The mass market paperback category certainly has its fair share of problems--dwindling shelf space, the loss of nonfiction titles to trade paperback, and enormous returns--all of which have contributed to steadily falling sales. With mass market sales declining and e-book sales skyrocketing, some industry members have started to wonder when e-book sales will surpass sales of mass market paperbacks. While mass market paperback publishers acknowledge the difficulties--and the possibility that e-book sales could eat into their sales--they insist the format remains a viable one, particularly for certain categories.

“The format is not going away,” said Matthew Shear, senior v-p, publisher, paperback and reference group at St. Martin's. He noted that mass market customers are “heavy category readers and are less inclined to take a chance with authors they don't know” than readers of other formats. “They are a huge part of our business,” said Scott Shannon, who was recently put in charge of Random House's newly formed Ballantine Bantam Dell group.

The largest category for mass market remains romance; paranormal continues to be the hottest segment within romance; and there is no hotter author than Charlaine Harris. Penguin shipped over seven million copies of Harris's Sookie Stackhouse series last year, and the success of Harris is just one reason Penguin CEO David Shanks is a staunch supporter of mass market paperbacks. Penguin will publish about 55 mass market titles each month in 2010, and Shanks ticks off a list of reasons why the format remains important to the industry—the books are affordable, portable, and can get into outlets that don't carry other formats. “There is a reason they put the word ‘mass' in front of market,” Shanks noted.

Mass market paperbacks “go to places trade paperbacks don't,” agreed Louise Burke, S&S executive v-p and publisher, Pocket and Gallery Books, who added speed-to-market as another mass market attribute. Drugstores, supermarkets, and mass merchandisers are the top locations where mass market paperbacks thrive. “There are lots of sections in the country where people buy most of their books at a Kroger's or Wal-Mart,” noted Shannon. Bowker's newest PubTrack Consumer survey shows that mass merchandisers, led by Wal-Mart, represented about 12% of unit sales for mass market paperback sales in 2009, making it the third largest channel behind bookstores and online retailers. “Wal-Mart sells a lot of mass market books,” Burke confirmed.

Wal-Mart is an important customer for mass market publishers because the format has been losing shelf space steadily over the past several years. The demise of most ID wholesalers, the move of many retailers to replace space devoted to mass market paperbacks with trade paperbacks, and most recently the closure of several hundred Waldenbook outlets have all contributed to less space for the format. “Without question, the loss of shelf space is the toughest issue facing mass market,” said Craig Swinwood, executive v-p of retail for Harlequin. Harlequin has tried to address that challenge by “bringing some excitement to the rack” in terms of promotions and displays that highlight the low price point of paperbacks, Swinwood said. In his view, many retailers want to keep their mass market sections, “but need a reason to do so.”

Most mass market publishers believe the format withstood the recession fairly well because of the low price. “Mass market paperbacks have always provided value and that is still the proposition today,” Swinwood said. Some others, though, wonder if some sales were lost, with discretionary spending pinched, since many mass market purchases are impulse buys.

Mass market publishers have tried different ways to keep the format as vibrant as possible, with the most notable innovation the move to premium paperbacks. Shanks, an early proponent, said premium paperbacks--with larger trim sizes, bigger type, and a $9.99 price point--“have been a very big success.” Penguin published 45 premium titles in 2009 and anticipates doing 54 this year. The stars of premium paperback are largely male action authors. S&S was another early premium paperback adopter, and Burke said Pocket is doing between eight to 10 frontlist titles a year as well as 10 to 12 backlist. Pocket has started to reissue Brad Thor and Vince Flynn novels in the premium format, for example. Grand Central has found some success making mass market paperbacks the “third format” for some titles, said Beth de Guzman, editor-in-chief of paperbacks for Grand Central.

While few nonfiction titles are published in mass market, Grand Central has done some health titles in order to facilitate distribution into pharmacies, de Guzman noted. And some big-name authors--James Patterson, Nicholas Sparks, and Carl Hiaasen--have moved to mass market after appearing in trade. The format can also be used to build new authors. De Guzman points to a rival's list for two examples, Patricia Briggs and Jim Butcher, at Penguin (whose Changes has been on the top of the hardcover bestseller charts in recent weeks).

While romance is traditionally the strongest mass market segment, there is a cyclical nature to what is hot and what is not. Definitely on the downside is mysteries, with the exception of cozies. Movie tie-ins are generally hot and particularly hot at Grand Central (Nicholas Sparks, the novelization for the upcoming Iron Man 2, Twilight).

No matter how hot a category, though, the sell-through for paperbacks remains problematic, something publishers seem resigned to. “Mass market is all about distribution, and returns go hand-in-hand with the business,” Shannon said.

E-books, of course, have no returns and in many cases are almost as cheap as mass market paperbacks. So when will e-books become bigger sellers than mass market paperbacks? No publisher would go on the record with a prediction, and most deflected the question, although one did predict the threshold could be crossed in 2012. (Predictions were based on AAP figures that put mass market paperback sales at just over $1 billion and e-book sales at $313 million in 2009.) Most believe that since mass market paperbacks are not expensive, consumers won't look for savings there, but at the more expensive hardcovers.

As long as the cost of materials (paper) keeps mass markets at $7.99, price will be the format's ace in the hole. Swinwood said that Harlequin's surveys show that consumers who currently buy e-books are doing so to augment their print purchases. “E-books give easy access to the backlist, and readers can buy a book they might have missed,” he said. Others agree, saying they've seen some signs of weakness in mass market backlist that could be explained by a move to e-books. “Price won't be the deciding factor for switching to e-books,” Swinwood said. “It will be convenience and ease of purchase.”