No matter which way you look at it, sales of mass market paperbacks have been in steady decline since 2017. NPD BookScan data shows that unit sales fell 31.5% in 2021 compared to 2017, while the Association of American Publishers put the decline in dollar sales at a more disturbing 42.7% in 2020. Both data sets show more declines occurring in 2022.

To be sure, the mass market paperback format has experienced 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 suffered due to the explosion of cheap e-books, especially in such important areas as romance and science fiction and fantasy. (Asked last week, during the DOJ’s trial to prevent PRH from acquiring S&S, whether he had made reductions in title output following the Random House–Penguin merger in 2013, PRH CEO Markus Dohle pointed to adjusting the number of mass market paperbacks published by Berkley/NAL in response to the flood of 99¢ and $1.99 self-published e-books that hit the market, luring away readers of genre fiction.)

Low prices have always been one of the most important attractions for readers to mass market paperbacks, and that continues to be the case, according to Craig Swinwood, CEO of HarperCollins’s Harlequin subsidiary and CEO of HC Canada. The most recent research, conducted by the company after the worst of the pandemic was over, found price accessibility and portability to be the first- and second-ranked reasons that consumers buy mass market titles.

Jennifer Long, v-p, deputy publisher of Gallery Books Group, the home to Simon & Schuster’s mass market Pocket Books imprint, said pricing is a “very important consideration” for some readers. “As long as those consumers who want mass market continue to support it, we will continue to publish into it or risk losing them as readers.”

All mass market publishers are aware of the price sensitivity around the format, and even as a few publishers have increased the trim size of mass market paperbacks, they are reluctant to go beyond the $9.99 price point. The so-called price cap, especially in a time of rising costs, puts pressure on margins, acknowledged Swinwood, who noted that sales of mass market paperbacks for the company are generally flat, though they still account for about 49% of the publisher’s revenue, down from 59% a few years ago.

The pricing limit is one reason mass market publishers have cut back on their output. Kristin McLean, analyst for NPD BookScan, said a factor in the drop in both mass market title output and sales is the steady migration of what she calls “the next generation” of major romance and mystery/thriller authors from mass market to trade paperback, a format that has had “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 Publishers Weekly mass market bestseller list in 2021, trailing only HarperCollins/Harlequin (145 titles) and PRH (43)—said that while mass market remains “an important part of our publishing program,” Kensington has been “adapting what we publish in that format based on consumer preferences.” He supported McLean’s thesis about the movement of mass market authors to different formats, explaining that Kensington is publishing some general fiction and suspense authors in trade paperback and even hardcover.

Still, for books in other genres, such as westerns, mass market remains an important format. “We have begun to offer westerns in trade paper four to six times a year, and those titles have been successful for us, presumably reaching a different reader and one who might not be so price conscious,” Zacharius said. “But mass market will continue to be our primary western format as long as the marketplace continues to support it.”

The cozy mystery category provides another example of publishers altering their strategies to meet consumer expectations. Pocket’s Long said the publisher had reduced its number of mass market cozies. Zacharius said Kensington continues to see strong support and reorders on mass market cozies, but that to capture readers who prefer a trade paper format, Kensington now publishes in that format as well. “Like westerns, it is likely that price point comes into play,” he said. “For those voracious cozy readers who buy multiple books at a time, the mass market price point is very attractive.”

In romance, which remains an extremely important mass market genre, Zacharius said Kensington publishes contemporary romances primarily in the trade format, whereas historical romances are often done in both mass market and trade, depending on content and author.

For Harlequin, mass market remains an important way to introduce new authors—a formula many other publishers have also embraced. “The formula still works for us,” Swinwood said, noting that about 23% of authors who appear in Harlequin trade paperback and hardcover got their starts in mass market. The format also remains an effective way to introduce new voices, and Swinwood said new titles devoted to LBGTQ themes, for example, have resonated well.

The biggest challenge for mass market, as Swinwood sees it, is keeping retailers interested in carrying a large enough section to draw 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 does not have a big enough mass market section, Swinwood said, customers tend to believe the department isn’t worth visiting. (In his testimony at the PRH-S&S trial, Dohle said that as sales of mass market paperbacks fell, big box retailers cut space dedicated to the format, limiting its distribution.)

To keep retailers carrying mass market paperbacks, HC conducted extensive research on the format. Swinwood said it found that 74% of print book buyers prefer mass market and that it’s the cornerstone of any retailers’ book offering. According to HC, consumers will often decide where to shop based on the quality of a retailer’s book department, and a good section features 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 incremental spending where they shop: in book departments, 80% of mass market buyers will buy for a spouse or child on the same trip; across retailers overall, a significant number of retail visits are driven by the need for books, resulting in additional spending on nonbook items during those trips.

All publishers said they will continue to publish in mass market as long as consumers support 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 purchase less books and turn to their local libraries more as the prices of books across all formats continues to increase.”

Still, there is hope that mass market will see some sort of revival, including guarded optimism from ReaderLink, the largest distributor of the format. “From our perspective, the sales softening has been a result of supply chain issues and lack of printing capacity, not from a lack of consumer interest in the format,” said David Barker, executive v-p and chief marketing officer at ReaderLink.