When sales of e-books doubled in 2011 over 2010, it seemed as if the mass market paperback format might quickly sink into oblivion. Mass market sales in 2013 were down 52% from 2010 levels, according to BookStats. While sales are down again in 2014, the decline has slowed and there are signs that sales of the format are stabilizing. In the last few weeks alone, for example, unit sales of mass market have been flat compared to the same period last year, according to Nielsen BookScan—even as e-books continue to gain ground in such mass market staples as romance.

One reason for the recent improvement has been the success of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, which has sold about 254,000 copies since its release in mass market paperback earlier this fall, despite selling in huge numbers in other formats as well. Gone Girl was cited by several houses (in addition to its publisher, Broadway Books), as well as by wholesaler ReaderLink, as proof that mass market paperbacks still fill a niche in the market. With its low price point and availability at a wide variety of outlets, mass market titles appeal to a range of readers—especially those who don’t read e-books. “There clearly is still a readership for mass market paperbacks,” said Sasha Quinton, v-p of marketing at ReaderLink, a company whose accounts include all the major mass merchandisers, as well as Walmart.

ReaderLink has banked heavily on the viability of all print formats sold through the mass merchandiser channel, having acquired parts of several other book wholesalers earlier this year. But even before the impact of those acquisitions was felt, Quinton said that net sales of the company’s top 20 bestsellers were up in the first six months of 2014 over net sales of the top 20 bestsellers in the first half of 2013. One reason for that, Quinton said, was that stores have stopped cutting back on the shelf space they allocate to books (although some space has shifted from adult to young adult and children’s). Quinton also believes that when e-book sales exploded, chain store executives overreacted to how severely the new format would cut into print sales and, by reducing shelf space for books, created something of a self-fulling prophecy. As e-book sales growth has cooled, stores have seen that print books, especially mass market paperbacks, continue to do well as impulse purchases.

Louise Burke, president and publisher of Pocket Books, agreed that sales of mass market paperbacks are stabilizing and attributed the change, in part, to publishers and accounts “feeling more confident about what is working” in the format. For Burke, certain genres and bestselling authors—like Brad Thor—“still need to be in mass market.” Liate Stehlik, senior v-p and publisher at HarperCollins’s William Morrow division, said that even though it may be the “third format” (after hardcover and digital), there is plenty of evidence that popular authors can sell in mass market paperback. Penguin Random House, the country’s largest mass market publisher, noted that many of its “marquee” authors—ranging from Nora Roberts to Lee Child—“tend to sell strongly and briskly, particularly in the mass merchandise channel,” according to a company spokesperson.

In addition to offering another platform for star authors, mass market paperbacks can serve as a way to introduce, and grow, new authors. Stehlik noted that Morrow has successfully migrated a number of authors who were originally published by Impulse, its digital-first imprint, to print in the mass market format. Candis Terry, Lena Diaz, and Jennifer Ryan were initially published at Impulse and all have print editions of new titles set for release through Morrow’s Avon imprint. Pocket is also using mass market paperback to migrate digital-first books to print and introduce self-published authors it has acquired to a wider audience. One such author, Jennifer Probst, has had a number of hits for Pocket, Burke said. Lisa Genova, author of Still Alice, which will be released as a film in December, is another self-published author whom Burke believes could be poised for a breakout. To support the film release, Pocket will publish the title in both trade and mass market paperback.

St. Martin’s also uses mass market paperback to introduce former digital-first authors to print readers. In addition, SMP is using price to entice accounts and readers to try the titles in Nina Croft’s Dark Desires trilogy, which were initially released as e-books by Entangled Publishing, a digital-only publisher. SMP has priced the paperbacks at $5.99 each and is releasing them in September, October, and November, respectively. In addition, SMP believes that mass market paperbacks can work as a “fourth format,” said Anne Marie Tallberg, associate publisher for St. Martin’s Paperbacks and Griffin. Tallberg noted that SMP released Chevy Stevens’s Still Missing in mass market in March 2014, four years after it was published in hardcover and e-book, and later in trade paperback. The mass market edition, Tallberg said, “found an entirely new readership.”

Price certainly remains an important element in the success of mass market paperbacks. Stehlik noted that she tries to keep the mass market price as close to the e-book price as possible. Steve Zacharius, CEO of Kensington, said prices for most of his company’s titles are between $6.99 and $7.99. ReaderLink’s Quinton encouraged mass market houses to resist the urge to go above $9.99 and said that $7.99 is the sweet spot for an impulse buy.

Although prospects for mass market paperbacks are improving, the segment still faces challenges. Publishers are receiving smaller up-front orders and more reorders, and sales expectations are much more modest than they were before the arrival of the e-book. While a mass market edition can still sell in the hundreds of thousands, the days when one could sell more than a million copies are gone for good.

Another question is how ReaderLink will integrate the book assets of TNG GP and HDA, which it acquired earlier this year. Publishers gave the company high marks for helping to drive returns down and are hopeful that the consolidation process will continue that trend. Quinton said ReaderLink is starting to ramp up the integration process and promises its goal is to keep making the format an effective one for publishers and consumers.

Bestselling Mass Market Paperbacks, January 1–October 26, 2014

Rank Title Author Imprint Publisher Price YTD
1 To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee Grand Central Hachette $8.99 331,240
2 Inferno Dan Brown Anchor Random House $9.99 299,243
3 Never Go Back Lee Child Dell Random House $9.99 272,852
4 Sycamore Row John Grisham Dell Random House $9.99 268,038
5 Gone Girl Gillian Flynn Broadway Random House $9.99 253,882
6 Daddy’s Gone A Hunting Mary Higgins Clark Pocket Simon & Schuster $7.99 211,645
7 Takedown Twenty Janet Evanovich Bantam Random House $8.99 208,523
8 The Hit David Baldacci Grand Central Hachette $10.00 204,717
9 The Best of Me (movie tie-in) Nicholas Sparks Grand Central Hachette $8.00 201,779
10 Alex Cross, Run James Patterson Vision Hachette $10.00 199,268