Where Are Mass Market Paperbacks Headed?

From Publishers Weekly:

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.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

3 thoughts on “Where Are Mass Market Paperbacks Headed?”

  1. And as usual, the OP is neglecting that “cheap e-books” are as much a rebellion against/response to trade publishing determining price points based more on the cost of manufacturing the packaging than on the cost of or demand for the content as anything else. Specific example: Compare the “list prices” of Bill Clinton’s autobiography to, say, the roughly-contemporaneous Hour Game and consider the “cost basis” for both books — then drag in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell for further inquiry. (Only one of the three has lasted/will last, either in the marketplace or critically… and it’s not the one with a six-figure advance.)

  2. 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.)

    I’m shocked. Lower priced eBooks are taking paper market share?

    Given that, I suppose the logical move for the publishers should be to lower all the prices of their eBooks to $4.99?

    • Not mentioned is where those Indie books come from: manuscripts the BPHs never see.
      Or that the real damage isn’t from the $0.99/1.99 books, but the $2.99-4.99 ebooks that deliver more to the author than the $12.99 Agency ebooks, to say nothing about $10 MMPBs. Losing readers hurts, losing authors kills.

      For now they’re living off legacy authors and dreamers, but the former will be retiring soon enough and the latter aren’t likely to fill the gap.

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