Regardless of how you look at it, sales of mass-market paperbacks have been steadily declining since 2017. NPD BookScan data shows unit sales fell 31.5% in 2021 compared to 2017, while the Association of American Publishers said dollar sales fell by a more worrying 42.7% in 2020. Both sets of data show further declines in 2022.
Certainly the paperback format for the mass market has had its ups and downs in the past. The last time pw wrote about the prospects for mass-market paperbacks, in October 2014 the format was trying to recover from the shock it had suffered from the explosion of cheap e-books, particularly in such important areas as romance and sci-fi and fantasy. (Last week, during the DOJ’s process to block PRH from acquiring S&S, PRH CEO Markus Dohle was asked if he had reduced title production after the Random House-Penguin merger in 2013, and pointed it out to adjust the number of mass-market paperbacks published by Berkley /NAL in response to the spate of self-published 99¢ and $1.99 e-books hitting the market, luring readers of genre fiction.)
According to Craig Swinwood, CEO of HarperCollins subsidiary Harlequin and CEO of HC Canada, low prices have always been, and continue to be, one of the top draws for readers of mass-market paperbacks. The most recent research the company conducted after the worst of the pandemic ended found that price achievability and portability are the primary and secondary reasons consumers buy mass-market stocks.
Jennifer Long, Vp, associate editor of Gallery Books Group, home of Simon & Schuster’s mass-market pocket books imprint, said pricing is a “very important consideration” for some readers. “As long as consumers who want mass market continue to support it, we will continue to publish in it or risk losing them as readers.”
All mass-market publishers are aware of price sensitivity to format, and even when some publishers have increased the cutting size of mass-market paperbacks, they are reluctant to break the $9.99 price tag. The so-called price cap, especially in times of rising costs, is putting pressure on margins, admitted Swinwood, who noted that sales of mass-market paperbacks are generally stagnant for the company, though they still account for about 49% of the publisher’s revenue account for , down from 59% a few years ago.
The price cap is one reason mass market publishers have reduced their output. Kristin McLean, an analyst at NPD BookScan, said one factor in the decline in both production and sales of mass-market titles is the steady migration of what she calls “the next generation” of great romance and mystery/thriller writers , from mass market to commercial paperback. a format that has experienced “tremendous growth” since 2017. One author who has made such a transition, McLean added, is Colleen Hoover.
Steve Zacharius, CEO of Kensington Publishing, which had 40 books on the market publishers weekly Mass Market Best Sellers list in 2021, behind only HarperCollins/Harlequin (145 titles) and PRH (43) — said that while mass market remains “an important part of our publishing program,” Kensington “tailors what we release in this format based on consumer preferences.” .’ He supported McLean’s thesis on the movement of mass-market authors to other formats, stating that Kensington publishes some general fiction and suspense authors in trade paperback and even hardcover.
Nevertheless, the mass market for books in other genres such as westerns remains an important format. “We started putting westerns in trade papers four to six times a year and those titles have been successful for us and probably reached a different reader who might not be as price conscious,” said Zacharius. “But mass market will continue to be our primary Western format as long as the market continues to support it.”
The Cozy Mystery category is another example of publishers changing strategies to meet consumer expectations. Pocket’s Long said the publisher has reduced the number of mass-market cozies. Zacharius said Kensington continues to see strong support and repeat orders from the mass market, but to attract readers who prefer a trade magazine format, Kensington is now publishing in that format as well. “Like Western, price point is likely to come into play,” he said. “For the voracious leisurely readers who buy multiple books at once, the mass-market price is very attractive.”
Regarding romance, which remains an extremely important mass-market genre, according to Zacharius, Kensington publishes contemporary romance primarily in commercial format, while historical romance is often both mass-market and commercially produced, depending on the content and author.
For Harlequin, the mass market remains an important way to introduce new authors – a formula that many other publishers have also adopted. “The formula still works for us,” Swinwood said, noting that about 23% of authors appearing in Harlequin paperback and hardcover formats had their beginnings in the mass market. The format also remains an effective way to introduce new voices, and Swinwood said new titles exploring LBGTQ issues, for example, have been well received.
The biggest challenge facing the mass market, Swinwood believes, is keeping retailers interested in running a section big enough to attract readers. While some bookstores carry the format, mass retailers, including Walmart, are major outlets for mass-market paperbacks, as are grocery stores and other non-traditional outlets. If a store doesn’t have a large enough mass-market department, Swinwood says, customers tend to think the department isn’t worth visiting. (In his testimony before the PRH-S&S trial, Dohle said that as sales of mass-market paperbacks declined, major retailers reduced space for the format and limited its distribution.)
In order for retailers to continue stocking paperbacks for the mass market, HC conducted extensive research on the format. Swinwood said it found that 74% of print book buyers prefer the mass market and that this is the cornerstone of any retailer’s book offering. According to HC, consumers often decide where to shop based on the quality of a retailer’s book department, and a good department offers a variety of formats, including mass market. Mass-market readers also tend to read more and spend more on books than readers of other formats.
According to Swinwood, the study found that mass-market readers also drive additional spending where they shop: In book departments, 80% of mass-market shoppers buy for a spouse or child on the same trip; For retailers as a whole, a significant number of retail visits are driven by the need for books, resulting in additional spending on non-book items during those trips.
All publishers have said they will continue to release to the mass market as long as consumers support it, but there was skepticism that rising inflation would spur a sales recovery for the budget format. Long said consumers are more likely to “buy fewer books and turn to their local libraries more as prices for books of all formats continue to rise.”
Still, there’s hope that the mass market will see some kind of revival, including the cautious optimism of ReaderLink, the format’s largest distributor. “In our view, the decline in sales is due to supply chain issues and a lack of print capacity, not a lack of consumer interest in the format,” said David Barker, executive vice president and chief marketing officer at ReaderLink.
A version of this article appeared in the 08/08/2022 issue publishers weekly under the heading: Whither Mass Market Paperbacks