Whichever way you look at it, mass market paperback sales 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 put the dollar sales decline at a more concerning 42.7% in 2020. Both sets of data show more declines occurring in 2022.
Admittedly, the mass market pocket size has had its ups and downs in the past. The last time TP wrote about the prospects for consumer paperbacks, in October 2014 the format was trying to recover from the shock it had suffered from the explosion of inexpensive e-books, especially in areas as important as romance, science fiction and fantasy. (Asked last week during the DOJ’s lawsuit to stop PRH from acquiring S&S whether it had cut title production following the Random House-Penguin merger in 2013, PRH CEO Markus Dohle said noted the adjustment in the number of paperbacks published by Berkley./NAL in response to the flood of self-published 99¢ and $1.99 e-books hitting the market, attracting genre fiction readers.)
Low prices have always been one of readers’ main draws to mass-market paperbacks, and it continues to be the case, according to Craig Swinwood, CEO of HarperCollins’ Harlequin subsidiary and CEO of HC Canada. The most recent research, conducted by the company after the worst of the pandemic subsided, found affordability and price portability to be the number one and number two reasons consumers buy mass-market titles.
Jennifer Long, vice president, associate publisher of Gallery Books Group, which houses Simon & Schuster’s Pocket Books printing for the mass market, said price is a “very important consideration” for some readers. “As long as consumers who want the mass market continue to support it, we will continue to publish there or risk losing them as readers.”
All mass-market publishers are aware of the price sensitivity around the format, and while a few publishers have increased the size of mass-market paperbacks, they are reluctant to go beyond the $9.99 price tag. . So-called price caps, especially in times of rising costs, put pressure on margins, acknowledged Swinwood, who noted that mass-market paperback sales for the company are generally flat, although they still account for around 49% of the publisher’s revenue. , compared to 59% a few years ago.
The price cap is one of the reasons why mass-market publishers have cut back on production. Kristin McLean, an analyst for NPD BookScan, said one of the factors driving down production and sales of titles in the mass market is the constant migration of what she calls “the next generation” of authors. romance and mystery/thriller majors from the mass market to trade paperback, a format that has seen “tremendous growth” since 2017. One author who has undergone such a transition, McLean added, is Colleen Hoover .
Steve Zacharius, CEO of Kensington Publishing, which had 40 books on the Weekly editors list of mass market bestsellers in 2021, behind only HarperCollins/Harlequin (145 titles) and PRH (43) – said that while the mass market remains “an important part of our publishing programme”, Kensington has “tailored what we publish in this format based on consumer preferences. He supported McLean’s thesis on the movement of mass-market authors to different formats, explaining that Kensington publishes general fiction and suspense authors in the paperback and even hardcover trade.
Yet for books in other genres, such as westerns, mainstream is still an important format. “We started offering westerns in trade papers four to six times a year, and those titles were a hit for us, presumably reaching a different reader and a reader who might not be as price-conscious,” said Zacharius. “But the mass market will continue to be our primary Western format as long as the market continues to support it.”
The cozy mystery category provides another example of publishers changing their strategies to meet consumer expectations. Pocket’s Long said the publisher has reduced its number of mainstream cozies. Zacharius said Kensington continues to enjoy strong support and restocks on mass-market cozies, but to capture readers who prefer a trade paper format, Kensington is now publishing in that format as well. “Like in westerns, price probably comes into play,” he said. “For those voracious cozy readers who buy several books at once, the mass market price is very attractive.”
In romance, which remains a hugely important mass-market genre, Zacharius said Kensington publishes contemporary romances primarily in the trade format, whereas historical romances are often made in both the mass market and the trade. , depending on the content and the author.
For Harlequin, the mass market remains an important means of introducing 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 who appear in Harlequin paperbacks and hardcovers have made their mass-market debut. The format also remains an effective way to introduce new voices, and Swinwood said new tracks focusing on LBGTQ themes, for example, have resonated well.
The biggest challenge for the mass market, according to Swinwood, is keeping retailers interested in offering a section large enough to attract readers. While some bookstores carry the format, mass merchandisers, including Walmart, are important outlets for mass-market paperbacks, as are grocery stores and other nontraditional outlets. If a store doesn’t have a big enough mass-market section, Swinwood said, customers tend to believe the department isn’t worth visiting. (In testimony at the PRH-S&S trial, Dohle said that as mass-market paperback sales declined, large retailers cut space for the format, limiting its distribution.)
In order for retailers to keep paperbacks aimed at the mass market, HC conducted extensive research into the format. Swinwood said he discovered that 74% of print book shoppers prefer the mass market and that it is the cornerstone of any retailer’s book offering. According to HC, consumers will often decide where to buy based on the quality of a retailer’s bookshelf, and a good section includes 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 research found that mass-market readers also drive extra spending where they shop: On the book shelves, 80% of mass-market shoppers will buy for a spouse or child on the same trip; Across retailers, a significant number of retailer visits are driven by the need for books, resulting in additional spending on unbooked items during those trips.
All publishers said they would continue to publish in the mass market as long as consumers supported it, but there was skepticism that rising inflation would spur a rebound in sales for the inexpensive format. Long said it seems more likely that consumers will “buy fewer books and turn more to their local libraries as prices for books in all formats continue to rise.”
Still, there’s hope that the mass market will see some sort of revival, including cautious optimism from ReaderLink, the format’s biggest distributor. “From our perspective, the slowdown in sales is the result of 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 originally appeared in the 08/08/2022 issue of Weekly editors under title: Whither Mass Market Paperbacks