"I remember when I first started in publishing people were saying the death of mass market was imminent.” This sentiment, from Grand Central Publishing’s Beth de Guzman, who’s a 30-year veteran of the book business, is not uncommon. Sometimes called the “fourth format,” mass market paperbacks have been considered headed for extinction for a long time. First they were going to be killed by trade paperbacks. When that format didn’t do the job, e-books emerged as the likely candidate to finish them off.

Although the reports of mass market’s death have been greatly exaggerated, the format has been struggling. According to NPD BookScan, which tracks roughly 80% of print sales, mass market titles accounted for 13% of total print units sold in 2013; that figure dropped to 9% last year.

Another indication of the downward trend comes from numbers provided by the Association of American Publishers, which reported that dollar sales of mass market titles fell 30% in 2015 compared to 2012. Industry members cite consolidation on the wholesale side and a reduction of shelf space on the retail side as two of the key factors behind the decline. And although mass market publishers believe the sales slide is finally coming to an end, for the midlist authors who write mass market originals, the current situation is somewhat grim, as a smaller (and arguably more efficient) supply chain is resulting in lost contracts and less money.

“Shelf space for mass market books has indeed continued to shrink in the mass merchandise accounts,” said Jennifer Long, associate publisher at Pocket Books. “This has had little impact on top-tier authors, as they are still given shelf space; however, it does present a challenge for lesser known authors.”

In some ways what’s happening in mass market today is a microcosm of what’s happening in the publishing industry as a whole, where new authors struggle to break out and midlist authors are being increasingly squeezed by the major houses. Although all the publishers we spoke with for this article insisted they had not cut back on their support of their midlist mass market authors, all acknowledged that what consistently sells in the format are novels by marquee bestsellers, movie tie-ins, and major backlist titles.

With their smaller print, shorter trim size, and cheaper paper, mass market titles have been the least expensive print format since they started appearing after World War II. Though they deliver publishers the smallest profit margin of all the formats, they remain essential. Considered the “gateway” format, some sources said they believe mass market titles are the books that turn some people on to reading, period.

Of course it was also the cheap price point of mass market titles that made them particularly vulnerable as e-books grew in popularity. Many insiders assumed cheap e-books would simply replace mass market books. Then something else happened. A few years ago, e-book sales began flattening, proving that digital was not going to replace print. With the knowledge that many consumers were going to read both print books and e-books, some in the industry thought mass market sales might finally start crawling upward.

But stumbling blocks to a full scale rebound of the format remain in place for the major publishers. For one thing, they still must confront competition from low-priced e-books, especially in the romance area, where many self-published titles retail for $3.99 or less. Two other major shifts have also put pressure on mass market sales: the big box stores have cut back on shelf space, and the distribution options have narrowed.

Ironically, little has shifted on the consumer side. The places where mass market books are consistently bought, and the people who buy them, have not changed. Bricks-and-mortar mass merchants continue to be the outlets where these books are most popular, with Walmart being one of the most important retailers among that group. (Depending on the publisher and the book, though, Costco, Sam’s Club, and Target can be just as, if not more, important.) With exceptions, women remain the top customer group for mass market titles because, in genre fiction, romance is one of the biggest drivers of sales. Mass market books also remain, publishers believe, impulse buys. (All the publishers interviewed for this story said that Amazon is not a significant outlet for mass market books.)

Despite the fact that these conditions have remained steady, unforeseen changes on the wholesale side of the industry have caused further disruptions in the market. The wholesale business for mass market books went through a significant consolidation, with Readerlink emerging as the major player. (In 2011, Dennis Abboud acquired Levy Home Entertainment and renamed it Readerlink, and since then it has continued to expand. After a series of acquisitions, it is now the dominant distributor of books to all the major nonbookstore chains.) Because Readerlink handles distribution to the retail outlets where mass market titles sell the most—in addition to the aforementioned mass merchants, the company also distributes to drugstore chains, grocery stores, and airports—the options publishers have, when it comes to delivering their titles to the marketplace, are now limited.

The consolidation on the distribution side, many publishers said, has had both positive and negative consequences. Long, at S&S, claimed that the very definition of mass market has changed. “Mass distribution has transitioned to efficient distribution,” she said. “This means fewer returns, but also fewer books in the marketplace.”

Certainly, Readerlink touts efficiency as one of its main goals. Sasha Quinton, Readerlink’s senior v-p of marketing and procurement, said the BookScan numbers on mass market don’t tell the whole story and that, in fact, the format is doing fairly well. She pointed out that BookScan does not track all of Readerlink’s outlets, and cited recent AAP numbers on mass market sales—up 2.6% in the first 11 months of 2016 (as compared to the same period in 2015)—as proof of the format’s health. She also noted that BookScan’s point-of-sale data is not measuring dollars and therefore can miss added revenue publishers are making on some higher-priced books in the format.

Quinton believes that what the BookScan numbers miss is how certain pockets are rebounding in mass market. “We’re seeing huge growth in specific BISAC [categories],” she said. “Romantic suspense, contemporary suspense [are both] up triple digits [for us]. Also, we’re hearing that as the interest in adult coloring books has finally started to fade and a postelection malaise sets in, readers are looking for escapist fiction.” Mass market books, dominated as they are by bestsellers and genre fiction, certainly cater to that interest.

Though Quinton acknowledged that some of the sales surge Readerlink has seen is due to acquisitions—in April 2016 it bought the distributor ANconnect—she believes mass market, as a category, has begun to stabilize.“We all saw mass market sales decline rapidly after [the introduction and rising popularity] of e-books,” she said. “And at that time our retailers naturally reprioritized [to emphasize formats other than mass market].” But she feels that is changing. “Generally speaking, we’re now seeing really positive comparative store sales and have every indication that [many of our retailers] are going to be giving mass market more shelf space.”

When asked which shifts at which retailers had been the most significant, many sources—all of whom would only speak about this subject off the record—pointed to Walmart. (The question of why Walmart reduced shelf space for mass market books drew different responses, but some believe it happened because of a redesign of its stores.) Nonetheless, many publishers are hopeful that Walmart will not be cutting back any further. So, in their eyes, even if nothing improves, the current market has at least reached a point of stability.

Steve Zacharius, president of Kensington, said his house has not cut back on the number of mass market titles it’s publishing, but admitted it has been doing smaller print runs. And, for Kensington, a midsize house, cutbacks at the Big Five have led to opportunity.

Zacharius pointed to the January 2016 consolidation at Penguin Random House’s Berkley imprint (when it was merged into the publisher’s Putnam and Dutton group) as an example. Kensington has picked up a number of authors, especially in the cozy mystery category, who had been at Berkley. Cozies, a subgenre of mystery that feature older women (often in small, bucolic towns) as the central sleuth, have proven a profitable category for Kensington. “Although the frontlist numbers are low, they have tremendous backlist and reorders,” Zacharius said.

Berkley, which has dropped its annual title output from 1,000 books (in all formats) to less than 300, is not the only imprint publishing fewer mass market books. (Craig Burke, Berkley’s v-p, executive publicity director, and special projects director, noted that the imprint is actually publishing more hardcovers now than it did before the merger. He also said that the list shrank so that the imprint’s staff could put more attention to the books it does publish.) Through either smaller print runs or a cutback in the acquisition of mass market originals, fewer mass market books are entering the market. Publishers, as many sources begrudgingly admitted, have no choice but to publish fewer books when there are fewer places to sell them.

And, despite protestations from some publishers that the mass market category is as healthy and stable as ever, cutbacks are happening. Harlequin, for example, announced last week that it was killing five of its mass market series because of a shift in the “retail landscape and readership preferences.” PRH gave a similar reasoning for the changes at Berkley. A spokesperson for the publisher issued the following statement to PW: “Mass market continues to be a vital format for us for discovering and establishing new and emerging authors. Our publishers will continue to adjust the volume and scope of the titles to accommodate the demands of our customers and readers.”

For many agents, though, what’s happening in this sector isn’t being seen as right-sizing of a category—it’s being seen as a reduction. “What I think every agent will tell you they’re seeing, particularly in romance, is that the midlist is completely going away in print,” said one agent who spoke on the condition of anonymity. This agent, who represents a number of romance authors, said she feels the constriction has been going on, in dramatic fashion, for the past 12–18 months.

Elaborating on how the market realities are toughest on midlist romance authors, this agent said: “The big publishers are not renewing contracts for romance authors who are not hitting [the mass market] bestseller list.” Romance authors many might “consider big,” she continued, are now having to make hard choices. They can either move genres and try their hand at women’s fiction or YA, or self-publish their romance books. “A lot of writers are getting discouraged,” she said. “It’s been a really tough market.”

Still, many publishers insisted that they remain fervently committed to mass market books—even those by people with last names other than King and Grisham.

Jennifer Enderlin, executive v-p and publisher at St. Martin’s Press, said her imprint is publishing as many mass market titles as it did 20 years ago. To combat the hurdles in the marketplace—especially the tightening of retail space—SMP has been trying to “publish in a more financially conscious way.” That means, among other things, doing simpler covers “without all the bells and whistles.”

Enderlin said keeping a vibrant mass market program, despite the difficulties at retail, is essential. Echoing the sentiments of many of the publishers interviewed, she said she believes the people who buy mass market books are dedicated readers who might not buy books in any other format. “When we publish [some of our biggest-name authors] in mass market, after the e-book and the hardcover, we sell a few hundred thousand copies. That tells us there are still readers to be found.”

There are also some bright spots for mass market books on the retail front. Barnes & Noble, some publishers noted, has begun to indicate that it wants to carry more mass market titles.

Grand Central’s de Guzman said its Forever imprint will have its first mass market floor display at B&N this summer which will feature a variety of historical romances. “We’re very excited,” she said. “If it works, oh my god—the sky is the limit.”

At HarperCollins a heartening shift has occurred at a channel where mass market titles don’t usually sell: indie bookstores. “Last year, for the first time, we saw a few Avon titles hit the indie bestseller list,” said Pam Jaffee, senior director of publicity and brand development at HC’s Avon imprint. “It was a cause for celebration.”

Jaffee said Avon has made “a concerted effort” to reach out to indie booksellers and urge them to carry more mass market titles. Their pitch? That some readers don’t want to go to the big box stores to buy mass market paperbacks, and indies can capture this underserved pocket of the market.

Even agents who’ve been dealing with romance authors hit hard by the format’s struggles still believe there’s room for hope. As one agent put it: “For good romance writers, the market will be there. I encourage these writers to stay in the game, whether it shifts to e-book or trade paper or mass market makes a rebound. I think there will be opportunity.”