trade paperback original fiction, but we’re analyzing it more.”

Those most concerned about fewer titles automatically being brought out in trade paper worry the shift will kill the much-needed second bite books get at the marketing and publicity apple. One agent, who specializes in literary fiction, said he’s particularly worried about the trend he’s seeing with midlist literary fiction. This agent, who spoke off the record, noted that a hardcover often gets only a few weeks on the bookstore shelves, whereas a paperback gets months in the store. Now, he said, hardcovers are being published, not heavily promoted, and houses are deciding, in a shorter window than ever before, whether to publish a trade paperback edition. This agent estimated that, for many of his authors, publishers decided two months after the hardcover (and e-book) editions came out whether they would issue a trade paperback.

While publishers might argue that poor sales of hardcover and e-book editions make it hard to justify releasing a book in trade paperback, agents and authors maintain that underperforming hardcover sales should not, and do not, indicate the size of a potential trade paperback readership. As one agent said, her feeling is that hardcovers which don't sell out their first printings and don’t produce strong e-sales are the books especially ripe for trade paperback editions.

While the importance and viability of the trade paperback may not diminish soon, trade paperback divisions might be more endangered. When most titles published in hardcover were reissued in trade paperback a year later, the need for two separate divisions made sense. Many insiders said what is now the trade paperback division needs to morph into a digital division that, as one agent noted, might look something more like Open Road Media. In this vision, these digital groups would look at a house’s backlist holistically and move to promote titles digitally that may have become relevant, say, because of the news cycle, for brief periods of time. Marketing could push readers to the e-book edition or, possibly, to a POD title. Even if that vision does not become reality, people in the business believe a change is coming. As one agent put it, with the houses “continuing to pour people into technology and digital departments, something’s gotta give. And trade paper reprints certainly seem less vital.”