Is Mass Market Dying,
Or Just Evolving—Again?
In steady decline for years, the format is
either enduring an incredibly slow death
or has begun to right itself in the market
Iremember when I ;rst started in publishing people were saying the death of mass market was imminent.” This entiment, 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 ;nish 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,