The mass market paperback segment has long been characterized by slow growth, with modest sales gains driven by price hikes that have helped to offset a steady decline in unit sales. With the segment muddling through a year when both dollar and unit sales apparently will be down—sales through the first nine months of 2004 were down nearly 8%, according to the AAP—some mass market veterans are wondering if the segment is undergoing fundamental changes that will result in nothing but sales declines in the years ahead. And if paperback sales are on a downward trajectory, some publishers argue, the economics of traditional hard/soft deals will need to be reevaluated.
"Mass market's biggest asset, affordability, is now its biggest drawback," said Beth de Guzman, editorial director for mass market paperbacks at Warner Books. Simon & Schuster president Jack Romanos took the argument one step further. "The old philosophy of affordability, portability, availability and quality content was valid until about 2000," Romanos said. While paperbacks still deliver good content, the other parts of the equation have changed, Romanos contended. Portability is no longer as important, as mass market's most important audience—baby boomers—have moved up to either trade paperback or hardcover, Romanos said.
The expansion of trade paperbacks into new marketing channels has come at the expense of shelf and rack space for mass market paperbacks. Outlets that once carried only mass market paperbacks now stock all formats, Romanos said. Bantam Dell president Irwyn Applebaum agreed that mass markets have lost space to other formats. "A real concern for us is that many retailers want to push aside mass market paperbacks in favor of trade paper and hardcover. It doesn't need to be an either-or question," Applebaum said.
More troublesome is that outlets that once were major supporters of the format, such as certain discount stores (e.g., Woolworth's), don't exist any more, Romanos said. Penguin Group USA president David Shanks is another publisher who's convinced that there are fewer outlets for mass market titles, even as the output rises. That combination results in less shelf time for titles, plus higher returns. The reduction in outlets has also resulted in the elimination, or near elimination, of entire genres, with male-oriented subjects such as westerns and men's adventure affected the most.
But it is price that is the biggest conundrum for publishers. "There is a great variety of opinion" about pricing, Applebaum noted. The increased availability of used books and greater discounting of hardcovers has reduced mass markets' traditional price advantage, a situation that has been exacerbated by higher mass market cover prices. Simply lowering the price to try to build sales by volume has mixed results. "There is inconsistent evidence that if you artificially lower the price, you will sell more books," said Applebaum. "If people don't want the book, it doesn't matter what the price is."
Besides, in many cases, publishers can't, or don't want to, lower their prices. Shanks noted that mass market houses are under pressure from some accounts, particularly non-bookstore outlets, who believe that prices aren't high enough and therefore mass markets are not as profitable as trade paper and hardcover formats. Mass market sell-through "is very strong" at many membership clubs, Shanks said, but it still requires "lots of turns" for mass market paperbacks to earn the same profits as trade paperbacks. Publishers also acknowledge that they, too, like the higher margins provided by trade paperbacks, one reason that nearly all nonfiction is published in that format these days.
Another reason for the move to trade paper is that larger typefaces make it easier for aging baby-boomers to read. The baby-boom generation has been the largest market for mass markets, and publishers have been unable to replace these buyers has they move up in format. "Twenty-year-olds buy by content, not format," Romanos said.
Most mass market publishers agree that because of the changing dynamics of the marketplace, the mass market paperback sales of many well-known authors are below historical levels. If mass market sales can't be revived, the entire equation of hard/soft deals needs to be revisited, publishers told PW. The sales decline is "wreaking havoc with the formula we use to calculate how much we can pay for advances to authors," who have traditionally earned back about half the advance through the sale of mass market paperbacks, Romanos said. Shanks also noted that deals for many New York Times bestselling authors are "based on the fact they will sell lots of copies in mass market paperback." Many authors are selling "far fewer" copies when their hardcovers are reprinted than in the past, Shanks said, and the "rate of backlist sales is not what it once was." Applebaum agreed that "relatively few authors" sell as many mass market copies as before, adding that publishing "is in a period where everyone needs to recalibrate" how deals are done.
Publishers insisted that the response to weakening demand for mass markets requires more than merely moving more publishing to trade paper. Shanks noted that one problem is that many stores that sell mass market paperbacks don't have the right size racks to sell trade paperbacks.
Despite the problems, publishers are eager to keep mass markets viable. All believe that the format is important to building readership for new authors, as well as for keeping alive the works of older authors. As Applebaum noted, "Most authors will sell far more copies in mass market paperback than hardcover."
Publishers are experimenting with different ways to rejuvenate mass market sales. Next month, Penguin will begin testing an innovative new format: a book that will measure 4/"×7½", compared to the traditional 4 3/16"×6¾" mass market size. The book, Disordered Minds, will fit in existing mass market racks, will feature slightly larger type, will be strippable and will sell for $10. Shanks hopes the new size will address the various issues facing the format. Romanos said S&S is considering moving to the U.K. ABC distribution model, which encompasses rack-size paperbacks, trade paperbacks and a third format.
Other publishers continue to play with lower prices. Next spring, Warner will release Kevin Anderson's Hidden Empire, the first title in his Saga of Seven Suns series, in paperback at $2.99, to coincide with the publication of his newest hardcover in the line. Kensington publisher Steve Zacharius said the company continues to price one new release per month in its Zebra romance line at $3.99.
While publishers said mass markets remain a vital part of the industry, they agreed the format can use a shot in the arm. "I'm more certain of this than ever. If mass market isn't healthy and supported, hardcover publishing will become more difficult," Applebaum said.